From the Kids’ Table: Thanksgiving for Loners
A son and his single mother find community among strangers
Welcome to From The Kids’ Table, our personal essay series in which writers share childhood memories about dining. For this Thanksgiving edition, writer Jaed Coffin–author of “Roughhouse Friday,” a moving memoir about boxing, masculinity, and fathers and sons–reflects on what the holiday meant to the son of a single, immigrant mother. Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving.
As a kid, I usually spent Thanksgiving Day alone. This was because my mother, a psych nurse who raised me on her own, in a small town in Maine, always volunteered to work the holiday. Her decision came with little sense of sacrifice: for one, she got paid time and a half for her efforts; second, as a woman who’d grown up in a stilt house in rural Thailand, honoring a strange fable of indigenous and colonial unity was, to her, as culturally useless as an entire pie made of pumpkins.
One might think that being alone on a day when everyone else was gathering as a family could really bring a kid down. But I was more than happy to burn an entire morning sitting on the couch in my underwear, plowing through seven consecutive bowls of Honey Bunches of Oats while code-cheating my way through Ninja Gaiden.
Usually around mid-day, and maybe out of a confused obligation to be emotional, I play-acted a vague script of loneliness that I probably borrowed from repeat viewings of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Watching Steve Martin return to a home full of sweatered white people told me that I was missing out on something important; the great reveal of the movie–that John Candy just might spend Thanksgiving alone!– told me that some people considered my current setup to be pitiable.
Far off in the background, I suppose I did have some pretty good material to work with: at some point during the day, my father would call, and through the receiver I could hear the clatter of pots and pans, the hearty banter between his new wife and her five kids. Sometimes I would imagine being there, helping out with the dishes, maybe playing Scrabble. But I had learned from my mother the essential skill of canceling out sadness with a simple cost-benefit analysis. Sure, I might have been missing out on a cornucopia of familial plenty, but in exchange for that loss I had been granted an entire day to do my own thing.
As I got older, I learned to be more intentional with my Thanksgiving me-time. I developed the tradition of tuning into “Alice’s Restaurant” and Adam Sandler’s “Thanksgiving Song” on the radio. I once spent several hours painting a self-portrait: me, sitting in a chair, pensively looking out the window. Another time, toward high school, I got a surprise call from a girl I had a crush on. Her parents were in the middle of a difficult divorce, and she had somehow ended up alone, also. We met in the woods, sat on a frozen log for a few hours, and talked about life. That girl now is my wife, and the mother of my two daughters, and sometimes when our marriage gets difficult, I often think that one of the things that holds us together is some tacit agreement we must have made in the woods that day.
Just as the sun was going down—in Maine, this was at the dreadful hour of about 4 p.m.—my mother usually got off her shift. We’d often accepted an invitation from a local family who’d postponed the traditional start of their meal until dinner time, insisting that my mother show up empty-handed. But my mother was too proud to accept the offer, so she’d spend the next hour making an apple torte, adorned with an ornate flower carved from an apple peel, a secret homage to our tropical heritage.
Then we’d roll up to a driveway full of cars with out of state plates. It always struck me as a little bit weird that some people in this country were related to other people who lived closer than six thousand miles away. To dress the part, I threw on a semi-formal Gap outfit that looked great in the mirror but, the minute we entered the house, felt like a costume. And then a little bolt of shame would set in, a little stroke of recognition that my mother and I were, at best, interlopers at this odd party.
It wasn’t a restaurant, but it felt like one given that we were more or less eating among strangers. Still, I really liked sitting at those crowded tables, memorizing everyone’s names, and feeding off the warmth of other families. And the best part, always, was the food. Even as a boy, I could eat any pot-bellied Massachusetts uncle under the table. Being rewarded with the warm gaze of an Irish-American mother just made me want to eat more, until I waddled to a couch in a state of bloated euphoria.
For my mother, Thanksgiving would always end the same way: she would allow herself a single glass of wine, and, flushed with an Asian-glow, announce that it was time for her to sing. The song was always in a language no one understood, in an exotic melody that reminded me that, soon, she and I would have to go home.
Now, I have the kind of life that my mother’s time and a half wages were meant to afford: I have a house, and a large network of connected family members all living in the same country. Though there always is plenty of food at our Thanksgiving table, I always feel that something is missing: as I watch my mother nervously pace around the kitchen, I know she’d rather be at work; as for me, I always find myself silently wishing that all these people, all this food, all this abundance and warmth and gratitude would just disappear for a moment — so that I could honor the tradition of spending this day alone.