I arrived home from school on Tuesday evening after skipping three of my four classes and leaving another early so I could start back before dark. The sun soon retreated behind the clouds and left the sky above my route a black shroud. Driving over mountains laced with thick fog and down roads lined with ghoulish trees was a bit like traversing a gothic landscape.
After spending so many weeks in the hectic atmosphere of Major University, coming home to my warm house was a relief. Pie was happy to see me, and within moments of my walking through the door had enlisted me to help her and my mother in baking cookies.
Powell was off at a friend's house, my father was working, Beautiful Cousin was visiting her mother, and Thomas was sleeping upstairs, so the three of us sat in the kitchen together kneading dough, cutting it into holiday shapes, and drowning it in sprinkles before throwing it into the oven.
"You take the red, and I'll take the green," Pie said when it came time to decorate the cookies.
"Okay, Pie," I replied.
She tried to imitate the way in which I gently shook a whole load of sprinkles onto the patterns, but she couldn't do it and so instead just rattled the bottle with her entire body.
Food and family have defined my time here.
Today, I woke around noon to find a turkey in the oven, the kitchen cleared of all chairs, the dining room stacked to capacity with furniture, and my youngest siblings assembled in the living room watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
We've hosted all the major holidays for some time now, and this Thanksgiving we were expecting only Aunt Ostentatious, Uncle Car Salesman, Blonde Cousin, and Pretty Hair. Beautiful Cousin, who lives with us and goes to school near here, returned to Hick State to spend time with her family.
Around three o'clock, my mother looked up from the stove top to glance at the time.
"Blonde Cousin was supposed to be here at one," she noted.
With anyone else this would be cause for concern, but Blonde Cousin has a well-known tendency for taking forever to perform the most elementary of tasks and, no matter how many times she's driven to our house, getting lost along the way.
"Well, she'll probably get here around four," I said.
I'd been half joking, but it was almost exactly four o'clock when Aunt Ostentatious came through our front door, followed by her husband and two daughters.
This is a family that's been through a lot in the last few years.
My aunt and uncle moved to Humid State in 2006, when Blonde Cousin was fifteen. Dirty Town, from which my family and I escaped in 2001, had grown intolerable enough to prompt their relocation, and they decided that if they were to leave they'd make their dream home somewhere warm. This idealism, combined with the fact that easy money had been available for a long time, led to some unwise financial decisions.
They bought their luxurious new house before securing employment in Humid State, and purchased a number of custom features that were unnecessary but enhanced the beauty of the residence. Before they departed from Native State, Blonde Cousin had an unfortunate accident falling down the stairs, an incident that left her with a broken ankle and the need for several surgeries, all without medical insurance given that neither of her parents had jobs.
This soon plunged them into nearly $100,000.00 of medical debt, a situation compounded when neither could find worthwhile occupations in Humid State. My uncle was the manager of a used car sales dealership in Native State, and for years made six figures. However, as my father discovered during our time in Deep South State, the sales market in the South is more lackluster than that in the North, and before long my Aunt Ostentatious was forced to take a position earning minimum wage.
At their most desperate point, Uncle Car Salesman returned to Native State to seek higher wages, leaving a depressed Aunt Ostentatious alone with Pretty Hair in Humid State while Blonde Cousin, who'd effectively dropped out of high school at sixteen, flew back and forth between the two.
They've come a long way since then, and now they're back in Native State in a rental home, slowly rebuilding their savings and shattered credit. Their situation is hard and their finances tight, but their family isn't on the verge of collapse the way it was before.
Beautiful Cousin called before we sat down to the meal.
She was back in Hick State, and in the background I could hear Aunt Eighties-Hair and her husband arguing. Eighteen-year-old Beautiful Cousin has lived with us since August, and in that time I feel she's adopted our family, to an extent, as her own.
"I hate it here," she told me. "Slow Uncle and my mom have been fighting the entire time I've been here. He's ruining Thanksgiving."
"I'm sorry, Beautiful," I consoled her. "We'll probably have some turkey left when you get back."
"Yeah," she said. "I'm ready to come home."
Neither of us acknowledged the significance that what she called "home" was not the place she'd grown up.
As for me, my Thanksgiving was a happy and warm one.
Thomas and I, always guttons for food, lingered about the kitchen as the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and gravy were readied, he peeking into the oven every few seconds to see if the bird was any closer to edibility.
"Thomas, there's plenty of time," I told him. "It's two o'clock in the afternoon; we'll be okay."
Pie, meanwhile, had set our places, assigning seats with plastic red cups on which our names were scrawled, placing blue candy-canes on the plates of those she said had been "good," and using for a centerpiece a crayon-colored paper turkey taped to a disposable cup.
She took the above picture herself, by the way.
As has been our custom this Fall, we spent the time while the food cooked playing outside, mostly throwing the football back and forth in the backyard. I'm famously inept at physical sports (with the unusual exception of badminton, probably the least masculine game in all of athletics outside of competitive ballet), and as usual my long passes to my fourteen-year-old brother failed to match the strength, power, or accuracy of his to me. There was one golden day several weeks ago when, under conditions I have tried and failed to recreate, my throws were miraculously robust, swirling through the air in perfect arcs from one end of the yard to the other.
I don't know what I did, but I need to get some of that magic back. As if my fashion impairment wasn't already holding me back from being properly gay, now I'm trying to increase my football prowess.
Today was somewhat different from my other visits, though, as Powell, usually off with friends, was here for the entire afternoon. He can satisfy Thomas's older-brother needs much better than I can on the field, so I let him take over football-lobbing duties.
After football, Thomas took me on a homicidal drive around the neighborhood in our go-cart that had me screaming like a small girl when no one was around to hear and a very frightened young man whenever we were within earshot of anyone.
"Just so you know, this thing doesn't have brakes!" he confided as we approached a stop sign.
"What!?!" I yelled.
"Sorry!" he replied, then soared through the intersection and made a sharp left turn, our only defense against a front-end crash the sincere hope of two terrified boys.
When dinner was finally ready, I came in and piled my plate high with mashed potatoes, stuffing, white and dark meat, and my favorite Thanksgiving treat of turkey skin, in my opinion the best part of the meal.
I felt lucky as I sat there eating, surrounded by family. I knew that out in the world, people were suffering, some of them people I from my own life: Beautiful Cousin was unhappy and out of place; while Anne, moving into my late grandmother's home, which she recently purchased, spent the holiday cleaning out a filthy garage and dealing with the recalcitrant brother who's taken up residence on the property and is refusing to leave. Those things were unfortunate.
Yet my kitchen was warm, my food was too, and my family was safe and gathered in one place. For everything else that's going on and my own worries, I still have much to be thankful for.