When I first moved to New York, I was treated to an African American Thanksgiving by a friend. Now, divorced and with American children, I’ve realized I need to do things differently
When my marriage crumbled and ended in divorce, like a seasoned theater actor returning to an old play, I found myself back in a familiar role as the single stray guy fed by well-intentioned friends over the holidays. Now, in my 50s, I brought a lived-in melancholy to a character that I found painful to revisit.
I experienced my first Turkey Day when I moved to New York from London 28 years ago. My Manhattan neighbor, Ted, a jovial 26-year-old South Carolinian, invited me to Fort Greene in Brooklyn to share the day with his college chums. As a British Indian, I had no idea what I was celebrating and Ted, an African American, didn’t make things clearer when I asked him. “I don’t know any Black folks who celebrate it for the ‘official’ reason of Native Americans helping the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock,” he said. “But we eat together to show thanks for loved ones.”
It made a good first impression, wrapping me in a warm cocoon of soul food and soul music. As gray clouds hung in a low vault over rows of brownstones, I was introduced to collard greens, candied yams, and red velvet cake while Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack, and Chaka Khan played on the stereo. The music was as sweet as the peach cobbler that I tasted for the first time.
After Ted’s explanation, I too became a little dismissive of the idea of the holiday — but unlike other American holidays, Thanksgiving, I learned, was not one that was easy to sidestep. A month or so before the day, people would ask me what I was doing for it. I was invited to several dinners, and dutifully attended, out of appreciation and politeness, scaling subway and PATH train steps in Brooklyn, Harlem, Queens, and Jersey City with a foil-covered dessert or a store-bought one in my hands. I’d always derided fellow Brits who, after a year or two in the US, adopted transatlantic twangs and supported American sports teams with the same fervor as they had cheered on football teams back home. For me to become fully embroiled in Thanksgiving just felt fake. I could imagine the cynicism and ridicule from my pals back home if I dared tell them I was celebrating it. “What’s that got to do with you?” they’d say. “You’re not American.”
After my father’s death in 1999, I just didn’t feel up to forcing an upbeat demeanor to fellow strangers over the holidays. On those days, I worked a shift at the Park Slope Food Co-op, thankful to find a few like-minded souls as we lost ourselves in our solitude.
Then I got engaged at 31 and friends from Belize, Indonesia and Jamaica invited me and my fiancé — a Trinidadian who had embraced American culture with all the passion of a founding father — over for Thanksgivings. My pallet expanded to baked fish, chillied long beans, festival dumplings, and calaloo.
Later, as new US citizens and parents of two girls, my wife and I took it upon ourselves to host. Our TG table was now a smorgasbord of Trinidadian fare — pasteles, macaroni pie, pone. Even roti, bus up shut, and dal made it to the spread. There may have been some turkey there as well. Acquaintances, both citizens and not, decamped first to our townhouse in Brooklyn and then, in later years, to our home in Pennsylvania for a lavish meal. With my daughters by my side gleefully tucking into their food before we snuggled up in front of a movie, I realized I’d become a Thanksgiving convert. I looked forward to late November each year it rolled around.
It wasn’t to last.
Without my kids by my side these days, I wondered if Thanksgiving might go the same way as Christmas did during my childhood. Raised by Hindu parents who nevertheless wanted us kids not to feel left out, we celebrated Christmas simply to assimilate better with British culture. When my brothers and I left home and had families of our own, my parents spent winters in India, hardly noticing when December 25th came and went. Would I do the same with Thanksgiving and forget about it now that chapter of my life — marriage and all it entailed — was closed?
Surely, though, to simply bypass a holiday that has been part of my life for a quarter of a century, with all its fond memories, would do Thanksgiving a disservice. This year, I made a decision.
Rather than show up at a friend’s home feeling forlorn, the last Thursday in November would, I’ve decided, be an opportune time to escape back to England. I’ll be spending the day with my brother and our 90-year-old mother, a salve to my aching heart. And though I’d never mention it while eating my mother’s chana masala and aloo parathas, I’ll also quietly be expressing gratitude to my American kids, an ocean away — at least in spirit and on FaceTime.