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The Good Life: The orphan Thanksgiving
November 24, 2011 Lisa Betz   

Read more by Lisa Betz
There is absolutely nothing in the world more effective to help one appreciate oneís own family than spending Thanksgiving as an orphan with someone elseís.

I wish Iíd kept a journal of each and every orphan Thanksgiving Iíve experienced over the years. You see, in my professional actress days, I could rarely come home for turkey day. We always had rehearsal the day before and the day after and one never, ever misses a rehearsal unless one is dead or dying.

You never realize just how normal your family is until you see how other families behave around the holiday table.

There are some archetypes and dynamics youíll find over and over. Itís kind of fun to try to pick them out of a strangerís family once you start to recognize them.

Thereís the long suffering old maid care-giving aunt and that older uncle who never married but still lives at home. Sadly, thereís often the overweight member of the family that gets picked on. Iíve seen that too many times to count.

Thereís the set of young parents who just cannot manage their bratty children, and the dog who shouldnít be inside at all but I guess they think itís family.

Thereís the hostess who must achieve perfection at all costs, even if everyone is frazzled and unhappy. Thereís the lazy daughter-in-law who never helps to do the dishes.

Then thereís that relative who always brings something odd to share, like a can of vegetables, unopened. Thereís often a braggart who works really hard to impress everyone.

And there seems to always be that one relative who is horrified by uncle Bobby or Jimmyís drunkenness. I always wondered if they put on a show for me, the stranger, or if they truly were horrified.

One year, we were invited to spend the holiday with my husbandís work friend. The moment we walked in the door they put a cocktail in our hands, even though my husband didnít drink. They seemed baffled and awkward when he asked for a coke.

Later, after too many cocktails, two people started yelling at each other. It got downright scary and we left.

A professional Thanksgiving orphan develops serious acting chops just by responding to concerned family members when things get embarrassing. I learned that my job was to smile and pretend I hadnít noticed whatever it was. Sometimes more sensitive family members just need to be comforted by the strange cuckoo in their midst so they can shrug and go on with their family holiday.

The worst orphan Thanksgiving I experienced was hosted by a theatre that I worked for. For some reason, they chose to serve ham instead of turkey and it was in a cold hall that felt very institutional.

Now donít get me wrong, I was as grateful as an orphan actor can be to be included in a Thanksgiving dinner put on expressly by theatre patrons but it was a test of my acting skill when I made the horrified realization that turkey would not be a feature of the day.

Of course, that also meant no stuffing. Whatís the point? I started thinking of it as a company meal, it certainly didnít feel like Thanksgiving. But then, what is Thanksgiving? Is it feasting at a table groaning with plenty?

It isnít supposed to be only that. We are meant to give thanks for our blessings and perhaps that disappointing orphan Thanksgiving taught me this.

Even with no turkey and no stuffing and none of momís German rye bread, there was a sweet potato dish to beat all Iíve ever tasted and that was something to be thankful for. I really wish Iíd gotten the recipe.

No matter how many times I was an orphan at Thanksgiving, I always, always missed having leftovers. Nothing makes one feel more like an orphan than going home without Thanksgiving leftovers.

Then there are those Thanksgivings when youíre invited as an honored guest by a family you may very well become part of. That happened one year when I lived in Virginia.

They were a lovely Italian family and they were looking me over as a potential daughter-in-law.

The spread was magnificent and everyone was there, even ancient old grandma who came over from Italy but was now retired in Florida. That first moment when I took my pumpkin cheesecake into the kitchen and asked where I should put it was pretty awkward though.

You would think I had loudly passed gas and then laughed about it for the reaction I received. The women present froze. No one said anything. I stood there with the heavy plate in my hand and finally just set it down somewhere there was room.

No one ever explained it but as I discovered at dessert time, a famous pumpkin roll was the only dessert served by this family and it was one womanís crowning glory that I had apparently trampled on. My cheesecake was never cut or commented on.

That day was cut short for me because of the telling of a racist story by the family patriarch. Nope, I realized, Iím not going to fit in with that family. I think they agreed.

One year I dined at the Washington Hotel in D.C. with a boyfriend and his mother. It was all very elegant and yet it felt hollow somehow. I understood though, my date was an only child and his father had recently passed away. Iíd been through that myself. It was a very sad Thanksgiving and a small one, limited to just his remaining family and myself. I believe I was a tiny light in the midst of their sadness.

Iíve always thought my family was loud and obnoxious (in a good way, of course) but after the many, many orphan Thanksgivings Iíve experienced, I wouldnít trade my boisterous, fun family for anyone elseís. We play cards and games after the meal and genuinely have a memorable good time with each other.

Iím the weird one who goes home when the football starts unless thereís a good game of cards on. I think weíre all a little weird but my family is my brand of weird and of course, thatís the best kind, right?

Iím visiting another branch of family for Thanksgiving this year. We know that they donít love momís German rye bread so weíll do without that this year. I may not get to enjoy my favorite oyster dressing and I have no idea whether they will do a nice turkey or plan something different. My fingers are crossed for turkey though.

Iím pretty sure that nobody will drink too much and it will be me that has the unruly dog but he is my baby after all. The little kids running all over are my sweet little cousins and they are never naughty, only completely adorable. Itís going to be a joyous Thanksgiving Day.

No matter what dishes are served at table nor how you celebrate Thanksgiving, itís easy to take oneís family for granted. Spend a few Thanksgivings without them as an orphan at someone elseís turkey (ham?) dinner and you will find that what you can be truly grateful for is family.
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