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Poor turkey day. It is set aside each year in such high hopes, and yet the expectations surrounding the holiday can’t possibly live up to the hype. A commoner who sweeps ashes from chimneys has a better chance of marrying a prince of a renowned country than we do of having the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving we all have in our minds.
You know the Thanksgiving ideal I’m talking about here. The Dream of the family with one mother, one dad (both still happily married to each other, mind), with the healthy, happy brood of kids gathered around the table a la The Waltons. We might not have much money, but we’re well-fed with Granny’s secret cornbread dressing, and everyone loves each other. No one fights. No one snipes. No one secretly hopes someone’s certain brother-in-law will choke on a yam. It’s the one day a year we have the Perfect Family Meal. The problem with the “Perfect Family Meal” is that nobody has the perfect family. It’s an oxymoron. The Waltons was a tv show and didn’t really exist. (FYI, this just in, Leave It To Beaver, also not based in reality. Just in case you didn’t get the memo.)
Personally I blame Norman Rockwell.
I know, his pictures are iconic, aren’t they? I love them. Every one of them is a story, harkening back to a time where things were a little simpler, a little sweeter, a little happier. Which unfortunately has never truly existed. I admit I want the Norman Rockwell ideal. Every year I faithfully peruse the holiday magazines and photocopy recipes, fantasize about making homemade rolls so light they float off the plate, and being crowned “Turkey Queen”. I have my little Martha Stewart dream, I admit it freely.
But let’s share what really happens on Thanksgiving at my house.
I will cook almost everything. My sister is assigned the desserts. I like making the turkey and sides. I won’t make anything new because after almost twenty years of doing most of the cooking at Thanksgiving, I know better. New dishes, no matter how tasty and wonderful, are lost on the plebian tastes of my family.
“What is this?”
“It’s cornbread stuffing with cranberries and walnuts.”
“It tastes funny. Where’s the real stuffing? The kind from the box I bought.”
I fought it for years, but I’ve given up. It’s not worth it. And if they like it, they won’t tell me. So I can make something “weird” and get complaints; or I can cook the same old thing and get no comments. Guess which route I’ll be taking? I mean, every year I have to listen to three hours worth of my father going off about how many pans it takes to cook everything. I want the complaining kept to a minimum. The day is going to suck enough as it is. Just wait.
Okay, once all the stuff is fixed, my sister and her brood come to the farm to eat with us. This is after I’ve gotten about six phone calls that morning. What am I fixing? When will it be done? Is it done yet? Do I have any mushroom soup? Are we watching the football game, John wants to know? And in case, I missed it the other two times: is it done so they can come down already?
Okay. So we’re ready—6 hours of prepping just for this moment.
They arrive; they eat; they stay exactly forty minutes (this includes taking off coats and eating time, by the way); and then they leave. They leave because my sister has fixed her own turkey and the same number of side dishes for their “real Thanksgiving meal” at home. That’s right. She only eats with us because Dad expects it—and he too wants the Norman Rockwell family dinner.
My sister usually raves about one of my dishes before she goes; she is the only person I get compliments from. I hide in my room the rest of the day. I pray the Clueless Wonders will not visit. I usually pray in vain.
The Clueless Wonders (John’s middle younger son and his wife) are a married couple, who have unfortunately bred. (Though the child is charming…and far more intelligent than they are.) I call them the Clueless Wonders because calling them the Fucking Idiots is banned from the dining room table for some reason. They married some years ago, after he knocked up the poor girl he was dating. After she was pregnant, it was decided to let them marry. (BTW, like father, like son. Oh, yeah, the CW has no original ideas or thoughts.) She’s about 10 years my junior and she frequently tells me I might make a good mom someday. You know, when I grow up. She does not work; and he is frequently without a job because (and I quote): “My boss doesn’t understand me.”
Basically these guys sit in our living room, spouting off, and I marvel at my tax dollars at work for their upkeep.
If I’m really lucky, my brother Eldon’s ex-step-daughter (keeping up yet?) will come with her brood (how many kids does she have? Six? Eight?) and visit. Brandy tells colorful stories of our childhood, much like a jock from high school relives his famous days on the field. I marvel at her many piercings and tattoos and run-ins with the law. After about twenty minutes in the brood’s rambunctious company, I usually go check to make sure I took my birth control pill that morning. I mean, I take them as soon as the alarm goes off, like I’m some sort of Pavlov’s dog or something, but you can never be too careful.
I look at that picture of Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving dinner and laugh. It is not a bit reflective of my family, or any family I know. One of my best friends does the family thing, and even when everyone is seated around the table, no one reminds you of those kids from the Waltons. Not a tattoo or piercing among the Walton crowd. And other friends never have anything as normal as a family dinner. No. They go to the ER…or have a family carted off to jail or a mental ward. You mention the word “Thanksgiving” to them and they visibly wince. “Please, do we have to do the Thanksgiving thing? Can’t we just sit at home and eat a turkey sandwich, please?”
And it’s not only artwork: reading about these Walton-like families in novels totally annoys me because I feel it's such complete fiction. Like a medieval story that has a heroine with a unicorn as a pet or something. These fictional hero/ines are weird…and blessedly unburdened by family members who have been featured on Cops or The Jeff Foxworthy Show. I doubt they truly appreciate how weird and special they really are! They’re the Endangered Species of Family Ideals and don’t even know it.
But at the same time, why are those families, that iconic .0005% of the population family dynamic the only one that’s praised, revered, put into fiction and art? What about the families with only one parent, or mixed families? Where are the non-traditional family pictures?
I want a Norman Rockwell painting with the pierced Goth teenager and the happily adjusted, gay young professional sitting next to his boyfriend. I want dad and his new young trophy wife smiling proudly in the background; and I want granny, a young 80, dressed in spandex and making goo-goo eyes at her new boyfriend, Ed. I mean, wouldn’t that be slightly more representative? Where’s the alcoholic uncle? There is always one of those at these dinners.
I think that’s what I loved most about Eloisa James’ first Duchess book. Here was a heroine who was ashamed of her family, her father specifically. She was a person who would have ducked out of Thanksgiving if it had been an option. And she’s horrible around children. I remember the critics going off about her, since romance novel heroines are supposed to be like Disney heroines, beloved by forest animals and children at all times. But finally I read about a heroine where I was like, “Damn, someone got it right.” Okay, not everyone feels about the same about children as I do (the self-absorbed, ‘bored’ little terrorists), but it was nice to sit around a table of people who were not Norman Rockwell perfect. They were a family of people I could relate and understand.
In my own writing, I tend to steer away from family members. Everyone is an orphan or sprung from a cabbage. I don’t know if it’s that I just don’t like family members or I know if I start adding them, they’re going to be so obnoxious that I won’t be able to publish my novel because it will cease being a fictional piece and more autobiographical. (By the way, my faculty and co-workers live for my Thanksgiving stories and think I should publish my family memoirs. They think I’d make a killing.) I do focus more on friendships between my heroine and her girlfriends. My friendships are my family in my real life, much more than my blood family, and I think that’s why they make it into my writing so often. (And they’re certainly not without their drama. They’re just not Clueless Wonders.)
So what’s your family like? Norman Rockwell or Ozzie Osborne? What sorts of families do you like to read about in fiction? Do you like writing family life in your novels, or do you write more about the friendships of your heroes/heroines? What are you looking forward most to Thanksgiving?