(This appeared in 2009. But it's one of my favorite Thanksgiving memories, so I thought I'd share it again).
My father ran a restaurant—a small, unassuming diner kind of place, with a smoky bar attached. While my friends’ fathers were engineers, physicists, and pipe-fitters, men with college degrees, journeyman cards, or at least fancy titles, my dad breaded chops. He wasn’t working on his Masters on the side and wasn’t in line for any kind of promotion, ever. And to be painfully honest, as a selfish, myopic teenager, I was often embarrassed.
I felt like the Chinese version of “Toula” in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Growing up, on any given Saturday I’d doff my stained apron, go home and shower, then head to some junior high dance wondering if I still smelled of frying oil.
Much to my chagrin, birthday dinners were always held “at the restaurant,” and why not? That’s where my dad was, because he never stopped working. It was the only way he could be there. My friends loved it. Instead of eating delivery pizza, they could order anything off the menu and have the run of the place. How cool is that? Not very, I’d mutter. Gawd, I was a brat.
So when my father announced that he’d be leaving the restaurant open on Thanksgiving, I was mortified. Not only would this mean I’d have to work, (because he was giving everyone else the day off), but who on Earth would want to come to our trivial mom & pop shop on such a festive holiday? We didn’t offer a prime rib on silver chargers, or hollandaise covered anything. Today’s teenager would have begun cutting himself in angst, but it was merely the 80s, so instead I grumped, I slumped, I down-in-the-dumped.
I rolled my eyes and slogged through a haze of holiday drudgery, as my mom strung lights in the bar and set up a fake tree that had seen one too many Christmases, while my dad stayed up all night baking pies and stuffing turkeys.
In the morning, I washed dishes, set tables—the usual—certain that we’d spend the day in our empty place of business, with nothing but the hollow, mocking, I told you so songs, playing on the jukebox.
I imagined my friends enjoying their Norman Rockwell families and their postcard-perfect tables of Betty Crocker greatness. And secretly wondered if I’d been adopted, robbed of my rightful destiny with some normal family.
I mentioned something to my father about the banks being closed, a sarcastic nod to the cash register, which sat empty and unmanned.
“No need,” He said.
“What do you mean, no need?” I was the one always running to get more one-dollar bills or rolls of quarters to make change.
“No charge today. It’s Thanksgiving.”
The good thing was: I was certain no one would show up, the bad thing was: I was certain my dad had lost his mind. Why? Because he’d invited all of our regular customers, who I had envisioned politely declining the kindly offer, much preferring their own families, their own traditions, to slumming around with us.
So when the first little old man wandered in, I assumed he was lost and looking for directions. Instead my dad took his hat, found him a seat and poured a glass of wine. Then an elderly woman showed up and gave my dad a hug. Then two rough looking kids in their 20s who once worked for my dad when “they got out.” Then a retired cop. A bus driver. A carload of little old, canasta-playing ladies. Some brought desserts. Others brought eggnog with 7-11 price tags, or dollar-store boxes of candy canes. In all, more than 75 people showed up. All of them regulars—the men who appeared like clockwork, after work, and nursed lonely drinks at the bar. The walker-bound lady who came by cab from a retirement home, who had more money than friends, who ate the same meal week after week, because she had no place else to go.
They ate, drank and sang (loudly!), watched football and played cribbage in the bar.
And when we ran out of turkey, my dad fried hamburgers. On any other day, I would have been mortified. Embarrassed. Humiliated. Instead I cut French fries. Grateful for my family—for my dad’s stumpy, leathery, blue-collar hands, with scars from kitchen knives and frequent burns.
Late into the evening, we finally locked the doors. After sweeping up broken plates, scrapping grills, wiping counters, washing dishes, reveling in the glorious mess.
We finally went home, exhausted, leaving the Christmas lights on.
Here's wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving.