I was driving Holly around one of my favorite neighborhoods and she asked the question anyone with sense asks when they first see the hulking art deco apartment buildings of Detroit ornamented with moorish details and colorful brickwork: "Why are people building hideous, poorly-constructed homes in the suburbs when buildings like this sit abandoned and crumbling?" I answered her question with more questions: Why do people pay to see any of the big movies released by Hollywood? Why do they eat at Applebees? Why is Mitch Albom a bestselling author?
There was this movie in 1990 called "Avalon" that followed the path of a fictional American family. It began with a Thanksgiving, it ended with a Thanksgiving. The opening Thanksgiving was sometime after World War II. There were so many relatives, they had to cram past each other on the staircase. There was noise and screaming and laughter and, of course, endless food. Lots of arguing. Lots of kids. The immigrant relatives telling stories of the old days. It was a raucous, messy, family festival. And that's the way, as Carly Simon once sang, I always heard it should be.
There was this other movie in 1990 called "Home Alone" that followed the path of a fictional American family who forgot one of their many children while leaving on a holiday trip. There were so many children, they had to cram past each other on the staircase. There was noise and screaming and laughter and, unfortunately, a limited amount of Little Nero's pizza. Lots of arguing. Lots of aftershave hilariously applied to cheeks. A solitary moppet wounding and maiming two bumbling burglars in a variety of ways, and the boy's mother riding all the way back from Scranton with a polka band. And that's the way, as Paul Simon once sang, "the mother and child reunion is only several days' worth of slapstick comedy away."
Thanksgiving, the purest of American holidays, should be a marathon. It should go on and on. After all, the first Thanksgiving, nearly 400 years ago, lasted for three days. There were 22 Pilgrim men, four married women, nine teenaged boys, five teenaged girls, 13 young children and some 90 Wampanoag Indians. Now that's a Thanksgiving.
And they didn't even have a football game.
Thanksgiving with my extended family always felt like a marathon. The food-shoveling went on. And on. And on. One Thanksgiving, 14 years ago, nobody volunteered to cook, so we spent three grueling hours with my relatives at the Ye Olde Country Buffet in the Maple Hill Mall parking lot. There were 26 morbidly-obese Dutch men, 28 morbidly-obese Dutch women, twelve teenage boys, eight teenage girls, thirty-four coupons, 56 young children, and some 18 Mexicans cooking the food and clearing the plates. Now that's a Thanksgiving, motherfucker.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Thanksgiving, you see, is a big tradition in our family. My mother and father were in charge of hosting the holiday when I was younger, and those Thanksgivings were all in the "Avalon" tradition. Everybody came. They stayed in guest rooms. Slept on couches.
Gosh, if your uncles farted as much as mine do, I'll bet that house smelled just awful.
It lasted a long time, usually from Wednesday night until Sunday afternoon, but nobody would think of leaving -- or, heaven forbid, not coming.
Sorry Mitch, but I can pretty much guarantee that somebody thought about leaving. One of your cousins probably thought about banging your wife, too.
These days, hosting Thanksgiving is my responsibility. In my house. And every year it seems to be more of a fight. My extended family is spread all over the world. Plane fares are an issue. It's cheaper to fly the actual day of Thanksgiving rather than the day before. Cheaper to go home on Friday than wait until Sunday. Work has crept in. The boss wants someone to work on Friday, so he can't stay. The college kids want to go home and party with other college kids back for the holiday. The divorced families have so many obligations -- this grandmother, this stepfather, this in-law. The teenagers all have cars, so they drive themselves and leave when they want to.
Mitch, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but those are called "excuses." You see, I doubt it's some kind of national undoing of the holiday: it's more likely that no one in your extended family wants to spend three days sleeping on the couch of an egomaniacal windbag who never lets anyone forget he wrote the New York Times bestseller Tuesdays With Morrie.
It drains the holiday slowly, carves the bark off its hide. What took the Pilgrims and Indians three days now can be completed in three hours.
And people go back to their lives.
It used to take hours to de-feather a turkey, too. Now you can buy them without feathers or blunderbuss shot embedded in their flesh. That, my friend, is called progress.
How did we advance so far and go so backward?
Hold on. A second ago it was good to go backwards, and bad to go forward, but now it's good to go forward and bad to go backwards? It's going to take a few minutes to let all the profundity of that statement sink into my thick head.
In grade school, we were taught about the Pilgrims and the Indians, about the wild fowl, deer and maize they ate.
Wow, those are actual tears that dripped on the finger-trace turkey I was making while listening to your poetic description of the First Thanksgiving.
But we've likely forgotten the final sentence of one attendee, Edward Winslow, who wrote one of the only two surviving accounts of that first Thanksgiving:"We are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
I love that phrase. "We are so far from want." It is a measure of American happiness.
Right, "being far from want" is the measure of American happiness. That's why on every Thanksgiving a 23-lb newspaper arrives on every doorstep filled with advertisements for what is truly the purest of American holidays: The Day After Thanksgiving. I don't know how "far from want" my Uncle was every time he left Thanksgiving dinner to go camp out in front of Best Buy, but it wasn't very far. This year he wants everything in HD!
Most of us have homes, cars, TV sets, good teeth and more food than a Pilgrim could dream of. We are so far from want. But we can't make time for each other. Things seem more important. Work. Outside relationships. Shopping. Video games. Holidays get clipped. Internet time grows.
I love that you have inflicted a grumpy Thanksgiving rant on the paper's entire circulation base simply because you're mad that last year your nephew preferred playing Guitar Hero II to sitting on a lumpy couch listening to grandma tell stories from the days of yore. I can almost hear you yelling, "We're all going to be a family this year, whether you like it or not." But it's in this little pipsqueak voice, because seriously, you look like a jockey who'd ride Dennis Kucinich around Washington.
I told you the first scene in "Avalon," the big Thanksgiving meal. The final Thanksgiving scene takes place years later, after the kids have grown and made lots of money. This time, instead of a huge, loud, extended Thanksgiving festival, a family of four sits in the kitchen, with the TV set on, quietly clanking the silverware. I wonder if that's not where we are heading, slowly whittling down the best holiday of all.
We are so far from want. But we're forgetting what we need.
My gripe with you Mitch is not that you take shmaltz to levels an entire army of Hallmark-card-writing monkeys could never achieve (that's your shtick, I get it, and I've certainly peddled a fair amount shmaltz from this site) my gripe is that you always deign to impose your own controversies and syrupy conclusions on the rest of us. Your I's always become We's. And now that you're middle-aged, you're turning into that kvetching old fart who's a witness to the collapse of everything good about the good old days amid postmodernity's foul-smelling tsunami of moral degradation. In that way you're just like my dad. And I just want to give both of you a hug, and whisper this in your ears: the world has not survived this long in spite of the onslaught of younger generations. It has survived because of them.