Our tradition started by accidents of fate; it continues out of love
I remember my first “Orphans’ Thanksgiving,” recently transplanted from Texas, spent with a few new acquaintances and some strangers — eccentric individuals in an East Village apartment decorated with what must have been found objects: a mishmash of furniture and a clutter of curiosities. Cramped as it was, the food was fantastic, as was the crowd; it was a feast for the senses and a novelty for this small-town girl.
I was surrounded by a room full of creative types wandering in from all over: party boys from Perth, a filmmaker from Ireland and a fashion photographer from Iran, and a large contingency of Germans, many of whom were architects. There was an older gentleman from the Jersey shore — the original island off of England — and a bubbly blond from The Jersey Shore. A wealthy Chinese businessman who collected art and experimented with opium danced around to his own rhythm. Feeling a little out of place, I didn’t expect the group to be so friendly and take an interest in me, and was surprised to connect with many people in the room. All displaced, we were brought together in time and space.
Ten months later the twin towers would fall, bringing depth to our newly-formed friendships, creating bonds that could not be broken.
In the years that followed, those who couldn’t go home got together on Thanksgiving, always a hodgepodge of friends, friends of friends and new arrivals — basically anyone who couldn’t afford a plane ticket. Our themes got more elaborate, from an Around the World menu, apartment hopping for each course, to a Cowboys and Indians costume party, to White Trash Southern-style dishes and dress.
The host would pull out the pots and pans stored in the oven to make room for the turkey. Shoebox apartments would be transformed to candle-lit cornucopias. Makeshift tables were constructed to span the apartment using plywood placed on end tables and other large objects. Bags of red and yellow leaves were gathered from Tompkins Square Park and spread out on the floor for effect. Storage crates were pulled out and used as extra chairs so that no stray was left out.
Anja always made spätzle and Seigfried brought sausages. Tetsu would prepare an entire leg of lamb. Jill brought vegan dishes that sat next to Jamal’s Cuban pulled pork. Middle-Eastern hors d’oeuvres would be placed next to a tatertot casserole from the Midwest. I often contributed baked beans and candied-pecan sweet potatoes, carefully measuring out my Mom’s recipes down to the ounce. Store-bought pumpkin pies butted up to individually handmade tarts.
Early on my parents stopped expecting me to come to Texas for Thanksgiving, and eventually stopped asking me altogether. It was too far too travel so close to Christmas. But beyond that, they respected my independence and gave me space to have a life of my own.
And eventually, I did. At some undecipherable moment there was a shift from us not being able to go home for the holidays to already being home. Season after season, our roots pushed slowly and steadily downward while a unique kind of family tree — one that was not given, but chosen — was grafted and grew upward.
Now when we get together, though the spaces are a hair bigger, the event still takes some creative maneuvering. A couple of strollers are folded and pushed outside the front door into the hallway. I know will see some of the faces that I saw that first Thanksgiving — but we stopped calling it Orphan’s Thanksgiving years ago. No longer orphaned, we are family.
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