They made Thanksgiving great again.
Two of his children had not broken bread at the same table in seven or eight years. Ryan couldn’t remember the exact time the silence started or the reasons that his son and daughter hadn’t spoken in so long. It no longer seemed important. It reminded Ryan of the old joke about Irish Alzheimer’s: You forget everything but the grudge.
It was time to forget that too.
After years of awkward holiday arrangements — having two Thanksgivings, one on Thursday and another on Black Friday, or doing Christmas Eve at one kid’s house and Christmas at the other’s — Ryan received a phone call from his son in early November.
“What’s the Thanksgiving plan this year, Pop?” he asked.
“I’m trying to choose between cyanide or drowning in the crap infested waters of Fresh Pond.”
“How about a restaurant this year?”
“Sounds good,” said Ryan. “No shopping, cooking, cleaning.”
“Yeah,” said his adult son. “We’ll drive east to you. Pick a place.”
And was instantly filled with dread. This would mean he’d have to tell his daughter and son-in-law who also had one of Ryan’s beautiful grandkids that he’d made arrangements with her brother.
But this year with all of the institutions, norms, and traditions of the United States of America under daily attack, Ryan was determined to rally the basic unit of human civilization called the Family around the same table on the day we give thanks for our American bounty and our family blessings.
Ryan wanted all four of his kids and his three grandkids and his orphaned nephew and his older brother who lived alone in Manhattan at the same Thanksgiving meal.
He called his daughter and asked what she was doing for Thanksgiving. She said she had no plans yet to visit in-laws in Pennsylvania.
Ryan told her about her brother’s suggestion of a Thanksgiving in a restaurant. “I’ll come if he’s cool with it,” she said. “The three cousins love each other and deserve to be together.”
Half the gridlock that was like the divided nation in microcosm was waving a holiday flag of truce.
Then Ryan waited a day and sent his son a text so that neither of them would have to hear the awkward silences in between a father’s request and an adult son’s answer.
“I told your sister about your suggestion of Thanksgiving at a restaurant,” Ryan wrote. “She’s game to come with her crew if you are. I am asking you to please do this because I would love to have all my kids and my grandkids who love each other at the same Thanksgiving table.”
Ryan reread the text to make sure he had not let autocorrect add or change words so that it sounded like a threat or ultimatum. It was a father’s request that his adult son and daughter that he loved in equal measure sue for long overdue peace for the sake of their old man and their own kids.
He hit SEND like a referee firing a starter pistol for a race that hoped would end in a draw.
Ryan received a one-word response from his son: “Fine.”
He’d read great novels that did not give him as much joy.
Ryan’s heart leapt.
In a time when families were being ripped apart at Thanksgiving tables, divided by red and blue place settings, Ryan was at long last going to break bread with a united family.
He made the reservation at an Irish restaurant close to him that could accommodate 13 people.
When Ryan’s ex-wife learned that all her kids and grandkids would be sitting round the same table, she invited herself and her husband to the dinner.
And so, on a Thanksgiving Day that was as cold as a dictator’s heart, all of Ryan’s kids and grandkids and brother and nephew and son-in-law and ex-wife who was Mom and Grandma to the same crew that Ryan called the Wild Kingdom all arrived by car and LIRR at the restaurant near Ryan’s home.
They all squeezed around a big table — the three grandkids aged 10, 9, and 3 in the center to remind the adults what was important. Ryan’s son and daughter sat across from each other at center table.
Both nodded. Ryan thought he saw each surrender a half-smile. Which added up to one.
Ryan watched the bread basket pass from brother to sister in a kind and cordial gesture that reminded him of how close they once had been. There was no melodramatic embrace, no kiss or tears, or maudlin reconciliation. The Irish show emotion like the Amish show skin.
But there was not a single cross word at this American table, no bad vibe or smirk or passive aggressive comment poisoned the meal. The food was mostly a disappointment — several of the meals undercooked, served cold by an understaffed kitchen and amateurish but pleasant service staff.
None of that ruined a marvelous time.
The kids loved their chicken fingers, burgers, and fries almost as much as they loved each other’s company. That was the most important thing on the menu.
The adults lost themselves in cold beer, red wine, loud laughter, dysfunctional family stories, and picture posing, and indulgent desserts and strong coffee.
When it was over, a family had rejoined in a nation divided by politics, race, xenophobia, misogyny, and tribalism with howling winds of autocracy straining the timbers of all our cherished institutions.
When he hugged his kids and grandkids goodbye, Ryan was filled with more hope than he’d had in years because he had so much to give thanks for on this perfect American holiday of Thanksgiving.
And now it was starting to look a lot like Christmas.