I got my first period on Thanksgiving Day.
I was really young. So young, in fact, that I didn’t consider that that might be what was wrong with me. I was aware of the facts; I was radicalized at nine years of age by a well-worn copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and I had read a lot of Judy Blume. But everyone said I would be 14 before it happened, and I was much younger than that.
Still, I spent the whole week before that holiday feeling like the victim of a thousand cruelties, crampy and miserable and an inch away from crying. The day itself came and my mom did what she always did: she opened up our house to people who might not have anywhere else to be. I wasn’t an orphan yet, but I knew the ways of an orphan Thanksgiving.
I was a skinny kid, always hungry. I had been looking forward to unrestricted access to a vat of mashed potatoes. So I was crushed to discover that I was nauseated and bitchy all day, and could hardly eat anything but a slice of pie.
When the elevator from “The Shining” finally stopped at my floor, it all made sense.
I went through another rite of passage at 14: I moved out of the house. The story is long and I hope to sell a memoir someday, so I’ll skip most of it. The long and the short is that my mother was done doing her job, I had an au pair gig and I was washing dishes at night. I was confident that I could take care of myself, so I did. That was my first Thanksgiving without any family.
I had a very good friend at that age, a girl who taught me so much about myself that I will always dwell in wordless gratitude for her. She also had terrible parents, but at 16 she also had a car. That year, we visited every house that had invited our wayward, mouthy presence to their celebration. We were the orphans about town, showing up with a grocery store pie and being welcomed in. We nibbled turkey and tofurkey, told dirty jokes to borrowed grandfathers. I sang along with someone’s aunt who played piano, my friend laid down UNO cards with someone’s kid.
It was the first year I remember feeling no dread on that day. No family pressure, no disappointment. Just the warmest possible welcome for a semi-anonymous teenager who had nowhere else to be. I promised myself that when I had a home of my own, I would do the same thing.
I’ve gotten to do that about a half dozen years, when I wasn’t with my adoptive family or my in-laws. There was one year that was perfect, and I’m thinking about it a lot this season.
We were living in an apartment in Hemet, my husband and I and the roommates we still have now. We were all in our twenties and fully out; everybody knew we were all queer, that none of our relationships were monogamous or traditional, that we were working as hard as we could to leave and never come back.
I got up early with Devin, the most domestically talented of my roommates. This year, he was the one to bring a sourdough starter into our lives. Just today, I caught him speaking to a beaten bowl of aquafaba, calling it a ‘false god’ before working it into a vegan cake. He and I started the process of cooking for the 12-20 people we would see throughout the day. We started drinking at nine in the morning, with the parade on TV in the background and a playful argument about what is and is not a jigger of vodka in the fore.
Everyone came. We had invited all the orphans in our lives. All the queer kids who couldn’t go home, friends from college and our retail jobs. A woman who John and I had both dated, plus her daughter. His parents, my in-laws, who are good Mormons but go to the renaissance faire every year and know how to handle a motley crew. They had never seen me drinking before, but it was my own house and my orphan day.
Somehow, it all worked. The separate spheres of my life came crashing together in our little shoebox apartment and there came from it a harmonious chaos that I couldn’t have predicted. Dinner was underpinned by turkey and the usual sides, plus tamale pie and heart-shaped vegan cakes. John worked the room pouring sparkling cider for anybody who didn’t drink alcohol and I kept both wine and whiskey coming. There were people there I never saw again and people there I’ve known my whole life and I hope I always will.
It is difficult not to remark on every holiday that passes in this plague year with an elegy and a yearning recount of the numbers that have kept us from each other. I did it with my birthday, I did it with Halloween. The winter holidays are the worst; their magnitude is greater and our expectations ring hollow like a great bell in a lonely tower.
We are modifying. The parade isn’t marching but will be televised. My family and fellow orphans cannot come to me and I cannot go to them, so we set calls and Zooms and little chances to commune over drinks. Not to sniffle. To hunker and bunker and hope that next year finds us in a better place.
Christmas and Yule and Hanukkah will be worse. That’s the one that has me holding my breath. My urge to gather at Thanksgiving is itinerant, and I’m happy to be an orphan at a collection of tables. My urge for the final feast of the calendar year is peevish, unsatisfied, and juvenile. Unwilling to feel like an orphan, my soul rises up in insistence that I ought to be with my mother, or at very least, my mother in law.
This year, the only prayer that matters is the one we say alone. That we might be together next Thanksgiving, next Yule. That we might all be well and safe enough to gather then.
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through. Somehow.