My first Thanksgiving in the Marines came shortly after I joined my unit on Camp Pendleton in 2003. I was the new guy in my platoon, and apart from my buddy Stan and one guy from my platoon in boot camp, I didn't know a soul in the entire regiment. Thankfully, Thomas Prettyman was one of my NCOs. The pastor of Pretty's church invited us to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. I don't remember much about the meal, or the pastor and his family, other than it took place in a warm, inviting house out in Fallbrook, and that the family was kind and very generous with their invitation to any Marines who would otherwise have spent the holiday eating awful Sodexo food in the chow hall.
I don't remember where I spent Thanksgiving 2004. I was just back from Iraq, but it seems to me that I would have already completed post-deployment leave. In the last year or so, I've become conscious of the fading of memories from different periods of my life, even those of the last decade. (This unnerves me more than I care to think about, as if I'm losing pieces of the life I'm yet living.) It's entirely possible I did spend that Thanksgiving in the barracks, eating a crappy meal from the chow hall. I just don't remember.
Thanksgiving 2005 was a delight. My friend, former roommate, and colleague-turned-boss Squibes had returned from his own deployment to Iraq. He and his wife, Kat, invited a couple of us from the platoon to their place out in Vista. I wound up making the gravy at Squibes' and Kat's request. We had a fantastic meal, and followed it up with a friendly Mario Kart tournament on their GameCube. As long as this memory lasts, I will think very fondly of our time together that Thursday afternoon.
I was on terminal leave by the time Thanksgiving 2006 rolled around. I might be able to look back at my photos and figure out where I was for the holiday. By then I was dating a pretty Greek girl from Chicago, so I may have spent that Thanksgiving with her family. Or, it's possible we spent it with my families in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Again, my memory is blank. Again, I worry.
The same is true for Thanksgiving 2007. I have no idea where we spent the holiday without looking at whatever photos we might have taken.
I married that pretty Greek girl in October 2008. We spent our first Thanksgiving as newlyweds together in our flat near Lake Monona. I made too much food – a turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, an incredible sourdough stuffing, rutabagas, and two pies (pumpkin and pecan) – in our tiny galley kitchen, but it was delicious. The flat was filled with wonderful smells, and we had to crack a couple windows to cut the heat coming from the steam radiators and the kitchen. The few photos we have of that day, of us and our two cats, will support that memory, but I would be devastated if I forgot the first holiday we spent together as a married couple.
We have fallen into a pattern in the years since, though I'm not entirely certain when it began. We spend our Thanksgiving with my in-laws in Chicagoland. It's a much smaller family gathering than I'm used to – my family is much, much larger than my wife's – but I love my wife's mom, and my wife's aunts (who live with my mother-in-law), and her Cuban grandfather. Because we live far enough away to keep us from seeing one another regularly (and because we're in very different stages of our lives), I'm still building relationships with my brother-in-law. But we get along just fine. Same with my wife's cousins, who call my mother-in-law's house their home, too, because their mom, suffering from severe MS far too young, had to move before the girls were in high school. Today, both of them are first year graduate students.
The day after Thanksgiving, my wife and I will help my mother-in-law put up garland and lights outside her house, and in the evening we'll head over to St. Charles for The Annual, a yearly get-together with friends for tacos and board games. I met most of these folks at a Memorial Day cookout in 2006, when I was visiting my wife (then my girlfriend) on leave. Seven years have passed, and these new friends have gradually become old friends. Memories have been made over seven years of Memorial Day cookouts, backyard Oktoberfests, weddings, and (this year) an Evoloterra celebration in our backyard in Madison. Some of these memories have already been lost, forgotten as others compact them into a sediment of a life lived. What remains is the warmth of friendship, and the anticipation of making more memories together.
On Saturday, we'll return to St. Charles to go to the Electric Parade with our friends Greg and Kelly. My wife and I look up to Greg & Kelly as our example of a marriage well-lived, and we love them as the older brother and sister we never had. We've been doing the Electric Parade together for a couple years now, in the indifferent weather of late November northern Illinois. One year it rained during the parade, and we were soaked. One year we had a dusting of snow on the ground, and temperatures appropriate with the season. This year, it looks like we won't have any snow, and the temperature will be in the forties. Even though I've lived outside of Minnesota for over a decade, these odd variations of weather this late in the year are a bit jarring, rubbing against the grain of sedimented, composite memories of Thanksgivings and late Novembers in Minnesota that surely weren't always dusted with the first snowfalls of encroaching winter. I struggle to remember individual Thanksgivings from my childhood.
What remain are memories of the first time I ate a turkey heart or rutabagas, both at the insistence of my paternal grandmother, to whom I'll be forever thankful for those flavorful introductions. I remember my mom and stepdad opening their home to friends of the family transplanted far away from their homes, the house warmed by kindness, spirited conversation, activity in the kitchen, and good alcohol. I remember driving from an afternoon meal at my paternal grandparents' house in Minnesota back to our house across the river in Wisconsin, then walking across the yard to eat again with my stepmom's family.
Over the years, I've lost many of the people central to those now-indistinct memories: my step-grandfather, my paternal grandmother, my cousin Teddy, my dad, and my stepdad. I keep up with only a couple guys from my Marine Corps days, and then see them only once a year or couple of years. Some nights I lie awake, worrying about who I will lose next, who will cease to be a living presence in my life, and who I will gradually lose as my memory continues to fade and my loved ones' vitality flickers, dimming into a background of light, too soft to provide definition to all but a few specific details. I miss them, and I know more of the people I love will join them in the years to come. It's an unavoidable part of life, but that doesn't make it any less distressing or bittersweet.
So, this year I'm thankful for memory, and memories, those made and cherished, those sadly forgotten, those I hope to yet make, and – because this, too, is a certainty of life – those I have yet to forget.
And I'm thankful to you for reading these ramblings. May you have many more years of making memories. May your memories keep better than mine have.