In celebration of Thanksgiving week, I’m posting here the complete Thanksgiving chapter from Mostly Good Girls. I hope your Thanksgiving celebrations are much more enjoyable than Violet’s are here. If not, then may this post keep you entertained while you read it under the dining room table, or while you sit in holiday traffic. Enjoy!
Thanksgiving is a tough row to hoe
Thanksgiving is always a golden opportunity for my parents and me to sit in a car for four hours, battling our way through holiday traffic, until we eventually arrive at my Uncle Rick’s house in Cape Cod, where we are treated to overcooked turkey, limp carrots, and my aunt and uncle’s unwarranted bragging about their two sons.
Noah and David are the sons. Noah is 12 years old and David is a year older than I am. Their parents think everything their sons do is brilliant, even though the only thing Noah does is watch TV, and the only thing David does is be an asshole.
Uncle Rick is my father’s little brother. Katie theorizes that he has an inferiority complex from always being compared to my dad when they were growing up. “I’ve seen it all before,” she says wisely.
Whatever the deep-set emotional causes, Uncle Rick never misses a chance to point out how he is better than my dad. Sometimes he likes to talk about how he makes more money (because my dad is a professor, whereas Uncle Rick is a sell-out). Sometimes he likes to point out how his wife is a better cook than my mom (which is false but has never been put to the test, since we always celebrate holidays at Uncle Rick’s and never at our own house). Sometimes he likes to mention how he owns a purebred golden retriever, whereas my dad has no pets at all (the idea, I think, being that my dad is such an incompetent that he would be unable to keep a pet alive).
But mostly, Uncle Rick likes to mention how his sons are better than my father’s children (i.e. me). This line of commentary can take on many forms. Like when David became quarterback for his high school football team — “A first for this family,” Uncle Rick commented archly, like I should have tried harder to become a football quarterback at Westfield. Or, a couple years before that, Uncle Rick just couldn’t get over the fact that I had to have braces while David did not. “Tough row to hoe, eh?” he kept saying to me with evident delight. Coincidentally, Thanksgiving dinner that year consisted almost entirely of corn-on-the-cob and saltwater taffy.
That’s why this year I was thrilled when, after creeping along I-93 at approximately two miles an hour, we at last arrived at Uncle Rick’s and the door was opened by none other than 12-year-old Noah, sporting a brand-new pair of — yes, that’s right — braces.
“Hey, Noah!” I greeted him enthusiastically since, in the grand scheme of Uncle Rick’s household, Noah is a lesser evil. He grunted before darting back to the living room, so as not to miss any more precious seconds of television airtime. My parents and I hung up our own coats.
“Hello, hello!” Aunt Cynthia emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. “Rick!” she called into the living room. “They’re here!”
“We-e-ell!” Uncle Rick came into the front vestibule, too, and gave us all big hugs. I tried not to squirm against his fleshy gut. “The prodigal son, at last!” he said to my dad.
“You all must have gotten trapped in that horrible traffic,” Aunt Cynthia fluttered, which was just her passive-aggressive way of pointing out that we were late.
“You still driving that Toyota?” Uncle Rick asked Dad. When Dad nodded, Uncle Rick widened his eyes and exclaimed, “Really!” which was just his passive-aggressive way of pointing out that Dad hasn’t bought a new car within the past five years.
I knew the grown-ups would continue in this vein for a while, so I went to watch TV with Noah and the dog. Like I mentioned, Uncle Rick and Aunt Cynthia brag way too much about their sons; however, it is true that Noah is a champion television watcher. He has an uncanny sense for how long commercial breaks are, so he can effortlessly switch between a favorite program and a second-favorite program without ever missing a frame. Of course he has DVR, too, but he hardly needs it — he devotes maybe six hours a day to television watching, so it’s not like he ever “misses” a show because he’s out “doing something else.”
Eventually, Aunt Cynthia called us all to the dinner table. Noah moaned like his limbs were being slowly detached from his body without the use of anesthesia, but heroically he managed to turn off the TV, and we went into the dining room.
“I suppose I should ask David to come down here,” Aunt Cynthia said, looking up the stairs. “He’s been locked in his room all day, and I just hate to disturb him. Homework, you know. He gets so much homework.” She widened her eyes at my parents and me, as if David were the only person in the history of the world to have homework. I almost snorted in her face. Like, come on. I had three textbooks waiting in my parents’ car, not to mention an annotated Macbeth. I’d challenge David to a homework contest any day of the week. I had so much homework, I’d begged my parents to let me skip Thanksgiving this year to stay home and study. Then Mom asked if she could stay home, too, but Dad was like, “Oh, no. If I have to go through this, we all have to go through this.”
Once David came downstairs, Thanksgiving began in earnest. We went around the table and said what we were grateful for. Noah’s list included MTV, VH1, Fox, and SoapNet. Uncle Rick mentioned both his enormous salary, for allowing him to provide for his wonderful family, and his still-thick crop of hair (cue jovial laughter and tousling Dad’s bald patch). I said I was grateful for my family, but actually I am considerably more grateful for mint Milano cookies and highlighter markers.
After we all thanked God/ourselves/TV network execs, the conversation moved on to college admissions. “David has been working so hard on his applications,” Aunt Cynthia informed us all. “Haven’t you, sweetie?”
“Where are you applying?” Mom asked politely. “Violet will be looking at colleges next year, of course, so I’m interested in hearing about your process.”
“I’m applying early to Trinity,” David said, sounding impossibly bored by the whole thing.
“Just like his old man!” Uncle Rick bellowed.
I glanced at Noah, hoping we could commiserate in hatred for his family, but no such luck. Noah had his iPod out under the table and was half-watching an old Simpsons episode as he methodically shoved mashed potatoes into his mouth.
“Trinity should be no problem for David,” Aunt Cynthia announced, “because he’s top of his class. He’s going to be valedictorian.”
Now, this claim could not have been true, since it’s my understanding that valedictorians are not selected in November of senior year but rather in, like, June. Even if it were true, I’ve seen David’s school, and let’s just say that being top of the class there would not require that much effort. I could probably do it even with massive brain damage. I decided not to share that with the family.
“What about you, Violet?” Uncle Rick asked. “Top of your class? Going to follow in your cousin David’s footsteps to valedictorianism?”
“Uh,” I said, looking at my dad for support. “Actually, we don’t have class ranks at Westfield. And we definitely don’t have a valedictorian.”
There is an old rumor — possibly started by Katie — that Westfield once tried having a valedictorian. They announced her name one week before graduation. Mysteriously, the next day, she turned up dead. The school asked the salutarian to take over delivering the valedictory speech. But the next day, just as mysteriously, the salutarian also died. So the school asked the girl ranked third to take over as valedictorian. But then she wound up dead, too. And on and on until, by the actual day of graduation, the valedictorian was actually the girl who had originally been ranked eighth. Fortunately she was going to Princeton in the fall, so it’s not like she wasn’t worthy of the honor.
Now, is this story true?
No. I think if there were a week in which seven out of fifty 17-year-old girls died, Westfield would not still have its good reputation. But this story is true at heart, and that is why we keep telling it.
I considered sharing this story with the Thanksgiving dinner table when my Uncle Rick said, “No class ranks? No valedictorians?”
“No,” I confirmed, and Uncle Rick narrowed his eyes, trying to figure out whether this made my school better or worse than his sons’.
“Why do you have to go to that special school, anyway?” David demanded.
There is no good answer to this question. People have asked me before — in fact, David asks me pretty much every Thanksgiving — and I still haven’t settled on a true yet uncontentious response. “Because my parents love me enough to spend $20,000 a year on my education” is not a good answer. Neither is, “Because I’m really smart.” And neither is, “Because in sixth grade the other kids teased me for being a ‘nerd’ and I cried all the time, so my parents sent me to a school where everyone is a nerd so that I would be happy.”
Just imagine what Uncle Rick would have to say about any of those statements.
Instead I said to David, “It’s a great education,” which is maybe a little snobby, but so what. I was annoyed.
“Don’t see what you need such a great education for.” Uncle Rick chuckled. He is very self-amused. “Your father’s got eight years more education than me, and what’d it get him? Nothing much!”
That did it. My parents lost it. It’s one thing for my aunt and uncle to criticize their car or their cooking or even their daughter, but to criticize the world of academia? Unacceptable. Like, step off, Uncle Rick.
“What did it get me?” My father balled up his napkin in his fist. “It got me knowledge, Rick. Knowledge is the most valuable human commodity. Perhaps you can’t understand: I am one of the foremost experts on Hemingway—”
“On who?” Uncle Rick said with a laugh, even though obviously he knows who Hemingway is. Everyone knows who Ernest Hemingway is; at least, everyone who’s related to my dad knows. Rick was just egging my dad on. And of course it worked.
“That’s it!” my father declared, throwing his napkin across the table, but not quite forcefully enough to hit anyone. It landed in the water pitcher. He stood. “We’re leaving. Girls, get your things.”
So Mom and I also stood up — we could not have been readier — but then Aunt Cynthia was all flapping hands and, “Oh! Oh! Rick!”
And Rick threw his arms out wide, like, “What’d I do?” and he shouted, “Relax! It was just a joke. I was just joking around. Wasn’t I just joking, kids?”
Noah and David nodded like zombies, though Noah’s eyes were still on the Simpsons and David had a turkey drumstick rammed so far into his mouth I expected him to choke.
“I know how seriously you take school,” Uncle Rick said to my parents and me. “I was only having some fun. Heck, school’s great! It’s not the most important thing, of course, but, well, it’s still great.”
We remained standing, waiting for my father to make a decision. Leave! I begged him silently. Let’s burn all bridges, leave in a huff, and never return!
My father sat down heavily. “Not a funny joke, Rick,” he said. “Pass the potatoes.”
Oh, Dad. You so owe me.
Since I was already standing, I took this as an excuse to escape briefly to the palatial marble bathroom. I pulled out my cell phone and texted Katie, “Today I am thankful that Thanksgiving comes only once a year.”
A moment later, she texted back, “My dad is already on his fifth beer of the day.”
Honestly it is a wonder that Katie and I turned out so normal.
When I dragged myself out of the bathroom and back to the dining room, Aunt Cynthia was serving corn on the cob. Noah waved her away, his eyes still fixed on the iPod beneath the table.
“Man,” I said to my little cousin, in what was far and away the best moment of the day. “Braces, huh? Tough row to hoe, isn’t it?”