Our family traditions were company traditions.
I’ve spent half a life trying to relay these facts succinctly and clearly, so I will try to just get them out of the way: growing up, I spent every Sunday of my life performing in a stage magic show with the rest of my family and a bunch of other grownups, men in tights and women in fake eyelashes and doves appearing out of nowhere. My family was a part of a magic company, and that was what we did on the weekends, at two old vaudeville theaters in my hometown of Beverly, Massachusetts. No summer camp, no traveling soccer team.
There was a part in the show where I was a tap-dancing scarecrow and another part where I disappeared into a box and another part where I appeared out of a box you had previously believed was empty. I didn’t much like the situation at the time — performing felt like an obligation and kids don’t like obligation, they like summer camp — but now it’s a fun story to make people think I’m interesting. On weekdays, the main theater showed second-run movies and art-house movies.
Holidays were always celebrated at the theater; our family traditions were mostly company traditions. We’d be at the theater for Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve after the special New Year’s Eve magic show. Then Fourth of July and Labor Day in one of the other company member’s backyards. (Here there was always grilled steak, juicy peppered hunks of it, and hot dogs crunchy from char, and my mother would make one of those fruit pizzas with berries arranged like an American flag over a slick of cream cheese. I’d play volleyball, which I was bad at, and sit quietly as some men played chess, which I was also bad at.)
We never celebrated Thanksgiving at home; “dinner” was at the second (smaller, less frequently used) theater, usually at 11 a.m. or something. The space was called the “grand salon” and had these large oval tables where everyone sat. The food was on two card tables set up like an L: turkey and gravy and stuffing, plus kugel and deviled eggs and other quirky traditions we’d picked up as a group. There were painted posters on the wall (Le Grand David and his own Spectacular Magic Company: Always A Wonder To Remember!) and some of them had my face on them, which probably should have felt weird but didn’t.
My mother’s contribution to dinner was always some sort of orange soup, which would require peeling and hacking at a large bounty of root vegetables, their skins tangling along our kitchen counter, their guts spilling onto the floor, the transfer of soup to food processor full of spills and spatters. We’d load them into the back of the car in heavy, thick containers and she’d ladle everything out for everyone at the beginning of the meal, behind the counter that usually offered popcorn and fountain soda to theatergoers.
Before the food, there was always a milling around — my first consistent memory of social anxiety. I would tether myself to one adult conversation and then the next, then becoming restless, and flitting about some more. The thing I had in common with all of these grown people was a thing I didn’t much care to talk about, and when they asked me about myself, I’d usually just put on my Nice Smile and answer quickly, feigning interest in my own life until we could move on and I could disappear again, slinking over to another better-looking conversation. The default was always just hanging at the shirtsleeves of my parents, even as a disinterested tween.
When it was time to eat, I’d always do the school lunch thing where you try to maximize the quality of your tablemates, corralling my family and the few adults that made me feel cozy, or staking claim to a seat at a Good Table early on. Then finally there was the pile of food on the plate to focus on, and the need to talk became secondary as focus turned to optimizing bites, piling turkey then potatoes then gravy then cranberry sauce then maybe some peas onto my fork tines.
Sweet, overstuffed relief came on the drive home, after which I’d pull off my tights or whatever Dressy Thing I’d put on and take my seat at the couch, unsure what to do with the rest of the holiday, no traditions to speak for after 3 p.m. I think one or two times we saw a movie. All that freedom felt so boring.
The year I graduated college was my mother’s last year performing, which meant by Thanksgiving we were all untethered, free to eat a turkey or not eat a turkey (I was vegan at the time, of course) as we wished. We rented a little airbnb house—maybe it was still VRBO back then—down in Asheville, North Carolina, a town I’d fallen in love while living a few hours east, and became gluttons for free will: pies, salads, roasted things, recipes from cookbooks that call for far too many ingredients and steps than most would put up with on Thanksgiving just because we could. We ran a Turkey Trot in the morning (another novelty), made a mess of the kitchen, did things in new strange ways instead of old strange ways. The next morning we woke up bleary and hungry-but-still-full, the way you do, and made breakfast from things that were only ours.
Holiday Dread is The Awl’s series dedicated to the season of joy and other emotions. Previously: