THANKSGIVING WAS ALWAYS tense while I was growing up, and I don't know why. Christmas, now--Christmas was 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 Aunt Margaret shouting, "You wretched beast," and my grandfather bellowing across the mounds of food. Thanksgiving was my father slipping away 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 argue about besides the family. But it wasn't enough. One of my 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--to remind us that she had once published a poem of a simultaneously superior and plaintive sort, and was consequently above our petty quarrels. Oddly enough, it usually did manage to unite everyone, at least until they had chased her from the table in tears, her damp napkin fluttering down into the cranberry sauce and onion dressing. And then--you could feel it coming the whole day, like a man on the gallows waiting for the trap to open--someone would at last bring up the infamous incident of what an uncle's wife's sister had said about a cousin's daughter at an aunt's wedding, and everyone would agree not to speak to everyone ever again, or at least not until Christmas. God help us. Who would have a family? I had to hunt hard before I could find a turkey small enough for Thanksgiving this year. A little sage, two onions, a handful of green beans, some sweet potatoes. There are so few of us left. Aunt Margaret, the great uncles with their walrus mustaches, my grandfather, my father: One by one, they slipped away while I was off at school, or working at a young man's job in New York, or settling down in distant Washington, until at last there was little family to go back for. I miss their quarrels, their spats, their feuds, their love. In my calm and quiet house, far from home, I've learned just who it is who would have a family. J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.
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