I think this may be the first year that I’ve even been aware that American Thanksgiving Day is coming. I don’t really know what it’s all about, and I don’t know much about how it’s celebrated. Actually, at one point I thought that it was a day to mark the start of Christmas in America, and the two holidays just kind of blurred into one. All I do know about it is that it’s similar to Christmas in my country, with turkey and cranberry sauce and so on, and, from what I’ve seen in Friends (my go-to reference for American culture!), that everyone has a “Thanksgiving story”.
And, strangely enough, so do I. This may be a long post!
This US holiday has played no part in my life other than an incident 4 years ago which left me with unpleasant feelings rather than any positive ones. It still upsets me when I think about it, to be honest, but maybe it will be cathartic for me to finally write about it and let it go instead of feeling sad every time I think about it.
I had an American girl staying with me for a couple of months – the teenage daughter of some friends. I wasn’t particularly close to the family, but we had some mutual friends who I adored. (They were the same girls who met up with me in NYC, one of whom I stayed with in Nashville.) I loved these girls – let’s call them Jane and Sue – and would’ve done anything for them. They’d always been fond of me, too, and we regularly emailed and made transatlantic phone calls. Sue lived in NI briefly, and we shared a house together at the time when I’d just made the difficult decision to leave my fiancé and move out of our home. She was good company at a distressing time, and I missed her like crazy when she moved back to the USA. She always stayed in touch, though, and was a frequent commenter on this very blog, too. We had nicknames and private jokes and fond memories. In short: I loved her.
So anyway, this girl in her late teens, who I barely knew but who was very close to Jane and (particularly) Sue, came to stay with me. She was doing volunteer work in the area, and just needed somewhere to stay. I was working full-time and also doing volunteer work and various other activities of my own, so we didn’t see each other very much, but she seemed happy enough and soon made friends her own age. All was well until one Thursday night in November, when I arrived home from work to find her in the house – which was unusual, as she often didn’t get home till after I’d gone to bed – and looking sad. She announced that she was going bowling with her friends, though, so I figured she was OK and thought no more of it. I was having a personal crisis of my own that week, anyway.
The Housemate got home late, when I was already in bed reading, but I got up and made hot chocolate and had a chat with her, to check she was OK after looking so down earlier. She seemed fine. It was Thanksgiving today, she said at one point. It’s so strange being in a country where nobody knows that.
Oh, yes, I said interestedly. Do you get the day off for that, in the States? Wait, what should I say? Is it Merry Thanksgiving? Happy Thanksgiving?
I was clueless, but she just laughed at my ignorance, and we chatted some more before I went back to bed and she got on the phone to friends and family.
And from that day, everything changed. In large groups of people where some are friends and some aren’t, and gossip flies around, you get to hear when someone’s mad at you. You get to hear the comments they make behind your back, and you get to see the remarks addressed to someone else but aimed at you. Oddly, it wasn’t the girl herself who did any of this, but I heard that she’d cried on the phone that night, homesick, unknown to me. Her mother made a big fuss online of the teenager who’d gone out with her, saying “I’m so thankful that at least someone was nice enough to take care of my girl on her first Thanksgiving away from home.”
Suddenly, the fact that she’d lived in my house for 2 months was forgotten, and the only thing anyone saw was that I was a horrible person who hadn’t made a Thanksgiving dinner for her, or given her gifts, or whatever you’re meant to do on the holiday that I knew absolutely nothing about. I wanted to shout “I was at WORK! It was an ordinary day! I didn’t even know! I’m sorry!” but minds were apparently made up.
Things were strained after that, and when her parents came to take her back home, they picked her up from outside my house without even coming in to speak to me. And that was the last I ever saw of any of my US friends. Phone calls, blog comments, emails… everything stopped. And boy did it hurt. Only Jane eventually contacted me again, and I’m hopeful I’ll at least see her again one day even though we’re not in touch as often as before. But Sue, my ‘roomie’, vanished from my life. She never said why, she never confronted me. She just stopped responding. Phone calls were not returned, voicemail messages not acknowledged, emails never replied to, Facebook posts left commentless, happy birthday wishes ignored. She’s still there… I see her responding to Facebook posts by other friends, wishing them a happy birthday, arranging to call or Skype. Just not with me.
I don’t know if it’s really possible that I lost one of my favourite people in the world because I didn’t celebrate a holiday that I wasn’t even aware of, but it’s the only conclusion I’ve been able to come to. It’s possible there was something else, of course, but I can’t think of it and am not psychic. I’ve given up on reconciliation now, and all that remains to do, I suppose, is press “remove friend” and forget about it. Four years is long enough to be carrying around guilt and regret and hurt, and now seems like as good a time as any to write it all down, get it all out, and let it all go!
And so this is what Thanksgiving means to me. It is a few vague images of turkeys mixed with the hurt and confusion of being cut out of someone’s life with no explanation. It is a holiday that apparently cost me dearly because of my ignorance of it.
But it is also, I assume, a time to give thanks.
This Thanksgiving, I am going to a dinner and party at The Local to celebrate with friends both American and otherwise. The other weekend, I was watching a movie there with my Irish / South African group of friends, when the owner came over to tell us that they were now serving “_______ Root Beer Floats” (the line there is where he said what I presume was a brand name, but I’ve forgotten it). He seemed very excited about this, and a little taken aback and disappointed when all of us looked blankly at him and asked “What’s that?”. It was the same look Frankie the barman got later when he mentioned the upcoming Thanksgiving party and realised that not one of us shared his background of celebrating this holiday.
Their reactions to our ignorance, however, were great. Frankie asked us to come and celebrate Thanksgiving with them anyway, and looked genuinely pleased when we said we would. Pete reappeared at our table with a large root beer float (it’s a sort of soft-drink-with-ice-cream concoction, like the fizzy orange or Coke ice cream drinks Mum used to make for us in the summer) with several straws in it, to let us all try this unknown thing that is apparently a childhood memory for most Americans. They weren’t annoyed by our lack of knowledge – they just wanted to share it with us.
This Thanksgiving, I’m giving thanks for a lifestyle that lets me meet people from all over the world, with different backgrounds, stories, traditions, memories, beliefs, and interests, who can all share, teach, and learn from each other with patience, tolerance, amusement, kindness, understanding, respect, and interest. I’ve partied South African style at a braai, I’ve eaten pasta cooked by lovable Italian guys, I’ve danced at St. Paddy’s Day parties with my Irish friends, I’ve performed vodka rituals over goat stew in the Mongolian wilderness, I’ve eaten tteokguk at Seollal with the Koreans, I’ve cheered on France (in French!) with passion in their rugby world cup matches, and I’m going to eat Thanksgiving turkey with the Americans.
This is what my life is about, and I’m thankful for all the people who are a part of it, near or far. I’m thankful that bad experiences with former friends haven’t held me back from making new ones. I’m thankful for the people who have been in my life from the start, and the ones I just met the other day. I’m thankful that out of all those people, I could probably count on one hand those who are no longer in my life because of bad feeling on one side or the other. I’m thankful for love, friendship, and laughter.
And to my American friends celebrating tomorrow: Happy Thanksgiving.
Whatever that means! ;)