Going home for the holidays is like going to the Upside Down, back in time to when the world still felt strange and new. Welcome to Stranger Thanksgiving, inspired by Netflix's hit Stranger Things and Thanksgivings of our childhoods. Today Jenni Ferrari-Adler, editor of Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, writes about childhood Thanksgivings and how they affect her still.
When I was the Girl Cousin, we drove under the Hudson River through the long tunnel to New Jersey once a month. In traffic my parents argued — if we'd left earlier!; if we'd taken the other tunnel; the other turn — every time. I kicked my little brother to distract him. If my father didn't have a temper. If my mother were more confident. If my parents' parents had learned different lessons from their parents. The oil fields stank. I asked my father to please stop the car so I could be sick on the shoulder of the highway.
Adam and I didn't have car seats or car snacks. We stared out the window at the birds clustered on telephone wires. There were infinity cars traveling the same way we were. I was obsessed with all the lives being lived in close proximity. Also with orphans and made-up lands. I read voraciously and indiscriminately — Sweet Valley High, The Flowers in The Attic, The Pistachio Prescription — for clues about other families and the future. I collected foreign coins, smooth stones, and rabbits' feet. I stared at landscape paintings and tried to enter them. I wrote stories about girls who pumped their legs so hard their swings flew off the chains and transported them to other realms.
* * *
Brian and David and Adam and I played baseball and football in the quiet street in front of their split-level house. I fidgeted in my itchy tights. My curls had been brushed out into voluminous pigtails.
We shot pool in the finished basement and played Pac Man, Space Invaders, and Demon Attack on the Atari upstairs. My cousins' bedrooms had colored-sand-filled Coke bottles and wrestling trophies. David's room had a fish tank and Brian's had posters of teenage girls in halter-tops washing cars. Brian was the oldest cousin, funny and charming, often at David's expense. Theirs was a relationship of near-constant physical and verbal fighting, in contrast to my brother and me who were fundamentally allies, deeply protective of each other. If all the fighting sometimes exasperated my uncle (Brian! David!) and wore down my aunt, a schoolteacher, they mostly accepted it with shrugs of boys will be boys.
To keep us still, our parents let us sprawl on the shaggy rug in the living room and watch movies: The Goonies, Gremlins, Carrie, The Bad Seed, ET, Labyrinth, Star Wars, Stand by Me, Die Hard, Police Academy, Fletch Lives, Airplane!.
The parodies frightened me as much as the horrors. During scary parts, I found my mother and aunt in the kitchen. They were laughing, drinking caffeine-free Diet Coke in gas-station glasses, gossiping about their shared mother-in-law, and assembling trays of salt-and-vinegar potato chips, Lipton onion dip, pigs-in-blankets, and miniature quiches. The whole house had a padded feel, the wall-to-wall carpeting, the central air, the puff pastry. I opened their magnet-covered refrigerator and sought out the carton of milk with its grainy picture of a little girl. Have you seen this child? I poured a glass of milk and looked through the sliding glass doors which opened onto their deck.
Their backyard abutted woods, but we never went into them. We understood that the world was dangerous, especially for children; that the woods were for hiding and escape. We never talked to strangers, or took candy from them, or got into their cars. We were afraid of being kidnapped. But we were equally afraid that nothing exciting or important would ever happen to us.
Sometimes we went to the mall and sometimes we went out to eat at Pizza Hut or Ground Round or Bennigan's or Stuff Yer Face. On holidays my aunt cooked. On Thanksgiving, my uncle carved the turkey. We overate mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes with marshmallows and string beans and stuffing from a box.
Full and warm and safe, did we wish that we were somewhere else? Deep in caves with flashlights, out in the stormy woods — the brown leaves crunching underfoot; the wind howling through the spindly trees — on our bicycles? We did. If a stranger had showed up, from a different school or a different planet, needing asylum, would we have welcomed him or her into our lives? Absolutely.
After dinner, while my mother and aunt cleaned up and my father and uncle smoked, Brian and David and Adam and I played hide and seek. I vanished underneath a bed. I went missing in the back of the coat closet. I disappeared in the bathtub. I was too good at hiding and stayed hidden too long. Once or twice they gave up looking without telling me.
When I was the Girl Cousin, I went into the guest bathroom and turned on the light. I held each shell-shaped soap. By angling the mirrored medicine cabinet door an inch I could see all the variations of my face. I was too small and pale and freckled to be pretty. My lips were perpetually chapped and I had a bad habit of chewing them, sometimes until they bled.
Would anyone ever love me? I wasn't the doe-eyed girl next door. I didn't know who I was. I needed an older sister to tell me how to be. I needed a girl cousin. I needed a gang of boys on bikes. I suppose I was the doe-eyed girl's best friend — I was Barb — no one looking for her, a slug crawling out of her mouth. She should have had that beer.
* * *
Adam and I changed into our pajamas and brushed our teeth and said goodbye to our cousins and walked down the driveway to our car in the dark. The journey in reverse. My parents never fought on the way home. When they parked, we pretended to be asleep for the comfort of being carried through the lobby and up the elevator to the fourth floor. Our heads rested on their shoulders. They laid us so gently on our beds and covered us with blankets.
We heard the news click on in our parents' room: It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?
They did. We were exactly where we were supposed to be, even as we were dreaming of being someplace else.
* * *
After a day of corn mazes and pumpkin patches on Long Island, my husband drives us home to Brooklyn. We carry the sleeping children from the car into their beds. We kiss their foreheads and tuck them in. We turn the heat up and check the doors to make sure they are double-locked.
My husband flips between the news and a baseball game for the better part of an hour and then kisses me goodnight.
I stay up too late drinking wine and watching Stranger Things. Outside the windows the trees shake and crackle in the wind. We live across from Prospect Park, and we know never to walk the loops and paths of it at night. I feel it welling up in me, the old longing for adventure, for danger, and bravery.
In the morning before work, I ride a stationary bike in a dark room. They play "Like a Virgin" and "Stand by Me." I close my eyes to relive, for one moment, the special fear of going missing. And then I open my eyes and keep pushing, one foot in front of the other, as if it is brave to bike home.