The best Thanksgiving ever!
I call it my First Thanksgiving, because it was the first time I cooked the whole feast. I roasted a giant turkey, mixed cranberry salad, baked fresh yeast rolls, whipped potatoes, simmered giblet gravy, and even candied some sweet potatoes.
I guess it never occurred to them that he was a stippper because of their lack of love.
I worked myself to a sweaty mess, but the joy in the end! We LGBTQ people often create our own families, and so much creating happened at that Thanksgiving dinner so many years ago. November of 1990. The World Trade Center still stood, invincible, reaching for the sky right outside my bedroom window. I felt as strong and eternal as those twin spires.
My stomach clenched. That feeling you get staring at a naked 18-pound turkey, realizing 12 people will be arriving for the Big Feast in less than 6 hours, and you have ABSOLUTELY no idea what you’re doing.
It sure sounded like a great idea at the time!
“Hey, Lenny. Let’s invite Harold and Hilda over for Thanksgiving. What do you say?”
“You don’t wanna just go out?” yawned my new lover and Manhattan mentor. “This ain’t Ohio, Bubelah. We got restaurants here do the whole spread. How bout we get reservations at that French place on the corner?”
“No French Thanksgiving for me!” is what I said. What I MEANT was that I missed my family, especially my grandmother, no longer alive to hold us all together.
I couldn’t go home with my gay lover.
I wouldn’t go without Lenny. Not on Thanksgiving. How could I explain HIM to a bunch of conservative Catholics and Evangelicals? Forget about it! But I craved a REAL Thanksgiving. With REAL family.
“Oh, my God!” I shouted “ We forgot Brad! He has to come too!”
Lenny smiled huge, like I hadn’t just made a FAMILY decision without his agreement. “Well, if Brad has no place to go on Thanksgiving, it’s settled, then. But you’d better buy some cookbooks, because the only thing I know how to do in the kitchen is open a can and boil an egg.”
I know how to cook now.
I take it for granted. Tuesday, I did a classic beef oxtail in a red wine glaze, and I didn’t bother to look at a recipe. I decided how I wanted it to taste and made it my way.
I went out and picked up my Thanksgiving goose as the oxtails were braising, which reminded me of that First Thanksgiving, cooking in our cramped Chelsea kitchen. Reminded me that I didn’t always know how to cook.
I treasure memories of childhood Thanksgiving at grandma’s house. Back when the family was strong and close. And grandma did the cooking.
I ordered a turkey from a real butcher, bought my (now prized and tattered) copy of James Beard’s American Cookery, and planned a menu. I copied recipes out and tacked them to the wall of our little kitchen that might have made a ship’s galley seem spacious.
More of our friends heard about our plans and dropped hints that they’d be alone on Thanksgiving too. The guest list soon grew from 3 to 12. I didn’t know it then, but Lenny and I were beginning a tradition that I cherished until the day he died.
Our little apartment, spacious by Manhattan standards but a mere postage stamp for the average American, grew into a holiday home-away-from-home for a ragtag collection of rejects from the heartland. And from elsewhere!
Hilda was a 90-year-old former Austrian Jewish refugee who’d outlived the little bit of family she had left.
Harold was a 60-year-old gay man who’d never settled down after he slunk into the City 30 years before, rejected by a family that didn’t like his “lifestyle.”
Blossom was our next-door neighbor, a serious woman who traveled the world taking photos. She wrote beautiful poetry and loudly disdained the need for a man in her life.
Mistress Carla did NOT come in drag, though he’d talked about it. David came. Just plain, missing-his-children David.
And Brad? He was my friend. A beautiful boy of 20 from a working-class village north of Albany. His family wanted nothing to do with a young man who made his living stripping in gay clubs. I guess it never occurred to them that he was a stippper because of their lack of love.
I put way too much spice in the pumpkin pie and the stuffing. The turkey breast was dry, and the skin wasn’t crisp. But you know what? It all tasted great. Brad and I snagged the drumsticks, Hilda treated us to real champaign after dinner, and the 14 of us listened to the Beatles and Frank Sinatra late into the evening, glowing in the warmth of cinnamon candles, true friendship, created family, and a spirit of thankfulness kindled from genuine human connection.
We’d all be back together again in a month. Because of course I decided to do Christmas too. Oysters, beef rib roast and all the trimmings. And when Easter rolled around? I remember white asparagus, fiddlehead ferns and something I did with a leg of lamb that didn’t really work out. But we didn’t care!
Tuesday, as I threw a gourmet meal together without even thinking about it, I realized something.
I learned how to cook so I could feed my husband and my friends, the people I loved. For ten years, I used every major holiday (and plenty of minor ones) to fill up our house with the smells and tastes of family.
It’s funny how Lenny called me bubeleh in Yiddish. Sure, it’s just a pet name. A term of endearment that most New Yorkers recognize. But literally? It means grandmother.
I didn’t know it then, but I was playing grandma to a whole gang of people, creating a space, holding the center, making holidays warm and special for people whose biological families wouldn’t or couldn’t.
That morning I panicked looking at a naked 18-pound bird? That’s one of my happiest memories. And today?
To all my friends and family, scattered all over the globe, whether you celebrate this day or not, I wish you peace, warmth, family love, and a spirit of giving and sharing. Happy Thanksgiving!
I’ve written more about Hilda and Brad if you’d like to get to know them better. I’ll have a happier Thanksgiving knowing somebody is remembering them.
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.