“Joseph! The carpenter!”
On a drab New York City day, even the yellow city cabs appeared a dark mustard. The hazy midday light accentuated the dirt and filth of the city. I hastily turned the corner of First Avenue to walk down East 7th Street; an annoying mist was in the air.
My spirits were low; my life was dull. As I was about to enter Isabella’s Bakery, Father Jasper called my name from across the street. Hearing the elderly priest’s voice gave me an instantaneous boost. I jogged across the street to meet him.
“Joseph, what beauty comes from your hands! The pews, those beautiful mahogany pews!” Father exclaimed.
“Oh, oh, thank you, Father,” I said.
After laboring every Saturday for the past eight months, I was about to put the finishing touches on the restoration work of the twenty-two mahogany pews in the sanctuary of St. Francis. Although the work was tedious, I’d savored every minute of it—the first woodworking commission I could call my own.
“Joseph, on Thanksgiving Day, Rabbi, Imam, and I always celebrate a special Trialogue Service at St. Francis Cathedral. During the service, I want to make a special dedication honoring you for your blessed work restoring those glorious benches made for God. I was hoping that day would work for you.”
“Ah, yeah . . . I think it would.”
It was coincidental that Father’s invitation came at this very moment. I dreaded returning home for another Thanksgiving at my parents’ house. I’d been waffling, sometimes with phone in hand, ready to call my parents to tell them I couldn’t make it home for the holiday. I’d been contriving a legitimate excuse for my absence, something with a hint of truth, not a total lie.
I’ve loathed the dysfunctional Thanksgiving affair at my parents’ house in White Plains since I was a high school freshman. My father’s brother and his family from Greenwich, Connecticut, and my mother’s sister and her husband from Yonkers—the two most disparate families ever occupying a single space—travel annually to our home to join this awkward family gathering. Sitting and talking with my grandma from Yonkers used to provide me with an escape from the arrogant and pompous conversation happening at the dinner table. Before anyone raised a fork, Grandma always made sure we prayed for the food. But since Grandma died several years ago, the holiday hasn’t been the same for me. These days, by the time we get to the table, everyone is too peeved to pray.
My dad and his brother, my Uncle Donald, see each other only once a year, on Thanksgiving Day, unless there is a family funeral or wedding. Every year Uncle Donald, a hedge fund manager in Stamford, pulls up in our driveway with the newest and highest-priced luxury car, one year a Mercedes, the next year a Lexus, and last year a Jaguar. My father claims he does it just to gloat, and to rub his financial success in Dad’s face. They sit at the table the whole day boasting about their kids’ academic achievements, artistic endeavors, and athletic feats. My name never comes up.
Dad despises Uncle Donald’s wife, Aunt Barbara, or, as he calls her, “the self-centered Miss Barbie Doll.” She hasn’t worked a day in her life. She spends two hours every morning toning her well-defined abs and tight buttocks with her high-priced superstar personal trainer, Dwight. Aunt Barbara is very expansive about her puritanical eating habits, ingesting nothing “inorganic” that would contaminate her finely tuned biology.
She pontificates about the higher order of juicing and the merits of a sweaty hot yoga class. By midday, everyone in the room tunes her out as she continues to rationalize her pretentiously earthy and flawless, yet suburban, lifestyle. The only person who cannot let it go is my dad. She drives him bonkers, and as the day progresses, Miss Barbie Doll starts to rattle the old man’s cage.
Last Thanksgiving, Aunt Barbara was on a new kick of connecting to a higher power, becoming a disciple of a new age spiritual guru, and going to daily spiritual counseling sessions with the guru’s subordinate, who lives in a Greenwich mansion.
Aunt Barbara showed up at the door wearing an elaborately wrapped Indian scarf and started making her rounds, bowing in front of each member of my family and gently whispering “Namaste” in an overdone tranquil voice, not her typically hyped-up mode. No one knew what to do with the celestial greeting. Namaste. Namaste. Namaste. I just nodded to her.
I could hear my dad mutter under his breath, “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” as he observed what he considered superficial phony baloney. He retreated to the kitchen, eventually fleeing to the bathroom, so the spiritualized Miss Barbie Doll couldn’t accost him with her overt holiness.
Aunt Barbara spent the entire morning talking about her newfound enlightenment, oblivious to anyone’s inattention or disinterest. She wanted to be the human pipeline to bring the flow of God’s positive energy into the world. We’re all supernaturally connected, she shared, claiming there was scientific proof that “all our molecules are bumping into each other out there in space” and that “if we all think positively, our molecules will be attracted to each other and then we can heal ourselves and the world.” Moreover, she declared with utmost certainty that what she did and thought in Greenwich, Connecticut, had an effect even on a Bengal tiger in the jungle of India. And, if we didn’t believe it, Aunt Barbara told us all to check out the latest show on the Mystic Channel. The more she spoke, the more apparent it was that Aunt Barbara was in a “mystical mix-up.”
Aunt Barbara talked about her intense daily mental imagery workouts like a highly trained spiritual athlete. She said if we visualized what we wanted, it would become manifest, as “proven by the experts” on television.
At the “you think, you get” phenomenon, Dad’s ears perked up, curious about Miss Barbie Doll’s metaphysical explanation. She said, “You know, I was in Greenwich the other day trying to find a parking place. It was impossible; the Christmas shopping crowd was overwhelming. So, I sent positive energy out into the universe. Totally focused, I envisioned a car pulling out, allowing me to drive my car freely into the open spot. I sat in my car and prayed and visualized—and believe it or not—within thirty seconds, the car directly in front of me backed out of the space, and I was able—”
“What bullshit!” Dad uttered softly but vehemently to Mom as he helped her baste the turkey. “Yeah, right, God saves a parking space for Miss Boob Job to park her Mercedes but does nothing about a baby dying of starvation in Africa. I don’t want anything to do with her bullshit God!”
“Shh, shh, calm yourself” was Mom’s loud response. All the relatives looked up to see what all the shushing was about. Aunt Barbara, clueless, kept pontificating.
Mom, who tries so hard to please everyone on this screwed-up day, was baking some Pillsbury dinner rolls from frozen pastry tubes. Our family has always loved the doughy biscuits dabbed with some melted butter. When Aunt Barbara saw those rolls coming out of the oven, she went on a rant about eating chemically laced garbage that would poison and clog up our entire biological systems.
Aunt Barbara’s criticism of my mom’s dinner rolls was the last straw for Dad. But he didn’t confront Aunt Barbara directly. Rather, my dad, each time he wanted a roll, said, “Please pass one of those delicious, healthy, organic rolls made from God’s bounty by my beautiful, loving wife,” until he’d eaten ten of them. Then he sneered directly at Miss Barbie. Trying to maintain her pious demeanor, Aunt Barbara only half sneered back.
Mom, kicking Dad under the table, whispered under her breath, “Knock it off, stop being such a big baby!” It made for yet another fun-filled and blessed Thanksgiving Day.
Mom’s amicable, working-class family from Yonkers, on the other hand, was very quiet. Mom’s sister, humble Aunt Mabel, always helped Mom in the kitchen. Each year, Aunt Mabel and her husband, Uncle Jimmy, went through the same routine. Uncle Jimmy never ate with us at the dinner table. He always grabbed a beer and his food and walked into the den to watch the football game. Every year, exactly on cue, when we heard “Dinner is served,” Aunt Mabel would say to Uncle Jimmy in her pleading Yonkers accent, “Jimmy, why don’t you come and eat with us?” Uncle Jimmy always responded, “Can’t, big game, gotta watch.” And that was that. I don’t blame Uncle Jimmy for wanting to separate himself from the holiday dining room neurosis. Even though I had no interest in football, many times I wanted to retreat with him to the den.
With no love in the air, and a scarcity of gratitude, that Thanksgiving concluded—as did all others—with everyone breathing a sigh of relief as the relatives filtered out the door.
This year, I desperately wanted to share Thanksgiving dinner with my community family at St. Francis Parish. These people meant the world to me—and this year, I truly wanted to give thanks. Father’s invitation to the Trialogue Service was the perfect excuse for not going home for Thanksgiving.