My Worst Thanksgivings, Ranked (Redux)

An oldie but goodie, slightly updated.

If you’re among the 100 or so readers who’ve been subscribed to Adventures in “Journalism” since at least November, 2019—this newsletter’s early, early days—then most of what I’ve posted below will be familiar. (There are now almost 1,000 of you...)

When I was a kid, I liked Thanksgiving just fine. Each year we traveled to a big family gathering in New Jersey, filled with favorite cousins and aunts and uncles (one who has always called me “Turkey” because apparently I looked like a Butter Ball when I was born). But then my parents got divorced when I was almost 11, and the holiday (all holidays, actually) became painful for me.

Meeting my husband Brian in 2003 ushered in a new era of good Thanksgivings. We always celebrate the holiday on the Saturday of the weekend (so people can go to their in-laws on Thursday) with most of his extended family, usually at our house. It’s great fun, with lots of good food and live music.

But prior to that, there were some real…turkeys. Here, a look at four of them.

Fourth worst: 1994, West Village

I’m psyched when I’m invited by a new friend to an intimate Thanksgiving dinner for 10 at her brownstone apartment in the West Village.

I met her the year before, at a media/publishing networking party, of which she was the host. She held these parties monthly at a bar just on the next corner from my East Village apartment. She had this southern way about her that made it natural to warm to her, and for guests to warm to one another, as she made her way through the crowd introducing everyone.

I only ever went to one of her events. But she had taken my card, which had my full name on it, as a business card would. (*That’s a detail to remember.)

Shortly after the party, she contacted me. “Hey,” she wrote in a message sent to my email address, which also contained my full name: “Hey,” she wrote, “I remember you said you write personal essays. I wondered whether I could send you one for some feedback?” Sure, I replied. So she sent me a really touching piece about finding out her mother had cancer. I made some notes and sent it back. “Hey, can I send you one?” I asked? We went back and forth like this for about year, with a few very personal pieces each.

This was different from my other friendships. While I met other friends for movies and meals, I didn’t trade writing with them. Even though we hadn’t seen each other again, and we didn’t talk on the phone, I thought this was something sort of special, and I was glad for it. Not to mention, I was kind of jazzed that she had chosen me. She, about whom there’d been a New York Times profile. My new friend was anointed, and well connected.

So, then, in early November, she actually calls – leaves me a message on my machine, back when we had answering machines – inviting me to Thanksgiving.

The holiday arrives. I get to my friend’s building with two decent bottles of red wrapped in foil gift bags, and hit the buzzer. I climb the stairs, knock on her door, and after a few seconds, she opens it.

I smile at her, ready to take a step inside, but she stands there, in the doorway, looking at me with the most puzzled expression.

“Can I help you?” she finally asks.

"I'm…Sari," I say.

Blank stare.

"Sari Botton."

"Oh…" she says, as a light bulb seems to go off in her head. Turns out the whole year we’d been corresponding, she thought I was a different Sari altogether: Sari Locker, then the host of a popular cable sex talk show.

Never mind that my full name was on my business card, and was also part of my aol address. Never mind that I have a really uncommon first name. When you meet a Sari, you tend to remember her. I’m not flattering myself. People meet me and they say, “I once met another Sari!” and they tell me all about her, and ask whether I know her, too, even if she lives all the way on the other side of the country. It’s the Sari-specific variety of Jewish Geography.

My new friend invites me in, clearly deflated. I meet the other guests, ascendant media types she’d culled from her networking parties, all possessing much greater media-world currency than mine. Sari Locker-level currency.

I eat turkey and drink wine with them, and they all show just enough polite interest in me, nodding as I tell them about myself and my work. It’s so awkward and uncomfortable. When enough time has passed that it doesn’t seem rude for me to leave… I’m thankful to be able to say goodnight, and make my way back to my little shithole across town.

Third worst: 1992, Westport, Connecticut

I didn’t hold out much hope for Thanksgiving of 1992. I was already feeling pretty shitty because I’d just left my first marriage. I went with Dad’s family to the Westport, Connecticut home of my step-mother's friend, a woman who volunteered at a senior center. In the pool there, she taught aqua-robics or yo-qua or something like that, and each year, she’d invite a handful of the seniors whose families were far away to share in the Thanksgiving meal at her home. It was really sweet. Over the years, we all got to know some of them.

The one who came most consistently was Benjy, a sweet, Midwestern octogenarian. After cocktails in the late afternoon, Benjy announced, “Okay, I’m going upstairs for a nap. Come and get me when the turkey’s been carved!”

If I’d been at a loss for something to be thankful for that year, I’d later realize there was this: I wasn’t the one who was sent upstairs to rouse Benjy from his nap. Benjy never woke up. Like, ever again. We spent the rest of the evening trying to reach his family, and figuring out what to do with the body.

Second worst: 1993, Lido Beach, NY

The next year, for obvious reasons, I wanted a break from Thanksgiving in Westport, so instead I went with my mom and step-dad to the home of a couple whose oldest daughter, a girl I grew up with, was a coke fiend.

We’d been assured that Suzy* was now clean. Last year, while her parents were on vacation, Suzy had reported their BMW stolen, but it turned out she had sold it for drugs. But then she went to rehab and she was never going to touch cocaine again, and now they were all living happily ever after.

Well, you just had to take one look at Suzy to know there was pretty much nothing in her system other than coke. She was skin and bones — frail, and chatty, and high as a fucking kite.

At several points in the night, she’d sit down to the piano, ask whoever was nearby, “Remember this one?” and play “My Way.” We all played along, never questioning the redemption narrative her parents had put forth on her behalf.

At one point, Suzy took me aside. “Back when I was using, I sold all my mother’s jewelry so I could buy drugs,” she said really fast, “but now that I’m clean, I really want to buy it all back for her, sooooo…do you have any money you can give me?” Not loan. Give. Prior to this, I hadn’t seen Suzy in about 10 years. She asked me again later in the evening, seeming to have forgotten her earlier request.

After my mom and step-dad got back home on Long Island, and my sister got back home to the Upper East Side, and I got back home to the East Village, we all called each other and compared notes. It turned out Suzy had asked each of us at least twice. And…she’d helped herself to all the money in our wallets and jacket pockets. Every last lint-coated dime. She’d cleaned us all out.

(* Not her real name.)

The Number One Worst Thanksgiving Ever: 1976, Island Park, New York

One of the worst aspects of being a child of divorce is navigating holidays now that your parents are apart. I might be 56 years old, but I am still, and always will be, a child of divorce. In the run-up to just about any holiday, I am overcome with leftover old grief.

The first holidays of my divorce kid existence truly ripped me apart. When I was celebrating with one parent, I was worried about the other. That first Thanksgiving after my parents’ separation that summer, my Dad had already landed with what would soon become his new family. My mom was alone, and so she got us for the holiday.

I don’t know why we didn’t go to New Jersey that year, to be with her extended family for the kind of big, fun Thanksgiving gathering with cousins I was used to. That year it was just me, my mom, my sister, and the world’s smallest turkey. It was the saddest holiday of my life.

What I’m Grateful For This Year

My husband, our families, our friends, near and far. The friendsgiving I’ll attend today, thrown by, and attended by, people who are dear to me. The outdoor friendsgiving we attended last year—outdoors, pre-vaccine—thrown by other good friends. Oh—vaccines! Very grateful for those, including my recent booster shot. I’m thankful that I’ve mostly recovered my energy post-mononucleosis, and that I am no longer symptomatic, and so far have avoided a breakthrough Covid infection.

And I’m thankful to you, my subscribers here and at Oldster Magazine, for signing up, and for reading. Thank you. 🙏