Every Thanksgiving, after dinner, the entire family gathers around the television and watches a movie. A tradition with vague origins, like any other, adhered to with religious rigor. The only part up for contentious debate is what to watch. A subject ignored throughout the meal and only broached at the last possible moment, saving the rancor of those with spirited opinions until everyone is good and full; the exact moment when the turkey kicks in and the yawning starts. At this point the grumbling is kept to a minimum and everyone acquiesces to something middling and easy to follow. A palliative bridge to the end of the night and a holiday spent with those kept at arm’s length the rest of the year.
As soon as the movie starts the idle chatter stops. The pressure to speak about topics concocted to fill the silence ends. The movie is a two hour filler of time, a ritual of staring in the same direction. It becomes a blank canvas of white noise for those who stick with it – a way of being alone together with their thoughts.
Aunt M thinks about the holidays of her childhood, which in hindsight feel joyous, even if she only later could grasp that everyone was unhappy about something, mostly money and the hard labor her parents worked at to produce it. She looks at the loveseat where her father always sat during these movie sessions, before he died in the arms of his second wife, a family M never knew until that day. She looks at her mother, eyeing the same chair and wonders what she’s thinking. Her thoughts then drift back to her own kids, all grown and far away from this gathering. Ungrateful and spiteful children she doted on for almost twenty years but stopped calling as soon as they left for college, never to return to their home, unless of course they needed something.
Cousin C turns away from the television and catches Aunt M’s gaze, locking eyes for a brief moment. He yawns and stretches then considers M’s kids, his cousins for a moment. He hasn’t seen nor heard from them in years and isn’t sure if M still talks to them either. He doesn’t think so and he’s not sure why.
Uncle R clears his throat then lets out a little laugh. He’s the oldest son. Someone that takes that designation seriously. To him it’s nothing to do with circumstance. It’s a distinction weighted with a set of responsibilities to lead the family, whatever that means. In this instance, it’s ensuring everyone is happy and watching the movie, sharing this fleeting moment in time. Maybe someone will remember it fondly some day. Uncle R probably won’t, and he’s not the sentimental type to begin with. He acts on the impulse of what he assumes is right, even if he’s not sure why or how.
Grandma stares off into space, unamused by the movie and forgetting for a moment who these people are. She looks at her grandchildren in the next room, playing with their toys, then wonders if they will remember her when she’s gone and these yearly required visits end. She tries to remember her favorite moments from years past but nothing comes to mind. It’s all a blur at this point, one holiday blending into the next.
Cousin T looks at her kids then ponders the right time to make quick exit. Work is already on her mind. The day that looms in the near distance, a return to normal. The endless list of chores waiting to be done. The long drive home and the silence shared by spouses who ran out of things to talk about five years prior.
I start to get bored and fidgety. I survey the room and know nobody is watching the movie anymore, but everyone is still pretending. A laugh here, a sigh there. All feigned interest. A charade of formality. I stand and stretch then excuse myself. I sit on the toilet and scan my phone – pictures of other families around the table, texts from friends, memes that land with a thud. I look at the door, consider my options and decide to sit here alone for another ten minutes or until someone knocks on the door. The day isn’t over but I’ve already moved on.