Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Best and worst Thanksgivings

Often, we feel sorry for people who spend Thanksgiving without family. But the worst Thanksgiving I’ve ever had was with family.

For years, my wife took our children to Florida to visit her folks during this holiday. About five years ago, I decided that perhaps I should go to New Jersey and do the same. My mental picture was of the Thanksgiving I grew up with:  everyone dressed up and gathered at my parents’ house, with all of us sharing in my mother’s incomparable cooking and enjoying a raucous thought-provoking discussion. (At least until someone, usually me, got into an argument with my father.) And then playing board games and card games afterward. I didn’t expect precisely this, my father having died in 1991, and the dinner now being held at my sister’s house, but I did look forward to the rest of it. The moment I stepped into my sister’s house I could see that “Thanksgiving dinner” as I understood it was out. Our extended family was now so extended that we had been broken into three groups of tables, eliminating any hope of tablewide discussion. While I and a few others had dressed for the occasion, several relatives who will go unnamed wore t-shirts and construction boots and baseball caps. (A hat at the table! I expected my father to lurch from his grave and snatch it from that head.) Worst, in the next room were relatives of relatives – in-laws and in-laws of my in-law – who were watching a football game on a large stereophonic home entertainment system with the volume turned up to 11. I couldn’t hear anything next to me, but boy I caught every bit of the football game, including the excited cheers from the people who ate their Thanksgiving dinner in there in front of the jumbo TV. After dinner I tried to put together our own game of some sort – a game involving active participation, not vicarious lassitude – but couldn’t get any two people to agree either on a specific game or to play at all. Finally I left unannounced and stomped in the dark over to my mother’s house where I read the night away and vowed never to return for Thanksgiving.

This brings me to the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had.

On one of those holidays that my wife and children were out of town, I decided very last-minute that I would cook Thanksgiving dinner and invite some friends who had nowhere to go. This was a brief tradition for my wife and me in the late 1980’s and 1990’s because we know so many actors in particular who moved to Los Angeles to pursue fame and fortune and who didn’t have the money or inclination to go back “home” for Thanksgiving. After several years, though, my wife worked most Thanksgivings and I don’t like to entertain without her; I get either lonely or bored or annoyed or some combination of all three. But on this particular Thanksgiving, I was going to roast that turkey I’d bought, so why not invite a few people? One friend agreed quickly, but as I made other calls I learned that the invitations were too last-minute. All these people who in previous years had had nowhere but our house to go had found other houses to join once we rolled up the welcome mat. Meanwhile, I’d purchased enough Thanksgiving food supplies to feed the Norman invasion. And I’d planned to make a baked cranberry dish I’d read about in the LA Times. No way was it just going to be me and the one friend, so I dug further and further into my Rolodex and kept making calls until four others decided to join us. And then the one friend who’d RSVP’d canceled. So when the assembled crew sat down for Thanksgiving dinner it was five people who barely knew each other:  myself, my friend the vegetarian, his French roommate whom I’d never met, my manic-depressive black Republican friend, and a playwright I’d once spent a month with in Arkansas in a fellowship. We were the cast of a Robert Altman movie in the scene where they all finally meet.

But here’s what happened:

Because we had had no history, we spent the afternoon actually learning about each other. I can’t remember a thing we talked about, but I know it was about art, literature, history, music, politics, and life and death. Because we weren’t family and we weren’t truly friends, we were utterly liberated to say anything, and we had an absolute ball doing so. After the wine was drunk and the food was cleared, we decided to go see a movie, and so all piled into my car and went to see a movie that wound up being “American Beauty,” which was newly released. We didn’t know anything about it, but it turned out to be about a 42-year-old man who wakes up from his humdrum life and decides to be utterly liberated. It seemed like an absolute revelation, and the best movie we’d ever seen. “What a great movie,” said the manic depressive, who on a regular basis knew a lot about great and not-great in his own life. Then we all drove up to the Castaway restaurant on the edge of the mountain and looked out over the lights of the valley in the darkness while the vegetarian and his roommate and I smoked cigars. Finally I drove us back down to my house and we all agreed that we’d had an unexpected and memorable Thanksgiving.

Like all great events, this event was not to be repeated. I haven’t seen the playwright once since that evening, although we’ve emailed a couple of times trying to get each other to come see each other’s plays, with no luck. The vegetarian and his roommate had a vicious falling out, including a fistfight with other roommates, and almost went to court. Five years ago I called the vegetarian from the rooftop of a hotel in Hollywood not three blocks from his apartment and invited him to join me at this launch party for Nike Rockstar and he said he’d come; after 30 minutes of waiting for him, I called him back and found he hadn’t left and I figured he wasn’t coming and so I said, “I can take a hint” because this wasn’t the first time, and he said, “There’s no hint,” and I said, “Goodbye” and that was that. I’ve seen the manic depressive several times since – he was positively delightful at our 2004 Fourth of July barbecue, for example – but it isn’t frequent, perhaps once every year or two. I make an effort because he is truly brilliant, an obviously original thinker (like all manic-depressives), and has at times been a very good friend to me.

So Thanksgiving is not about family, and it is not about holding onto the past. It’s about recognizing what you’ve got, especially in light of all the people who haven’t got much of anything. This year was low-key, but there were high notes:  my wife unexpectedly dancing with me to a sentimental song of the 1920’s covered by Bryan Ferry; my 10-year-old daughter sharing her love of Georges Seurat then challenging me to swing higher than she could; my 6-year-old asking me to roll over him and “crush” him. I used to expect more. Now I know to expect nothing, and appreciate what comes.

3 Responses to “Best and worst Thanksgivings”

  1. Rich Roesberg Says:

    This year it was just Ruth and I, joined by our son Justin. He brought two bottles of Frank Zappa commemerative beer, which he and I shared. Ruth cooked a knock-out dinner (as always) and there was no need to hurry or to please any ‘outsiders’. We guys checked out one of the DVDs in the ZAPPA PLAYS ZAPPA boxed set and marvelled at the music. There were also holiday phone calls coming and going. All in all, a relaxing, appetite-pleasing day. And I had even gone up on the roof beforehand to clean the rain gutters, so a sense of accomplishment pervaded the celebration. And our daughter Tara is coming home from Seattle for Christmas, when my Mom and brother Ron will be with us.

  2. Joe Says:

    Remember Frank Zappa?

  3. leewochner.com » Blog Archive » Thanks giving Says:

    […] playing board games, just grateful for each other’s company. I reminded my wife before bed of my longstanding opinion that Thanksgiving is the dumbest holiday, one where we’re asked to eat too much to prove our […]

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