The One Where I Thank the Thanksgiving Episodes of "Friends"

I used to fight with my cousin on Thanksgiving.

 

It was a tradition of sorts, a quite busted tradition– might I add, but one nonetheless. When I pulled open the mahogany door of her home every year on that November holiday from ages 10 to 13 I just knew the day was going to end in some kind of fight. For whatever reason, that’s how it went for us on Thanksgiving. It was often resolved by the end of the night, whether our mothers (sisters themselves) had to get involved– or one of us approached the other to say sorry – or our brothers forced us to come to some sort of peace before our annual game of manhunt. We’d always make up– before pies lined the countertop, before our childish games began outside and our feet were numb from the cool grass and the 9 PM sky, before my uncle retreated to the couch. We’d always make up. Now this cousin is my best friend, and I could never imagine fighting with her on Thanksgiving. Instead, now we usually show up to her house together, having had breakfast at Dunkin Donuts (another tradition), with baked goods we slaved over the day before in tow.

 

But years ago, we used to fight. I can’t remember what about, but every year I can remember sneaking up to the walk in closet of her bedroom and locking the door behind me, needing to be alone as she had an outburst about what I’d done to my brothers– getting them on her side. I took the quiet way, for once, avoiding confrontation. I’d sit underneath all her warm sweaters with just my toes sticking out and I’d watch “Friends” on my passed down Ipad. Back then, when I didn’t have Netflix, I had my favorite episodes all downloaded from Itunes. “Friends” was something my mother had shown me one night when we both couldn’t sleep and reruns were playing on late night TV as they do. I had a particular liking to certain episodes (I can name the ones that are my favorite) and in my favorites list are all ten Thanksgiving episodes. One for all ten seasons– each one greater than the last. I can pretty much recite them to you now, word for word, but back then they were just comedic relief. I’d turn on “The one with the football” though I barely got any of the adult jokes, and I’d sit in her closet and watch until I felt better. And I’d go downstairs when dessert was called and everything would get resolved. We’d make up, and we’d hug, and we’d run outside hand and hand to play manhunt. We both just needed a minute to be dramatic, a minute to regroup, 23 minutes perhaps, to watch an episode of “Friends” and then we were back to being best friends.

 

As we grew older and Thanksgiving changed with the years, the fighting went away. We weren’t 11 years old and there was no need for over dramatic arguments about nothing but where we were sitting around the kids table. But as life does, where small childhood issues once lived, bigger ones ushered in. Thanksgivings came and went– at one in my early teens, I got food poisoning and spent the night throwing up only to end my evening in the only way I saw best fit – lying in my mom’s bed, laptop rested against my belly, watching Thanksgiving episodes of “Friends”. When my great aunt passed away of cancer there was an empty spot at the table that was simply unavoidable. It stayed on our minds all throughout dinner in a quiet sort of way. And my cousins and I crowded around the TV to watch The One With the List, to try and take ourselves away from reality for just a moment. When Hurricane Sandy devastated my cousin’s town and everything was at a strange and silent lull that November, my cousins and I all crowded around her upstairs TV to watch Joey finish an entire turkey in The One With the Rumor. We laughed, and it broke the silence that was emanating from driving through a town that had been destroyed by natural disaster a month before. My cousin’s house burned down in a freak accident a year later, and we had Thanksgiving at their rental home, not wanting to give up the tradition of their family hosting. It felt foreign, like borrowing an outfit that didn’t quite fit right but that you had to wear. We tiptoed around a home that wasn’t furnished with their furniture, we fumbled around as we cooked in a kitchen that wasn’t familiar like the kitchen that no longer existed just down the road, my cousins were sad– with all their things destroyed, the walls in their home lined with ash. Everything burnt and black. But we laughed anyway. We spent the whole night eating and laughing. We found ways to heal emotional wounds. We figured out how to work the upstairs television and turned on The One With All the Thanksgivings, to watch Monica tell Chandler she loved him for the first time. That faded into The One with Chandler in the Box, where Monica so perfectly announces "Fine. Judge all you want to, but [to Ross] married a lesbian, [to Rachel] left a man at the altar, [to Phoebe] fell in love with a gay ice dancer, [to Joey] threw a girl's wooden leg in a fire, and [to Chandler] live in a box!"

 Even the good ones, where everything went as planned, everything was perfect – the turkey was on time, the relatives were all perfectly pleasant, the house was beautiful, there was no fighting, no food poisoning, there were all the types of mashed potatoes that everyone wanted at the table (lumpy, not lumpy, homemade, boxed, sweet, with vegetables, etc) I always ended up, alone or with a crowd of people I love, watching “Friends” Thanksgiving episodes. It’s tradition. Like Turkey on the table. Like sweet potatoes with marshmallows. Like Manhunt.  Like Dunkin Donuts breakfast. Like my uncle’s canned cranberry sauce so blatantly juxtaposing my grandmother’s homemade one.

 

Last years Thanksgiving was different. Despite all the memories and issues that arose in the previous 17 years of Thanksgiving, dinner was always held at my aunt’s house. The same house (except the one year we hopped to the rental), the same tradition, the same people, the same smells. That would never change. At the end of the day whatever disaster transpired on Thanksgiving, at the very least we’d be at my aunt’s house. And something about her china and her dining room table and the island in her kitchen just felt right. It felt like home. It felt like family. It felt like something to be thankful for.

 

Last years Thanksgiving was different. My mother’s late stage Lymes disease had flared up for the upteenth time, but it was significantly worse than it had been before. I was particularly blindsided by this incident, as I’d been away at the University of Michigan for the previous three months. They’d hid the truth from me in hopes of conserving my carefree freedom, and not ushering in stifling anxiety about my family’s wellbeing. But it was pretty evident that Thanksgiving was going to be a drastic change from the beloved traditions of my family because my mother couldn’t do much but move from her bed to the couch. It would be okay, I knew this, there was something about her boldfaced courage that always led our family along that made me so sure. That and the fact that flare ups always end, they can’t culminate in anything fatal, it was all going to be alright. She would be fine.

 

But our traditions wouldn’t be. That year, we were having Thanksgiving at my house. And everyone had put on a cheery face for the whole ordeal, but there was this deep seated sense of discomfort and emptiness inside us all. The way my brothers and I had to take trips back and forth to my aunt’s to bring the food that she had prepared to my house, stinking up my car with a rotting scent that attached to the leather and didn’t let go for a month. The way my aunt had to set her table at our table, the way my cousins were upset that their tradition had been shaken. The way that my mom couldn’t move to the table for dinner, so we said grace in our TV room, and my grandmother cried. And then we all ate dinner in the dining room, and my mother’s voice was missing. The scrape of the dishes against the forks and knives filled the room, and we all talked and laughed, but she was missing. There was a sense that things weren’t the way they’d always been. That there were so many things to be thankful for yet others that just sucked. After dinner ended, everyone was tired of the forced happiness. We cleaned in silence, my aunt and father went to go sit with my mother in the family room where the plate of food we’d made up for her and gone cold. She smiled shakily and I knew behind her hazy eyes she was still there. The same go getter, super mom, dressed perfectly head to toe was in there. She’d be back.

My brothers and cousin and I decided to take a drive before dessert, just to get out of the house. It’d been a while, or so it felt that way. As we drove all the way down the shore, in silence and solitude, a permeating smell of Thanksgiving themed death seemed to emanate from my car’s leather seats. After about fifteen minutes of silence, my brother piped up to say – 

“This car smells awful.”

    Nobody responded but we all nodded in acknowledgement. A second later, he spoke again.

    “No for real Eli your car stinks.”

    Once again, silence. But my brother turned around to check the trunk.

    “The sweet potato casserole – it – it spilled.” He sputtered through laughs as he faced the back of the car, looking at the disaster in the backseat.

    After a beat to realize we’d forgotten the casserole in the trunk and it had exploded all over the car, we all began laughing. Truly laughing, for the first time all day. I had to pull over the car because my eyes had filled with tears and I could barely breathe. On the side of the road we all continued to laugh, until we caught our breath. As we let the laughter subside, my cousin spoke from the back.

    “Is she going to be okay?” She asked, referencing my mom. I took a minute to think, I was always the one with the answers, or so it seemed.

    “Yes, Lil, yes she is. She’s going to be fine.” I responded with clarity. And with that I took the car out of park, and rolled down the windows, airing out the Jeep’s interior.

    “Anyone want to go home take all the pie into the basement with plastic forks and watch The One Where the Underdog Gets Away?” I asked, referencing the first ever Thanksgiving episode of “Friends” as we drove towards home, a new feeling of contentment filling the space where sadness had sat. They all agreed.

 

    Thanksgivings changed with the years. Thanksgiving faced a million and one things I thought were disasters but often were really miracles in the making. My mom got better. The house was rebuilt. The town bounced back from the natural disaster. My cousin is one of the most important people in my life. Every moment, every obstacle, no matter how small or large, was tackled. Because we were all together. Because illness and natural disaster and fighting and house fires and loss are all a part of life. They are difficult and rocky and are bumps in the road but we all get through them together. We all face them as one. And year after year after year, every November, in whatever house, with whatever group, with whatever baggage, we’ll always have each other. And we’ll always have those ten episodes, no matter what– Joey, Monica, Rachel, Chandler, Ross and Phoebe (and sometimes guest star Brad Pitt) to remind us that yes, sometimes Thanksgiving may seem like a disaster, but it’s not about the food or the house or the types of mashed potatoes. It’s about each other. And that’s what truly matters.