“Wanna go upstairs?” Ethan asked me as we set our Wii remotes down on a glass coffee table. We’d just narrowly won a dodgeball game in Wii Sports Mix, and we were too victorious to clean up after ourselves. We’d put away the remotes later, after someone told us to.
“Sure,” I agreed, grabbing my iPad from his couch. I sat down on the seat and picked at a feather that stuck out of the cushion while Ethan pet Chaplin, his family’s Weimaraner. I rubbed the dog’s head and smiled, remarking, “His ears are soft.”
“Yeah,” Ethan nodded. He reached for the blue foam that encased his tablet and said, “Let’s go upstairs.”
I could hear our parents laughing in the kitchen as I followed him up the worn, carpeted stairs. Under the chatter, I detected the sound of liquid splashing into glasses, and, being a smart-aleck of a nine-year-old, I giggled and whispered something to Ethan about the cocktails our parents were probably drinking. He laughed along and we darted up the stairs as our moms yelled out, “We know you’re talking about us!”
I climbed onto his bunk bed, the bottom bunk, as I was too tall to sit on the top, and asked, “What are you gonna say you’re thankful for?” That was the thing I always found hardest about Thanksgiving, and I wanted to know if my friend was struggling too.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. He typed his password — which I was very proud to know — into his iPad and opened up Clash of Clans. “Maybe video games.”
“Okay. I’ll say Minecraft then,” I said.
We “gamed” for a bit before Jacob, Ethan’s dad, hollered, “Come eat!” from the bottom of the stairs. We ran to the dining room and sat down across from each other, eagerly eyeing the bowl full of rolls that Bobbie, Ethan’s mom, placed on the table. Jacob always made the best rolls.
Before started gobbling down all the carb-filled goodness in front of us, Bobbie said, “Let’s go around and say what we’re grateful for.” My mother nodded in support.
Ethan and I went first, spitting out our very meaningful gratitude for animated pixels. When my mom said she was thankful for music, we giggled. We had a joke that our mothers were each dating one of the guys in their favorite bands and we would always bring that up. When the adults expressed their gratitude for the corny stuff, like family and friends, Ethan and I rolled our eyes. After all, we cared about the really important things.
I smiled throughout the afternoon and evening, laughing at anything and everything — not because I found everything in the conversations hilarious, but because I was so content, so happy, that my mind and my body didn’t know what other reaction would be natural.
This has been my story for as long as I can remember. I can’t recall a single Thanksgiving that my mom and I haven’t spent with Jacob, Bobbie and Ethan. (This most recent one was an exception to this, but 2020 doesn’t count.) And, of course, the holiday doesn’t always go exactly like this; there would be some years where Ethan would go outside, being an athletic person a type of person I’ll never be able to understand, while I’d sit in the kitchen with the grown-ups laughing at jokes that I only half-understood and pretending that the apple cider in my glass was as mature as the red wine that the parents drank. But it would always be my mom and I with these friends of ours, filled with nothing but joy on Thanksgiving, our relatives miles away.
As someone who’s struggled to fit in with my own relatives, I couldn’t be more grateful for this tradition. I’m not sure how or why it started but I know I’m glad I did. I can’t imagine a more traditional holiday — the kind where I’d sit around with family members that I rarely see and awkwardly catch up on things that hardly matter to either of us. Finding and choosing who I spend my holidays with means a lot to me, and I wish more people would make that choice.
It’s kind of become a joke in our society that people don’t enjoy seeing their families on Thanksgiving. Everyone seems to have that one stubborn racist uncle or the sister that always overshadows them. Sure, to some people these are just inconveniences and some really love seeing their family, but there are also many people who seem to only visit their family out of obligation because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do.
I think that we as a society should normalize removing such structured labels from family and platonic relationships. I think that if people felt more open to spending their time, especially the holidays, with people of all sorts of relationships, then a lot of people would feel a lot less anxiety about their family interactions. If people had more choices about how they spend their time, then they might enjoy that time a lot more.
There’s a saying that you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. And I don’t think that’s very true. But even if it is, I think the point is that you can choose. You can choose who you hang out with. You can choose who you care about. You can choose who you love, and I know I made the right choice.