W hen I invited my mom and dad to come to New York City to have Thanksgiving at my house, I never expected them to say yes. Not only had they never been to New York, they had never been east of the Mississippi. I've always had these fantasies about being in a normal family in which the parents come to town and their adult daughter spends the entire visit thinking of suicide. I'm here to tell you that dreams really do come true.
I was terrified we wouldn't have enough to talk about. In the interest of harmony, there's a tacit agreement in my family to avoid the following subjects in any conversation longer than a minute and a half: national politics, state and local politics, any music by any person who never headlined at the Grand Ole Opry, my personal life, and their god. Five whole days. When I visit them back home in Montana, conversation isn't a problem because we go to the movies every afternoon. That way, we can be together but without the burden of actually talking to each other. Tommy Lee Jones, bless his heart, does the talking for us.
But my sister, Amy, is coming and bringing her lively 7-month-old son, Owen, so the cinema isn't an option. Which means five days together -- just us, no movies. We are heading into uncharted and possibly hostile waters, pioneers in a New World. It is Thanksgiving. The pilgrims had the Mayflower. I buy a gravy boat.
It's lucky that Amy's coming with Mom and Dad. Amy still lives six blocks away from them in Bozeman. She will act as interpreter and go-between. Like Squanto.
Amy's husband, Jay, has decided to stay home to go deer hunting with his brother. Everyone else arrives at my apartment in Chelsea. Amy and Owen are bunking with me, so I walk my parents around the corner to check them into their hotel on 23rd.
It is around this time -- oh, 20 minutes into their visit -- that my dad starts making wisecracks like, "Boy, kid, bet you can't wait until we're out of here." My father, a man who moved us 1,600 miles away from our Oklahoma relatives so he wouldn't have to see them anymore, makes a joke on average every two hours he is here about how much I'm anticipating the second they'll say goodbye. I find this charming but so disturbingly true I don't know what to say.
By halfway through the first day, I discover I needn't have worried about what we would talk about, with the baby preventing us from seeing movies. When you have a baby around, the baby is the movie. We occupy an entire entertaining hour just on drool, nonnarrative drool. At this stage, baby Owen is laughing, sitting up and able to roll over. He is the cutest, the funniest, sweetest, smartest, best-behaved baby in the world.
Then there's the sightseeing. First stop, Ellis Island. The thing about going to Ellis Island is that it's a lot like going to Ellis Island. Perhaps to help you better understand the immigrant experience, they make you stand in line for the crammed ferry for an hour and a half in the windy cold. By the time we step onto the island, we are huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Our great-grandmother Ellen passed through here on her way from Sweden. We watch a video on the health inspections given to immigrants, walk past oodles of photos of men in hats and women in shawls. Though no one says anything, I know my father and mother and sister are thinking what I'm thinking. They're thinking about when we moved away from Oklahoma to Montana, how unknown that was, how strange and lonesome. I read a letter in a display case that says, "And I never saw my mother again," and I think of my grandfather, how we just drove off, leaving him behind, waving to us in the rearview mirror. And here we are in New York, because here I am in New York, because ever since Ellen's father brought her here, every generation has moved away from the one before.
It is curious that we Americans have a holiday -- Thanksgiving -- that's all about people who left their homes for a life of their own choosing, a life that was different from their parents' lives. And how do we celebrate it? By hanging out with our parents! It's as if on the Fourth of July we honored our independence from the British by barbecuing crumpets.
Just as Amy and I grew up and left our parents, someday Owen will grow up and ditch my sister. And, appropriately enough, it is on this weekend that Owen spends the very first night of his life away from his mother. My parents baby-sit while Amy and I go to a rock show. Owen lives through it, as does she, though she talks about him all night, which I guess is how it goes. Thanksgiving morning, my parents take Owen to see the Macy's parade while Amy and I start making dinner. Let me repeat that -- my mother leaves while I cook. Specifically, cornbread dressing, a dish my mother has made every Thanksgiving since before I was born. To her credit, she has not inquired about my process since she phoned to ask if she should bring cornmeal in her suitcase. As an Okie, my mom uses only white cornmeal processed by the Shawnee Company in Muskogee. She does not even consider my cornbread to be cornbread at all because I make it with yellow cornmeal and -- heresy -- sugar. "You don't make cornbread," she told me, in the same deflated voice she uses to describe my hair. "You make johnnycake."
I'm standing at the cutting board chopping sage and it hits me: Being in charge of the dressing means you are a grown-up for real, and being a grown-up for real means you're getting old, and getting old means you are definitely, finally, totally going to die. My mother is a grandmother and my sister is a mother and I have decided the dressing will be yellow this year; therefore, we'll all be dead someday.
"Is that enough celery?" Amy asks, pointing to a green mound on the counter. Is there ever enough celery? Do my parents have more celery in their past than they do in their future? Do I?
I have invited my friends John and David to join us for dinner, and I am a little nervous about how everyone will get along. To my delight, the meal is smooth and congenial. My friends and I talk about the West Nile virus killing birds on Long Island. My father counters with a lovely anecdote about an open copper pit in Butte that filled up with contaminated rainwater and killed 250 geese in one day. There is nothing like eating one dead bird and talking about a bunch of other dead birds to really bring people together.
The next morning, right about the time Owen starts to cry while -- simultaneously -- my mother jams the bathroom door and my father's on his hands and knees prying it open with a penknife, a cloud passes over me. Once or twice a day, I am enveloped inside what I like to call the Impenetrable Shield of Melancholy. I cannot speak. And while I can feel myself freeze up, I can't do anything about it. As my family fusses, I spend an inordinate amount of time pretending to dry my hair, the bedroom door closed, the hair dryer on full blast, pointed at nothing.
Everybody in my family goes through these little spells. I just happen to be the spooky one at this particular moment. When people ask me if I'm the black sheep of the family I always say that, no, we're all black sheep. Every few hours they're here, I look over at my dad, nervously crunching his fingers together. If he were at home for Thanksgiving, he'd be ignoring us and spending all his time in his shop. I watch him move his fingers in the air and realize he's turning some hunk of metal on an imaginary lathe.
The thing that unites us is that all four of us are homebody claustrophobes who prefer to be alone and are suspicious of other people. So the trait that binds us together as a family -- preferring to keep to ourselves -- makes it difficult to be together as a family. Paradoxically, it's at these times that I feel closest to them, that I understand them best, that I love them most. It's just surprising we ever breed.
The next day, we do the most typical thing we could possibly do as a family. We split up. I stay home cleaning, Mom goes to Macy's, Amy and Owen visit the Museum of Modern Art and Dad tours Teddy Roosevelt's birthplace. By the time we all reconvene on Saturday evening, my ragged mother becomes so ambitious with her sightseeing that I can tell she's decided that she's never coming back. "Do you guys want to see Rockefeller Center?" I ask, and she says, "Yeah, because who knows when I'll be back again." Ditto the Empire State Building, "because who knows when I'll be back again."
If you are visiting the Empire State Building, may I offer some advice? If you are waiting in the very long line for the very last elevator and an attendant says that anyone who wants to walk up the last six flights may do so now, right away, and you are with your aging parents and sister who is carrying a child the size of a fax machine, stay in the line for the elevator. But if you must take the stairs, go first, and do not look back; otherwise your parents will look like one of those Renaissance frescoes of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden, all hunched over and afraid.
So we make it to the observation deck, Brooklyn to the south of us, New Jersey to the west, places that people fled to from far away, places that people now run away from, to make another life. It's dark and cold and windy, and we're sweaty from climbing the stairs. It's really pretty, though. And there we stand, side by side, sharing a thought like the family we are. My sister wishes she were home. My mom and dad wish they were home. I wish they were home, too.