Giving Thanks for the Perpetually Late, Pumpkin Pie and a Slightly Unhinged Family

    Thanksgiving is coming up next week, and for those of us who are from Southern California and thus obligated to make the trip home, it can only mean one thing: A dinner with the circus that is the extended family.

    What I’m talking about can probably be best illustrated by one event signature to any family get-together. My family will be gathered in the living room, while my grandmother is organizing, cooking or cleaning something in another room.

    “”Can I help you, Mom?”” my aunt — a new mother — will offer. Then she turns to her 2-year-old son.

    “”Okay, Thomas,”” she says with all the seriousness of a heart attack. “”Mommy is going to help Grams with something, but don’t worry, I’ll be right back.””

    She leaves the room, and instantly, Thomas starts wailing. Even at his young age, my toddler cousin is smart enough to know you don’t want to be left alone with this group of crazies.

    I have 19 years of these events under my belt, so I’ve learned the pattern. It is the same every holiday, regardless of the season, with only slight variations over the years.

    It starts in the morning around 9 a.m. when my mom, in a frenzy, shakes me awake.

    “”Hadley, get up,”” she urges me. “”We’re going to be late!”” I’m grumpy that I couldn’t sleep in more on one of my few days free from school and work, but I can see the frantic terror in her eyes. “”Mason, get in the shower,”” she yells to my brother in the next room. Nothing is more important to my mom on these mornings than being on time. If she came in to find me in a coma, she would probably carry me to the car, angrily, then continue prodding my brother along.

    We get to my grandmother’s house and are greeted at the door by my aunt.

    “”Don’t let the cat out,”” is all she says. Behind her, a grayish-blue cougar eyes the door hopefully. I feel guilty blocking his calculated escape; I can see in his eyes the hunger for freedom. “”Well, it’s good to see you too,”” my mom snaps in a fake sugary tone. She’s on edge.

    “”Of course Max is late,”” my aunt continues once we’re inside.

    Despite coming from the same family, all of my grandmother’s children operate on different timetables. My aunt is always early (in fact, she probably gets there the day before), my mom is always in a total state of panic, rushing to make it on time and my uncle’s family is perpetually late. Sometimes they are stuck in traffic, sometimes their cat needs emergency surgery, sometimes they witness a murder or are briefly abducted by aliens. Whatever the reason — like clockwork, they are always late, and always suffering some strange malady.

    But now that they’ve arrived, dinner is ready, even though it’s only 2 p.m. We eat this meal earlier every year for reasons still unclear to me. I guess if we waited any longer, my grandmother — the archetypal doting matriarch, who has no doubt been planning this for weeks — might implode from anticipation.

    We all sit down, and Mason announces that he has just taken sophomore science and we all need not worry: Global warming isn’t real. Ooooh, bad move.

    My grandmother and her children — all of whom have some kind of graduate education and are shockingly liberal for their generation — move in on him like a pack of intellectual wolverines. A brutal, lopsided debate ensues until my brother’s argument has been thoroughly ripped to pieces, and he sits silently pouting.

    Then, as dinner progresses, the conversation splits. The adults talk about literature and current events, while I try to pry a conversation from my shy and awkward cousins.

    “”So what kinds of music do you like?”” I ask tween-aged Jenny and Rachel.

    “”We love Jesse McCartney,”” Jenny replies immediately. Mason’s ears perk up. His wounds are still smarting from the fray and he pounces on an opportunity for an easy kill. A trumpet captain in the marching band, my brother is passionate about music and nothing else.

    “”Excuse me? Jesse McCartney is not a good musician. He’s just like every other pop idiot out there,”” he says calmly, circling his prey.

    Jenny, immediately flustered but never one to back down, responds with a weak but bold, “”He is too a good musician.””

    Now Mason knows he’s got her. “”This McCartney kid doesn’t even play his own music,”” he laughs, shaking his head dramatically.

    That was the last straw. Jenny slams her glass down and yells across the table that actually, Jesse McCartney plays guitar.

    Nervously, Rachel glances over at our parents for guidance, but my mom and uncle are intensely debating some obscure novel. “”Well really, what it’s about is God, and some people believe and some don’t,”” my mom says loudly. My uncle responds, “”What I thought was interesting … “”

    But my mom won’t let him finish. “”Yes,”” she’s saying now very loudly, “”it’s all about God.””

    Suddenly, something internally cues my grandmother: The tension has reached peak capacity; it’s time to act. And like a warm and calming breeze, she exhales and begins to speak. “”Who wants pie?”” she asks smiling, always loving and classic, like a mature Jackie O., amid the pandemonium surrounding her.

    And with a slice of pumpkin pie, peace descends on the table. I guess that’s what Thanksgiving — and family gatherings in general — are really all about: getting together to share some pie, despite the fact that everyone’s slightly unhinged.

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