So, last Thursday was Thanksgiving. (Here in the U.S. If you're Canadian, it was a month ago, and if you're elsewhere, you just wish North Americans would shut up about food already.)

I have kind of a fraught relationship with this holiday. As a matter of fact, the oldest surviving entry from the earliest days of this journal is about Thanksgivings past. Kind of a mixed bag. Of course, for a big chunk of my adult life, it wasn't really on the radar, what with me living in Italy and all.

Since that entry was written, many Thanksgivings have passed, most unobserved. There was the time I made Thanksgiving dinner for my Italian friends. There were a couple of hasty visits to my sister's house, when I was in grad school. Those were also small affairs, maybe six or seven people between my nephew and his friends, and after schlepping there on three trains and trying to stay Zen amid the chaos, I was too exhausted to eat much of the late dinner. I'd pass out in front of the TV, spend the night on the sofa, and head back to school the next day. My first year here, I was invited to the Dean's house, as he hires buses to bring any out-of-town freshmen who can't go home (and, apparently, orphaned faculty), and has them all over for the holiday meal. It was lovely, but of course I didn't really know anyone, and I was so uncomfortably overdressed for the weather in my tights and light cardigan I could barely touch any food. The climate here was still a mystery to me.

Otherwise, Thanksgiving has mostly been a non-occasion for me. I usually take the opportunity to catch up on sleep and work; if I'm feeling ambitious, I might try to cook myself something special. (Last year I made duck. It turned out... okay. The web site with the recipe I'd been planning to use fortuitously went down on Thanksgiving morning, so I had to kind of wing it. Duck doesn't really take that well to inexperienced improvisation.)

I've had the occasional invitation to join in someone's Thanksgiving meal. These usually come from people I don't know very well: gracious colleagues, or acquaintances holding some kind of potluck-style event. I've always declined, mostly out of awkwardness. I don't feel I really know how this Thanksgiving thing works anymore. It's one of those situations where I feel like a foreigner, but since I've been back in this country for nearly a decade, that excuse sounds very thin. I also have a stupid sense of pride, not wanting to be seen as a charity case just because I don't have any family around, or the type of family that travels for holidays. "No, really, I'm fine over here by myself. Is anyone ever really alone these days, anyway?" Sigh.

My mortal fear of inconveniencing or imposing on anyone makes it hard for me to take these invitations as more than a token gesture. (I'm working on it.) A boyfriend once suggested I could join him and his parents at the restaurant where they'd already made holiday meal reservations for three, if I really wanted to and if the restaurant were willing to change the booking at the last minute. When I hesitated (see above, in re: mortal fear of imposing), he told me it didn't matter to him one way or the other what I decided. Well, okay then! It was at that point that I pretty much resolved to break up with the holiday forever. Too confusing and full of mysterious pitfalls.

I may have given up on Thanksgiving, but apparently it hadn't yet given up on me. This year, I had an honest-to-God Thanksgiving meal, surrounded by family. Not my family, of course, but a big boisterous clan of grandparents and aunts and uncles and siblings and kids and who knows who else. Apparently it was a "small gathering" this year, even though there were several big tables set up outside, and a buffet line that wound around three stations piled high with food. I'd never experienced anything like it outside of a wedding reception or work-related function.

The family in question belonged to my friend... I'll call him Evan. When Evan first floated the invitation, my knee-jerk instinct was to decline, because Reasons. But he made it clear (without insisting) that I was actually welcome, and after far too much neurotic dithering, I decided to opt for the chance to break out of my rut and interact with people outside my very small inner circle, something I haven't been doing nearly enough of, lately.
Plus, there were horses. Once Evan told me that part, it pretty much sealed the deal.

So for once in my life, I got to experience an improbably cheerful family Thanksgiving like the kind I'd only read about or seen on TV. Kids (and a very excitable corgi) ran around the lawn, chasing balls or each other. We walked over to pet the horses, more interested in munching hay than our attentions. (Why didn't I bring apples? So dumb.) I was introduced to a whole bunch of strangers who had no idea who I was, and yet oddly enough didn't feel even a little bit awkward or self-conscious about imposing on their holiday. (I did bring a big dish of this, though, so at least I didn't show up empty-handed.) A lot of my surprising ease, I'm sure, was because they were all so welcoming. No one seemed to think anything of the presence of one more person at their family gathering: there was plenty of food to go around, so why not? That kind of openness is really disarming.

As one should, I left Thanksgiving groaning at the amount of food I'd eaten, but not even a little bit sorry about any of it. Or about the day in general. I'd sincerely forgotten, to the extent I ever knew, why people go to all the expense and effort of preparing so much food and gathering together, even across great distances. But now I remember, or have learned: done right, Thanksgiving is a damned fine holiday. I'm glad we made up. And that I have generous and patient friends who are willing to put up with my neuroses, but not let me hide behind them.