Home For Thanksgiving

Coffee shop of the damnedWhen you live in your home town, you learn that some days are just more dangerous than others.

And the day before Thanksgiving is definitely one of those days.

Because all your old ghosts come home for Thanksgiving. And they start roaming around, milling about all of your streets and your shops, and your town is suddenly nothing but a minefield of memories, angst, and regrets.

Or is it just me?

Oh, you know how it goes. You pile into your car and you brave the traffic and the airports and the lines and you trek your sorry asses home to whichever house is claiming matriarch status this year. Even though you swore you would do things differently this time, maybe stay home, maybe have a quiet holiday for once.

But you can’t. Because it’s the law. Because everybody goes home for Thanksgiving.

And that means you go to your hometown, where some of us still live.

And everyone gets home a day early. Who knows why. So that you can rest up from the journey? Spend one more luxurious night on your brother’s old air mattress? Beat the crowds at the local pie shop you keep forgetting closed years ago?

Nobody knows. Because the first thing that happens, once you hug your mom and drop your bags and stand around awkwardly in the kitchen for an hour or two is you get antsy. Oh boy, do you get antsy something fierce.

And you realize with a sudden, searing clarity that you need to get the hell out of that house. Now. This minute. Out to a bar, out to a restaurant, out to a coffeeshop, it doesn’t really matter. Just out.

Just out, okay, Mom? God.

What does that whole procedure usually take each year? One hour? Two?

It’s like clockwork, my friends. And the streets, they are suddenly teeming with you — all of you unhappy souls, wandering down newly gentrified main streets past unfamiliar shop signs, bouncing up against each other in your disorientation and your woe.

And those of us that live here, well, we’ll just be innocently sitting in our usual chair at our favorite local coffeeshop, surfing the Facebook and pretending to be working in the last few final hours before the holiday, and BAM in you come.

In comes our old boyfriend who dumped us just a week before the prom. In comes the best friend who stopped speaking to us in seventh grade when everything, for some reason that was never made fully clear to us, changed. In comes that girl who saw us crying in the bathroom that time, and whose name we can only faintly, unreliably remember now.

And we have to tuck our heads down into our laptops and pretend you’re not here, scowling like we don’t want to be disturbed, like we do on the subway when we go into the city and have to put on our pitifully unconvincing city-person scowl.

And we hate wearing our city-person scowls when we’re just sitting innocently in our favorite local coffeeshops in our hometown, and so we inevitably form a resentment against you, this not-quite-a stranger who has by this time only progressed maybe two or three steps into the room.

Already we are imagining what we will say when you stop by our table or you smile or wave and we can’t remember your name or we need to pretend that all is forgiven or we remember suddenly that we haven’t washed our hair in five days because we work from home and from coffeeshops so we don’t have to goddammit but there you are again with your everlastingly perfect hair, apparently that hasn’t changed either.

And then our resentment blossoms and grows like a living, breathing thing, because after all that scowling and resenting and steeling ourselves for the worst, we realize that we had completely forgotten how all of this actually goes down.

Because the worst that can happen isn’t that you come and speak to us. The worst that can happen is that you don’t. That you look away with a flick of your lashes and you sort of scrunch up your face like you are trying to remember something vaguely unpleasant. Like you are trying to place us.

And then we see the light of recognition on your well scrubbed face and the fleeting look of shock — and dare we guess hilarity — as you realize who we are and just how you know us and that we are, unbelievably, still here.

There is nothing that chills the blood of the hometown townie like the dreaded phrase still here.

Oh yes, we are still here in our little hometown, and we can see you judging us, registering the fact that we failed to get out, to rise above, to leave the quaint little hometown behind us and go embark on some beautiful life in some city somewhere.

Oh, how we hate to hear those words. Still here.

Never mind that we love living here with the scorching hot passion of a thousand desert suns. Never mind that we did in fact leave, we did in fact gather our impressive degrees and our professional accolades and our hard won life lessons and our wry sense of relief that we had the sense to fail early, when we were young, when we still had it in us to bounce back.

Never mind that we feel blessed beyond reckoning that our lives have brought us back here. Never mind that coming back here was a choice and that it was the best choice we ever made because we are so happy living here that we almost feel guilty about it, almost feel shame that others must live their lives out in some tepid little suburb that they then flee in the summer to come to places just like this, precisely like your very own hometown which you will eventually begin to fantasize about retiring to someday, someday when you have really made it.

No. Never mind all that.

Because on the day before Thanksgiving, we are just still here. And, being still here, we are present and accounted for when all of our old ghosts come floating back into town, trailing your old Jacob Marley chains and your white Caspar sheets with the cutout eyes.

You are always, of course, most cunningly disguised. You are not ghosts! How could you be ghosts. You are jolly and fit and well heeled. You are wearing your Black Dog sweatshirts and your North Face jackets and heavier gloves than are necessary by the shore in November, yes every last one of you that is what you are wearing.

We can see you coming from a mile away, you ghosts of our past, and it stresses us right out, let us tell you.

But as you come closer, we see it. We do. It takes us a while, but we do finally see through the thick, hot glow of our stored up resentment and projected hostility, that man do you ever look stressed out about it, too.

And we slowly begin to suspect that perhaps — only perhaps, mind you now — you are finding all this old home week nonsense just as stressful as we do.

Possibly more.

Because this isn’t your home turf any more, is it? It’s your mom’s, or your dad’s, and all of your old clanging ghosts (that’d be us) are even now waiting for you in the local coffeeshops and bars, ready to ambush you all with our too-altered faces and changed last names.

And that’s when we remember that you are the ones who feel strange, really strange. You are the ones who feel out of place, mislaid, out of step.

It’s true. When you go back to your hometown after being away and living a sane, grownup life for any period of time, you cannot help but feel like a Gulliver among the rest of us. Like you stumbled accidentally into somebody else’s sitcom  and can’t find your way out, out of this place you don’t belong anymore where everything is dollhouse sized and none of the chairs are the right shape for your butt.

And if all of that isn’t quite bad enough, as if you haven’t already had more than enough of feeling like you don’t belong in the very world that used to be so familiar to you you could sleepwalk in it — and maybe you did — to add insult to all of this there are all these people here.

You come in to this coffeeshop and here we are. Sitting in all the best seats with our tall soy lattes and our new Mac Book Airs and our smug unwashed air of we’re-better-than-you, as if we already know just by looking at you just how awful your fancy city job has become, and how much you hate it, and how much you want to punch your boss in the nose on a tri-hourly basis.

But there you have that damned mortgage of yours in your metro-west town with the good schools and the sidewalks, and everyone else around you is dropping like flies with all the layoffs and the banks and the god knows what else, for all you know some have cancer or Alzheimer’s, how would you know, it’s not like anyone ever talks to each other in that godawful town.

And all that you really want now is to live a simpler life. Maybe you will do it this year, just chuck it all in and sell what you can and move back to your hometown again, where apparently you’d be free to while away your days hunched over a laptop, scowling hard at your screen, doing whatever it is that telecommuters do with their time.

Look there, at that girl. If that girl with the short, grey-streaked hair and the torn flannel shirt can earn enough to have that fancy computer and that five dollar coffee, then why shouldn’t you? Who knows what she does, but how hard could it be? Whatever it is, it seems to consist mostly of typing and scowling and drinking five-dollar coffee and taking up two good seats by the window, at least.

Because you could do that.

Well, maybe you should go up to her and ask her. Because she does look kind of familiar, doesn’t she? Maybe you sat next to her in English. Maybe she was that girl who always weirded you out because she actually liked Shakespeare and Keats and Moby Freaking Dick for the love of all that’s holy.

It’s gotta be her.

But why would she still be here?

Maybe you should go ask her.

It’s true — she looked like a jerk when you first walked in here, all scowly and jerkfaced like she had nothing better to do, but now she has stopped and she looks kind of sad, kind of thoughtful and sorry and almost not bad.

Almost.

Maybe she won’t hold it against you that your mom always makes you wear this stupid Black Dog sweatshirt when you come home, even though you know perfectly well that only tourists wear them and you are from here for god’s sake, you have more goddamn dignity than that.

Yeah, you do.

Maybe she will remember you, how you held her hand that time once in the bathroom when her eyes were all red and you were too shy to ask what was wrong but you waited while she cried and then laughed and then cried and was done.

Maybe you should ask her.

Why not?

After all, there’s nothing more full of possibility than this one day of the year, the day before Thanksgiving, in your old hometown.

Boo.

9 Thoughts.

  1. This is awesome. I always want to run into folks when I go home for Thanksgiving, but somehow never do…

  2. OMG, I loved this post! I live in a small town (Mobile, AL) that is actually the hometown for others here and it’s very interesting to witness their feelings about it. Some have returned after going out into the wide world (like you) and absolutely love living here and see the same great things about living here that I do and is why they returned. Others haven’t left yet and they hate the town and look down their nose at those here, thinking that we can’t possibly want to actually LIVE here (Yes, yes I do. And YES I’ve lived in big cities like NYC, Atlanta, and lived abroad too. Gasp!)

    In two days, though, I’ll be going back to my hometown (Sarasota, FL) and will be the ghost haunting those sidewalks.

  3. Such a lovely, touching piece that really gets to the heart of the complex feelings of being confronted with our teenage pasts. I actually dread going back to my hometown, and feel like a simple trip to the one grocery store in town, on the day before Thanksgiving, is psychological torture. I never know where the townies who used to bully me are going to pop up, and despite my getting out and living in a big, fancy city, with a big, fancy artist’s lifestyle, just the sight of those old bullies (who often turn out to be on the town’s police force – GAH!) can take me right back to the emotional place I was when I was 16 and simply hoping to survive a walk down the high school hallway. Complex indeed.

  4. Thanks for writing this. When I go home to Cleveland it is always so strangely familiar and unfamiliar at once. I don’t know anyone there anymore other than my folks who don’t live in my old neighborhood anymore. But, it would be amazing to recognize an old high school classmate after all this time.
    Hometowns are portals to the past, where do those who live in their hometowns find the portals?

  5. love this piece on so many levels- esp. your ability to transition so seemlessly from your own voice to that of the person you are running into in the coffeeshop.

    like you, i LOVE the area i live in. i probably never thought i would live here as an adult, but it was a choice i consciously made, so i am happy here. i know younger people (certainly no longer teens) who seem resentful of all the Cape is NOT, for whatever reason they are currently living here and don’t like it for what it is. i love the Cape for what it is.

    i’ve also had the experience of chatting with friends who come home and are bitter about the area. those reasons are their own, but i’ve definitely had the impression they also feel that because i live in the same town i was raised in, my life is the same as it was. as if i go to the same places, work the same jobs and have the same friends. (though, i am still a loyal patron of my teenage coffeeshop and bring my Macbk now;)

    indeed, the connections to your past and your community are there, but they do not exist in the same capacity. it is part of what i love about the area, that deep-seated connection, but it is certainly not stagnant. :) perhaps the portals evolve, too !?

    i wrote a short piece a few years ago titled Welcome Back Codder that touched on some of these same themes. in the writing section of my website ;)

  6. I happen to know many people who actually enjoy going back to their family homes for the pure joy of being with family and friends and amazingly do not feel like they have to run off to a bar or coffeshop within the first two hours.

  7. Well, you guys are obviously the exception. I can’t think of a nicer family to spend holidays with. (It’s just that you’re so darn far away!)

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