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Dakota Thanksgiving

A holiday memoir.

11:00 PM, Nov 27, 2002 • By J. BOTTUM
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THANKSGIVING WAS ALWAYS TENSE while I was growing up, and I don't know why. Christmas, now--Christmas was mostly fun and presents and carols and laughter, as I remember. But Thanksgiving was arguments and huffs and recriminations and doors slamming and one indistinguishable great-uncle or another rousing himself from his after-dinner torpor to growl, "Now, now," from an easy chair, puffing through his mustache like an irritated walrus as he loosened his belt another notch. Thanksgiving was my sisters crying, and my aunt rising like Athena in righteousness at the dining-room table to shout, "You wretched insect," and my father slipping off to the kitchen to sit at the counter and hold his head, muttering, "Every year. Every goddamn year."

The rise of college football on television helped a little; at least it gave the younger men something to quarrel about besides the family. But even that wasn't enough. One of my mother's cousins had a way of asking, "Why can't we all be united on this special day?" with a sort of simultaneously superior and plaintive sniff that, oddly enough, usually did manage to unite the family. Unfortunately, it united them only in shouting at her until they had driven her from the table in tears, her damp napkin fluttering down like a flag of surrender on her half-eaten cranberry sauce and sage stuffing.

And then--you could feel it coming the whole day, like condemned prisoners waiting for the gallows' trap to open--someone would at last bring up the infamous incident of . . . oh, I can't even remember now what it was. Something like what an uncle's wife's sister said about a cousin's daughter at an aunt's wedding. And half the family would stomp out in anger, and the other half would stay only to complain about the half that had already left, and everyone would finally agree that they were never going to speak to everyone ever again, or at least not until Christmas. God help us. Who would have a family?

The year that I was fourteen, I was filled with fury, and the cause still isn't clear to me. It was fury at my parents, fury at my sisters, fury when I was treated like a boy, fury when I was treated like an adult, fury at the sheer being of being fourteen years old. The real inwardness of that feeling is impossible to call up again--primarily, I think, because it had no content. It was a kind of pure hunger, an unsatisfiable, unending ache without focus, object, or goal. I wanted to be noticed all the time, and I wanted to be invisible, passing through the world unseen. I wanted to be cared for, and I wanted to be unencumbered with care. I wanted everything. I wanted nothing. I just wanted.

Part of it may have been actual hunger. For mothers when their sons' growth kicks in, it must be as though something unimaginably alien has moved into the house. I remember needing food all the time. As I walked in the door after school, I would tear open a plastic-wrapped tube of Fig Newtons. Before supper, I would eat wax-paper package after wax-paper package of graham crackers--buttering them, it now seems hard to believe, to make them more filling--and still down two or three helpings of the casserole or pot roast my mother put on the table an hour later. On Shrove Tuesday and perhaps once or twice a year more, she would make what we called "breakfast-dinner," an evening meal of pancakes and eggs and bacon and toast. While my sisters picked daintily at their eggs, my father would laugh and cheer me on as I raced through stacks of pancakes, alternating jam and sour cream with maple syrup and butter.

There was an extravagance to eating and drinking that can't be recreated at any other point in life. I remember the rain splashing against the windows while I sat at the speckled linoleum of the kitchen table on a Saturday afternoon to eat an entire loaf of sandwich bread, a bag of apples, and a jar of peanut butter, filling the pages of "The Count of Monte Cristo" with bread and apple crumbs and peanut-buttered thumbprints. I remember swallowing gulp after gulp of water from the silver arc of the garden hose after mowing the lawn in the heat of a summer evening--and then, my belly distended so far I could barely move, falling back on the new-cut grass to watch the angry gnats swirl up against the orange sunset.