Saturday, November 24, 2012

Pre-Thanksgiving (Post)

Garry Winogrand: San Marcos, Texas, 1964

Is there, really, anything sadder to ponder than Thanksgiving dinner alone?  Alone, at a restaurant, therefore alone among others?  Alone, at a restaurant like Odessa on Avenue A?

It's one week till Thanksgiving, the one holiday that so far has escaped total cooptation by pop-up stores and cynical commercial grabs; I'm not even sure they make Thanksgiving-themed Peeps, but I'm sure to be proved wrong about that.  Still, it retains a certain old-time purity, although I make it a point during the usual public grace lauding friendships and blood ties to say a silent thanks to the Indians for letting us kill them and steal their land.

I wait for my salmon burger in this place that has long meant home to me (although, truth be told, I was more of a Veselka girl myself, venturing to the Second Avenue Ukrainian coffee shop for three-dollar pierogies and potato pancakes once or twice a week).  Who can't love New York City: at the table next to me, a Jew and an Irishman talk, in a Ukrainian restaurant; then in walk four fellows who look nothing if not Mongolian.

Courtesy of the window onto the street in front of me, I practice my backward reading.  We really don't do enough of that, you know, after age ten.

A poster taped there, advertising its come-on to passersby on the sidewalk, can be read from the back:

Complete Dinner
glass of wine*
cup of cream of turkey soup
Turkey with stuffing
sweet potatoes
cranberry sauce
& fresh mix vegetables
Pumpkin pie
tea or coffee

*as I can attest, this is more likely to be a "thimbleful" of "wine"

It takes a lot to be alone for Thanksgiving, the quintessential family meal (which I haven't shared with my actual family for decades; until recently I celebrated it with my misfit friends, which meant we were more firmly cemented than by genetics, being the chosen rather than the pressed upon).  One year, and one year only, I made the bright and bad suggestion to go traveling for Thanksgiving, and we spent the meal, two of us, in an otherwise empty hotel dining room.  I've never felt quite so suicidal while still wearing a brave and utterly false smile for two hours.

My heart breaks for the people who will come, alone, to buy the Odessa special.  I wish I could invite them all to my home.  I won't serve cream of turkey soup, though.

Non ignara mali, miseris succurrere disco.  "Familiar with misfortune, I learned to assist the unfortunate": Virgil's Aeneid.  That sounds bigger than I mean it to.  But it is a small reminder to myself, a future job.  And a wish that around every table in the Odessa there is more than one chair.    



Anonymous said...

Have Nelly invite two of her friends over and you can have a three dog night

One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do
Two can be as bad as one
It's the loneliest number since the number one

No is the saddest experience you'll ever know
Yes, it's the saddest experience you'll ever know
`Cause one is the loneliest number that you'll ever do
One is the loneliest number, worse than two

It's just no good anymore since he/she/it went away
Now I spend my time just making rhymes of yesterday

Dale F. Gruver

Shybiker said...

How sad. I'm sorry, buddy. Nothing hits harder than being alone on a holiday like Thanksgiving, with its mythic image of family togetherness.

The reality, of course, is that most people attending family gatherings are miserable. Cretinous relatives are hardly better than no relatives. I was forced to jettison my "family" two decades ago when they spit on the memory of my recently-deceased mother who had raised them. Honestly, I've never looked back.

Like you, I've spent most Thanksgivings since in the company of misfit friends.

Hang in there. Whether you see it or not, you have friends in the world who care about you.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Oh, dear. Melissa's opacity strikes again.

I left out a crucial part of the story: Grace of motorcycles (yet again!), for it was from a rider, we got an invitation this year. Perhaps that generosity triggered this reflection on the situation of others who didn't have anyplace to go: finally, at long last, I get it. It took ups and downs both.

During the years when I "belonged," my selfish myopia didn't even permit me the thought that others, due to circumstances beyond their control, might have nowhere to go. Perhaps it was simple karma, then, that when it came my turn to experience the other side, it was nearly impossible to find other people to invite over.

Having known the three possible permutations of this seasonal feast--miserable with family; happy with friends; alone--the latter is the only one I personally find difficult. I'm aware that others feel differently.

But because I don't, I found myself possessed by a powerful wish the week before Thanksgiving after realizing there is enough of a market in single diners to warrant the selling of them. I wished there weren't. --That all of us who have places to go could welcome in those who don't.

In one fell swoop, we could wipe out a class. It would be good.

Sal Paradise said...

Thanksgiving itself may not be commercialized but its now connected to black Friday which makes it for some the most corrupt day of al. Besides that - its an emotional minefield. Its too bad, because being thankful is what it is all about. Having been disowned by dysfunctional family, for two years in a row my wife and I ran a fairly large community Thanksgiving. It was free and everything was donated and cooked in a church. For reasons I will never understand it was far more popular with well off people who wanted to help out than with poor and elderly people.Maybe they were lonely. Still, it was successful, feeding about 60 people each year and people asked us about it for years after.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Sal, forgive the tardy reply (I've been absent in more ways than one).

Of course, you bring up the distressing fact that little in American society can remain uncoopted. I actually felt slightly ill when I heard the apparently good! news! that this year, stores weren't going to wait till 6 a.m. the next morning to promote mass mayhem over cheaply made disposable goods; they were going to make store personnel give up their holiday so those inscrutable others who would rather shop could do so.

I'm sorry--for you, for others--that the dysfunctional family ruins the holiday from the other side. Your response was the best one in all ways. As to how it panned out . . . Yeah. Go to the Woodstock Christmas meal, you'll see the same thing. I think it's a "safe" way for well-off people to "help." The truly necessary, and dirty, ways are not as appealing.

Kent said...

I'd like to think that all of the craziness of the holiday season is just like a good short story. The frenetic activity, mindless consumerism, heaping upon heaping of indebtedness, etc. will all take us to the climax of the story. It will all stop...maybe with a screeching halt or an ABS-controlled stutter. But it WILL end...and we will all put down our phones and pads and credit cards and look around to see the people who are hurting and alone and in need of love.

Glad you're back in the blog every now and then, Melissa.

Shybiker said...

Hi Melissa. Just want to wish you and your son a Merry Christmas. I hope you find in the New Year everything you're searching for. Lots of love and admiration, Shybiker.

Anonymous said...

Hello Melissa...
While Carbonite helped me recover from a holiday computer crash, I unearthed a file I wrote to you on Thanksgiving day in 2007 after finishing "The Perfect Vehicle". I tried to send the piece in hard copy through your publisher (being relatively inept at computer searching for a more direct route). I have no idea if it was ever received. Your book was given to me by my brother (also a recovering lifer-biker), with a cryptic comment that I might find some interesting connections therein. I did.
And since finding that missive I sent away into the ether half a decade ago, I've revisited an unwritten "to-do" note floating around the back of my brain about saying hello to you again. Sort of like Anne Lamott's "One Bird at a Time". This is a Tuesday morning in the latter part of January, it's cold as hell for Atlanta, and through this tiny, frozen window flows my first shot at blog response.
Alone at Thanksgiving...oh yeah. Stan Rogers, a deceased Canadian folk singer whose "One Thin Line" almost became the Canadian National Anthem, wrote a song called "First Christmas" [away from home] wherein the voice describes a hot soup dinner at the "Sally Ann" [Salvation Army]. It's how I felt when I wasn't invited to Thanksgiving Dinner with my estranged wife and two young daughters on Thanksgiving in 1977. That was my first holiday away from the usual, proscribed familial gatherings. Looking back now, I shall record it as liberating and instructive about the real nature of thanks and gratitude.
So I've written you a bit about being alone at Thanksgiving, but I can be a wordy bastard, and the blog site informs me that i cannot exceed 4096 characters. I will have to blog in installments.
January 22, 2012

Anonymous said...

Hello again Melissa,

One door closes, etc., etc. So by Thanksgiving of 1979, I found myself living on Oahu among a cadre of other displaced "haoles". We often hear the travel guide propaganda about diversity and the "melting-pot" nature of modern Hawaii, but the reality is different. There certainly is a diversity of ethnicity. But the Chinese don't speak to the Japanese, and neither of them want anything to do with the Koreans or Filipinos, both of whom pretty much keep to themselves. And the Samoans, living in Hawaii in large measure due to the Mormons, are pretty much on their own. Those few with true Hawaiian blood are, by their very spiritual nature, eternally and outwardly grateful, and need no holiday to say so.
There is a permanent population of a little over a million souls in the inhabited Hawaiian Islands, and only 14% are "Haole" - a Hawaiian word that originally meant "without 'ha' ", the all-abiding spirit breathed into the keiki'o'ka'aina (lit. "children of the land") at birth. The word has since come to mean caucasians in general, and/or land-grabbing 19th Century, Amero-Europeans whose heirs control the future of the "aina"...see George Clooney in "The Descendants". Ed.note: if you are in a bar and hear the words "...'king haole..." spoken in lilting pidgin patois, beat a hasty retreat in order to preserve your well-being.
So that leaves 140,000 people (plus or minus) present in the population who have any real cultural connection to turkey-infested Thanksgiving. On a social note (I was 35 and newly single at the time), if you remove all the elder, the married, the ineligible youth, members of your own gender, and a smatttering of tourists, you are left with 5 eligible males and 4 eligible females available on Oahu for dating in this ethnic segment. And therein, it pretty much defined what you were going to do on Thanksgiving, if you are even remotely gregarious.
A further subset of the population are those haoles who congregate near the water on the lee of the island, who belong to either Hawaii Yacht Club, or Waikiki Yacht Club (100 yards apart). While this might conjure the notion of the fabulously wealthy at a permanent state of play (a ’la the Vanderbilts or the Astors), nothing could be further from the truth. Each is a sort of a fitness club wherein the equipment floats, and the health drinks contain copious amounts of alcohol. Both are open to anyone who can pay the very affordable dues. They are also the halls of the haole malahini (caucasian newcomer) seeking social succor.
January 22, 2013

Anonymous said...

Hello again, Melissa

And so arose the “orphan’s Thanksgiving”. It was clear that none of us had family on the island, and that we all needed a place to go when everything else shut down on that one Thursday a year. Sometime in October, the wives and significant others (keepers of households) would gather and divide the unwieldy mass of humans into four or five groups to be invited to the four or five volunteered homes. Issues like “Rick and Anne haven’t been getting along lately and a break-up is immanent…so you two each keep an extra seat around the table open, just in case…” It was as close to a commune as I’ve ever known. In that environment, I met my second (and permanent) wife. And we became one of the volunteered households.
Now I live in Atlanta (actually Marietta, a suburb, but truly the “Heart of the South”). I have grandchildren from the elder of my two daughters, both the issue of my first marriage. But they live at a safe distance in Philadelphia, so my heirs and assigns are not commonly part of the Thanksgiving festivities. [ Ed.note: Mark Twain said, “The reason grandparents bond so well with their grandchildren, is because they have a common enemy.” ]
This year on Thanksgiving, my bride of 27 years and I celebrated our thanks in the company of our two dogs, whose gratitude cannot be measured. And we were visited in the afternoon by three “orphans”…two long-divorced gentlemen in their sixties, who were thankful but alone, and a 30-something single woman whose career with computers has left her perennially without someone. Alas.
Thanks-giving implies receiving, but it is really about giving and sharing. I believe that’s what that small group of cold and hungry immigrants we call “the Pilgrims” were doing…sharing with families to whom they were not necessarily related. Flannery O’Connor said, “Give alms, learn prayer, and do not have a vested interest in disbelief.”
Please don’t sit on the reverse side of a window sign next year. Fly or ride to Georgia. It’s still mostly Indian Summer in Marietta at Thanksgiving.
Feldspar January 22, 2013

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Blog, and counter-blog! Thank you for sharing the tales and ruminations triggered by the subject of Thanksgiving, Feldspar; it's a rich one, with depths of sadness as well as peculiar joy. Life in a holiday microcosm.

And speaking of connection . . . every letter I've ever received from a reader has gotten (and deserved) a reply. I'm sorry that yours went astray. But very glad indeed you wrote again.