Superstorm Sandy was a bitch. Lucky for me and my furry animals and boyfriend, we are highly elevated and suffered minor inconveniences throughout the storm. Unfortunately, my boyfriend’s family inhabits a home on Fire Island, where the storm was not as kind to the narrow strip of Northeastern paradise. Given that the boyfriend and I hunkered down in our teeny dwelling for days without reprieve, and my dubious thoughts about the safety and resources available on the island, this year I decided to take my own adventure. Rather than accompany the boyfriend and pup to Fire Island, I thought it would be a good time to go upstate and surprise my folks on Thanksgiving. The beauty in surprises is that there are zero expectations set forth from the intended surprise victims, meaning you can basically show up whenever the hell you feel like it.
I coordinated with my best friend, who lives halfway between home base and my upstate hometown. Like me, she has felt a bit aware of the economical waste involved in driving a car and told me that after teaching her class on Thanksgiving Eve she would hop on a bus that went from White Plains to Nyack and somewhere along the route, I could hop on the same bus. The unfortunate side was that I had to wait forty-five minutes for the connection between my train and this bus. Since I was man-less and dog-less, I somehow thought it was wise to carry my Christmas presents on this trip so that I’d have less to maneuver when traveling with the “kids.” So there I waited, shivering for forty-five minutes, with a twenty pound bag of infused vodkas and various other gifts. Just minutes before the bus arrived, my friend texted me: “I am afraid the bus that just drove by without stopping was mine.” Crap. To me this was the type of thing that one calls someone for, so I instantly dialed my friend and with her suggestion, I boarded the bus and headed to the Palisades Mall, where I could at least take refuge from the cold for the hour it would take for the next bus to arrive.
New Yorkers like myself are used to public transportation. In fact, we relish in the convenience in getting from point A to point B at times when we are scarcely conscious or sober. But boarding a bus anywhere outside of the five boroughs can be quite terrifying. Particularly at 11 o’clock at night, driving through dark streets and highways, and with a chatty bus driver who tends to skip stops even when there are only five stops on his ten-mile route! Thankfully, the mall is like a bright shiny object in an otherwise dark town, and I exited outside the Macy’s and following my friend’s suggestion, I went to the fourth floor of the mall, where the promise of partying suburbanites awaited me. The only spot that seemed to be fully functioning was the TGIF’s. I took a seat at the bar and asked for a food menu.
“Yeah, so the kitchen’s closed. Sorry, miss,” the young bartender responded. I gave him points for calling me “miss” in lieu of “ma’am” but I was absolutely famished and those points quickly disappeared with the lack of food service.
“What time do you close?” I asked.
“Midnight,” he replied.
“But it’s only eleven.”
“Right, but the kitchen closes early. It’s happy hour now. All drinks are discounted,” he explained with a smile. I smiled back and ordered a Purple Haze. It would take one 3-dollar draft to get me completely relaxed and incoherent on an empty, grumbling stomach but at least I was indoors. I drank half the pint, hoping my best friend would not be dismissed by the last bus of the night, and that we would somehow meet up. The temptation to drunkenly ramble on Facebook was replaced with a concern that my folks would see where I was located and wonder what the hell I was doing in Nyack. Twenty minutes of dwindling sobriety passed when the bartender reappeared, looking apologetic.
“So the kitchen is open actually. But you have five minutes to order.”
“Thanks! I’m starving and came up from the city but I’m stranded here for a little while.”
“Don’t tell me you came here to party. Because this isn’t the place. But when I’m done, my friends and I are going out in downtown Nyack. Come with us if you get stuck,” he responded. It was a nice offer, but the offer for food was even more enticing. I placed an order and began to wonder if I made the wrong choice, sitting at a random bar by myself when I could be looking out on the ocean while lounging in a hot tub on Fire Island. Until I got the update from my boyfriend. The Fire Island house had no running water and they were filling buckets from a dwindling reserve of pool water in order to flush toilets and wash dishes. The worst part being that the boyfriend had no option of returning to first world living until the day after of Thanksgiving because of limited ferry service. I felt better with my choice. Especially when the text came that my best friend had arrived just in time. At least before I was kicked out of the TGIF’s with the rest of the insanely inebriated patrons.
This excursion offered some nice bonding time with my best friend and an added buffer when I walked into the front door of my parents house, praying that my mother would not be so overcome with emotion that she cried. I was happy to be spared the tears, as my friend’s yellow lab mix ran up the stairs followed by the two of us. My dad acted as if I still lived at home, not missing a beat.
“You know how I can get the HBOGo to stream on the living room TV?” my dad greeted me. I was thankful entertainment options trumped politics in our initial encounter. My mother acted as though she wasn’t particularly surprised and took out a 32-ounce of International Delight Pumpkin Spice Creamer from the fridge.
“See, I must’ve been psychic,” she explained. “I bought this for you for Christmas but it keeps so long that you can use it now!” I smiled. Being greeted with coffee creamer is always better than over-the-top emotions. I noted how funny family dynamics are. Weathered and aged, some are never outgrown.
Our Thanksgiving together was small, quiet, and low key. The way a holiday based around consumption should be. But what my family had not anticipated was for their surprise guest to morph into a taskmaster. My parents are like so many people I’ve come to know. They buy their first home and at first can barely furnish the residence, even with the possessions that come along with their three small children. And over the years, the children grow up and leave home, often leaving boxes (or in my family’s case piles) of neglected belongings and junk just as the parents acquire more crap and take up their own special hobby collections. Out of four bedrooms in the house, only one bedroom was inhabitable and claimed by my parents. The rest had become the equivalent of Manhattan Mini Storages. Concerned I would be deprived a clean room, I spent most of the pre-dinner time with nine garbage bags, threatening to throw out or donate any belongings that my kid brother and sister had left behind without regard. Before the turkey was done, my brother and I had successfully reclaimed two bedrooms in the house as welcoming guest rooms.
I stayed much longer than anticipated, namely to enjoy having a queen bed to myself in a freshly cleaned room. I intended to return to an empty Manhattan apartment before my boyfriend, but the lack of clean water on Fire Island, shortened his trip and lengthened mine. The unfortunate part is that my mother had planned to have the carpets shampooed and the dog euthanized during her holiday weekend.
“Mom, why do you even have carpets? Who has carpets now?” I demanded to know.
“Your father likes them. He doesn’t like his feet to get cold in the winter on a wood floor.”
“Right, but he also walks around in swim trunks and a t-shirt all winter. It’d cost only a few hundred more dollars to eliminate the carpet and then you’d never have to shampoo the floor again.”
“No. That’s not going to happen.”
“He’s just a product of the 60’s. It’s a trend that’s passed. Carpets are nasty and harbor allergens and dander,” I retorted. My mother has asthma and severe allergies and the carpet was often occupied by three cats and an elderly dog. An elderly dog with no bladder control and a sense of smell as the only functioning sense that remained.
The carpet’s beautician arrived, scarcely making it past the cluttered junk and the over-sized living room furniture that was miraculously wedged throughout corners of the dining room and kitchen. I don’t know who decides to schedule an early morning carpet shampoo the day after Thanksgiving, but my mom said my “surprise” visit was the real interference and that it would otherwise be completely normal to do. She tried to appease me.
“Michelle, honey, you can make some waffles. I have the mix downstairs,” she replied. I dug through the freezer to find jumbo sized bags of frozen fruit.
“No, I think I want something healthy,” I answered. Like a smoothie.
“Healthy?!” Paul Bunyon, the carpet shampoo-master declared.
“Well, I ate enough crap on Thanksgiving,” I answered, now justifying my food choices to a complete stranger.
“It’s her job, really. She has to watch her diet for work,” my mom offered. Because clearly I would gorge myself to the point of obesity if I had chosen any other profession in my life.
“No, actually, it’s lifestyle. That’s it.” My snippy response silenced them both. But as always, family history trumps logic. My mother skeptically glanced at carpet man.
With the carpets shampooed and wet, the poor 16-year-old family dog kept blindly retreating to the damp carpet, unaware that he was getting soaked each time. Upon choosing to go upstate, I had not realized my mother had scheduled the dog to be put to sleep while I would be there. The poor little toy poodle mix was not only blind and deaf, but he also had a ping-pong ball-sized tumor on his skull, a flea infestation that no amount of treatments or cleaning could ameliorate, smelled like he was rotting from the inside, and would startle when touched by anything because he had no sense of his surroundings. What’s more, he was so afraid of falling down the stairs that he would instead jump from the landing, foregoing the three steps. It was a total leap of faith. We all looked at him with sadness and empathy.
I was still sleeping the next day when my parents took our family dog to the vet. They returned with a small box that carried his remains and I watched as my father dug his grave within the pet cemetery of our backyard. I went outside to assist, noting that the grave was not as deep as I would’ve imagined.
“Dad, you need to dig deeper,” I told him.
“No, this is deep enough. It’s not easy to dig through this clay.” The box would be barely four inches below the surface if he stopped. It made me question all our other long-lost pets and how deep the alleged four-feet graves he dug for them really were. I took the shovel and began to dig. And as I did, a 35-MPH wind gust swept by and it began to snow. There I was, bonding with my dad over the family dog’s grave, in the middle of a white mini-blizzard on a holiday weekend typically celebrated with gluttony and sales on electronics. I never thought my decision to surprise the family on Turkey Day would amount to this. I continued to carve away the side walls of clay; the same clay that humiliated me when we first moved to that house as I would run through the muck and find myself stuck in the middle of the yard en route to the waiting school bus. More often than not I would lose a boot entirely and have to run back with a muddy foot and tug my boot out of the earth.
“This mud here is pretty heavy. It sticks,” my dad reasoned.
“Yeah, I recall,” I mumbled apathetically. I thought of the day I would have to deal with my current beloved pets and their mortality. It freaked me out. But luckily my fellow gravedigger offered the same coping mechanism as his daughter. Sarcasm and pithy comments would always trump tears and sadness when it was time to say goodbye.
We ended the rather eventful day by attending a local parade, where people adorned their tractors and pickups and fire trucks with Christmas lights, tinsel, and wagons carrying costumed adults. My sister and her boyfriend joined me and my parents as we avoided getting pelted with candy canes and bubble gum thrown from the parade leaders. After the festive soiree we returned to my parents house and had a gingerbread house decorating competition. Both my sister and parents stole my candies, or attempted to make unfair trades, but I had a secret arsenal of ruby red glitter in my purse to make up for the sugary losses.
I returned to the city the next morning, catching a bus before the sun rose so I could beat traffic and this time surprise my boyfriend. I learned it may be best to not surprise people inhabiting your own home if you wish to return to a clean place. My sweet chihuahua and cat were vocal and energetic in welcoming me home. So thankful was I that Thanksgiving came early this year, granting more recovery time before the next big holiday comes around.