Trying to Get the Picture
The Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past
What I Savored, What I Missed
A Son Far From Home, A Mother Even Farther
The Emptiness Under the Table
‘Oh, Man, I’d Love to Come For Dinner, but … ‘
(This is a republished collection of essays written in 2012 by Next Avenue staffers.)
The photo I’m looking at was taken two Thanksgivings ago. That’s me in the front left, followed by my two sons, Zach and his big brother Rob, and our extended family. The old, bald guy is Marty, my father-in-law. Everybody’s smiling in this photo except for my mother-in-law, who never smiles and Marty, who at the time had very little to smile about.
He was stricken with kidney cancer and would die several months later. Marty was 80. We all knew this would be his last Thanksgiving. If you take another look at the photo, you can see that our smiles are more than a little strained. Look more closely and you can almost see the heavy sadness in our hearts.
I could list all of the great things about Marty, but it really wouldn’t mean that much to you. You had to know him and if you did, you would’ve loved him. Maybe you’ve been lucky in your life to know someone special like that. I hope you have.
Thanksgiving was the one time of year when we all got together and we’d always ask one another why we didn’t do this more often. We’d also go around the table and tell everyone what we were thankful for. It was Marty’s idea and even though we all thought it was corny, we did it anyway.
I will be with the people I love the most this Thanksgiving and we will take this photo again, as we do every year. And we will all be smiling because of the man who used to sit in the empty chair at the table. And we will all be thankful for having known him.
My father was born on his mother’s 40th birthday, Nov. 25, 1922, the last of four children. When my sister and I were growing up in the 1960s and early ’70s, Thanksgiving was less a national holiday commemorating Pilgrims and Native Americans than it was a double birthday party.
That our large, extended clan would all celebrate together instead of with our respective nuclear families was never questioned. As long as Grandmother Fan was alive, we knew that every year on the third Wednesday of November, we’d pack up the Chevy and make the 90-minute drive to Syracuse, disembarking at the same TraveLodge.
Then, on Thanksgiving Day, we’d put on our Sunday best and meet the relatives at one of my aunt and uncle’s homes, one of their country clubs or, my favorite, the Hotel Syracuse. (I didn’t know the words stately or elegant, but in that venue, I sensed their meaning.)
Grandma Fan sat at the head of the table and the rest of us shuffled in around her: Uncle Jim with presents for us, Uncle Dick with his word games, Aunt Jane with her cosmopolitan worldview and martinis. Plus their spouses, my parents, my sister and I and, in the earlier years, some older cousins. The day was always boisterous and filled with Uncle Jim’s traveling-salesman gags and traditions like my grandmother’s “gourmet” Rice Krispies marshmallow treats and inedible baked beans.
Though just a kid, our Thanksgiving birthday party was a magical initiation into a secret adult world of fancy rooms, classical music, tinkling cocktails and wink-wink innuendoes.
The downside to being the youngest, of course, has been saying goodbye to family members. Over time, we got together for fewer birthdays and increasingly more funerals. My mother, the youngest of that generation, is the last man standing, so to speak.
In recent years we’ve started having Thanksgiving at my sister’s country house, with our mother at the head of the table and a much smaller group fanned out around her. But in spite of our cozy, new family tradition, in my mind’s eye, it’s not so much an empty chair I see as an empty table.
Growing up in Massachusetts, Thanksgiving was an annual treat. My much older siblings would return home from college, usually with interesting new friends from far-off places who could be relied on to entertain and dazzle me. Later my brother and his now ex-wife hosted our family each year. But then they left for the West Coast, I moved to New York and got married and my parents entered a nursing home. And that was the end of that. I never returned to our Thanksgiving table, because there was no table.
I’m grateful that in recent years, even after my mother died, my aunt (her sister) welcomed my father and my oldest brother for the holiday, especially knowing the physical challenges — OK, the hassles — of hosting Dad, who lived with the progressive effects of Parkinson’s disease for more than 30 years and could not move, eat or speak well. I was also relieved, because it took me off the hook of being responsible for his holiday.
Over-the-top parental guilt trips are a staple of the family comedies Hollywood keeps rolling out. But there are few laughs to be mined from not being with ailing parents. My wife’s sister has an expansive home with a big kitchen, a large lawn and a basement playroom. My kids and their many first cousins look forward to going there each November and wouldn’t want to spend the day anywhere else.
But when I sit down at that well-appointed table, I always do so with a moment of hesitation. I know I’ll feel it this year, the first Thanksgiving since Dad’s death this spring, because I know now that the opportunity to fill the empty chair I left at his table has passed for good.
We’ve never had an empty chair at Thanksgiving, but this year there will be two. One of them permanently.
The first empty chair, which I’m hoping will be full on Thanksgiving 2013, belongs to my younger son, Will. He graduated from USC this spring and has decided not to fly from L.A. to our New Jersey home this year.
It’s understandable. When my mom suddenly took gravely ill in August, Will hopped on a plane and stayed with my wife, Liz, and me until she died a few weeks later — disrupting his life, but honoring hers. A film and video director, Will again returned to our home for a week and a half in October to shoot FriendPals, a Web comedy series written by and starring our older son, Aaron. (Look for it on YouTube in mid-January. Please.)
Based on those two extended trips East, Will decided he couldn’t afford another one so soon, financially or professionally. Liz and I weren’t surprised. We’d already figured that once Will made California his permanent home, it wouldn’t be long before he’d take a pass on cross-country treks for Thanksgiving. But that doesn’t mean we won’t feel an emptiness at the table.
The second empty chair, as you now know, is my mom’s. I didn’t see this absence coming and my heart aches just thinking about it.
My mother hadn’t cooked on Thanksgiving for years; that thankless task fell to my wife, a superb chef. And the dementia my mother suffered during her last five years meant that it’s been a while since Mom was, well, Mom.
But in my mind, Thanksgiving will always belong to her.
A chair is just a piece of furniture.
Lots of kids have imaginary friends. But my incredible Uncle George took the fantasy one step further. He had an imaginary dinner guest: Malcolm.
When I was a little kid, I loved visiting my aunt, cousin and favorite uncle — hey, he owned a toy store — in their beautiful Brooklyn home, especially for Thanksgiving or some other big family gathering. But I was most intrigued by the presence of someone who I wasn’t quite sure existed.
George always sat at one end of the long dining room table. Right next to him there’d be an elaborate, untouched place setting and vacant chair.
“Who’s sitting there?” I’d invariably ask.
“Malcolm,” George would say as if surprised I didn’t know. I’d survey the room, hoping to spot the mystery man. But the only thing I’d ever see over the course of the evening were subtle signs that someone actually sat in that seat: a half-filled glass, a roll on a plate.
It would be years before I found out Malcolm’s secret. He was George’s way of making sure a second drink was always within arm’s reach.
Most of the real people who sat at that table are gone now, including George. They’re not as fun to miss as Malcolm. But on Thanksgiving I’ll make it a point to fix George’s favorite cocktail — Beefeater martini, very dry, with a twist — and place it next to wherever I’m sitting.
Malcolm? He can get his own damn drink.
No dog I’ve ever known was as obsessed with food as Ike, the floppy-eared English cocker spaniel I added to my family 18 years ago. He lived to eat.
Ike was docile, sweet and dopey, but — trust me — he was more wolf than dog. Turn your back when setting hors d’oeuvres on a table and the vanishing trick he performed with them would put David Blaine to shame.
Those antics changed how we spoke about food in our house. We began branding favorite dishes with his name. One year, our classic Thanksgiving Day walnut spread became known as “Ike’s pate” after he gulped down a whole bowl of it before the first guests had even arrived.
We did our darnedest to train him to stop begging or jumping up on the surfaces where we prepped and served meals. And, within a couple of years, we succeeded. Sort of. We never managed to cure Ike of his fixation with food; and his leaping and grabbing merely morphed into quieter, more deliberate stalking tactics.
He would sit next to me as I chopped, eyes fixed firmly on the floor, waiting for my knife work to prove clumsy enough for a carrot or tomato to drop. Ike moved with me, like a furry shadow, from fridge to stove to table. When we ate, he would sit pressed against my calves under the table, poised to catch anything that accidentally flew off a plate.
There were plenty of occasions when I wanted to push him away and shut him in another room while I cooked or ate — Ike could be annoying, for sure. But somehow his attentiveness always managed to hook my heart. At no time was his devotion more pronounced than on Thanksgiving, when hours of cooking meant hours of him staring at the floor — and at me.
Over the years, the crowd around my Thanksgiving table has thinned due to the natural order of things — kids growing up and adults moving on. I’ve gradually shaped new holiday traditions and new bonds, and they’ve mostly made up for the absence of former “fixtures,” though not entirely.
One vacancy has proven to be un-fillable — the one left by the dopey, droopy, utterly devoted dog who traced my every move and gobbled up every fallen crumb in my home for more than a decade. Three years ago, Ike abruptly “left the table.”
This Thanksgiving, I‘ll be experimenting with some new dishes and cooking up some classics. One of the appetizers I’ll be serving is a menu mainstay: Ike’s pate. My guests make it vanish pretty quickly every year, but not as fast as my favorite dog once did on a Thanksgiving Day way back when.
Who’s missing at the Thanksgiving table?
When I was in my mid-30’s I left my home state of California to live in New York City, where I spent my first few Thanksgivings with “orphaned” colleagues — “the annual gathering of the strays,” as an actor friend dubbed it. But after one too many turkey dinners spent rehashing the same old office politics, I decided I’d rather spend Thanksgiving alone.
I love having the day to myself, to eat what I want and go to a movie or two. “Darn, I’ve already made plans,” I say to anybody who asks me to join them. I’ve been doing it for years.
On occasion I’ve made an exception — and always regretted it. When I was living in the Deep South, for example, I agreed to spend Thanksgiving with a co-worker and her family. They had invited a cousin and his wife. The young couple didn’t sit next to each other at the dining room table — there was an empty chair between them. As the turkey was being brought out, the cousin said how happy he was to be there with his wife and son.
“Oh, where is he?” I asked.
“He’s sitting right here between us,” said the wife, holding up an urn. “Baby didn’t want to be alone today.”
Thank you, everyone, for your invites. I really do appreciate them. But this Thanksgiving “I’ve already made plans” — for Lincoln and Skyfall.
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