It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that Thanksgiving is my all-time favorite holiday. And the most enduring Thanksgiving Day memory I have began when I was fifteen, and, well… it’s a story that honestly may never end.
Okay, first of all, in my defense, I was a teenager. My primary mission was to sleep until noon and act like a sloth on Thanksgiving Day. The only exertion I had in mind was stuffing my face. It was a simpler time. So, when Patti, my five-year-old niece, came to me excitedly asking if I would be joining her (and about 20 of her happy, hyper cousins, and kids all under the age of ten) at 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning to stand packed like sardines in the frost-filled air among the crowds clamoring to see Santa kick off the holiday season during the annual parade…well, naturally, I did what every self-respecting fifteen-year-old scallywag is apt to do: I lied.
How do you tell a sweet-faced, five-year-old who worships everything you do that you’d rather have a date with your pillow on Thanksgiving morning? My sole intention was to let the scent of my mom’s remarkable cooking gently wake me sometime around noon or later. Instead, wee Patti’s “Cindy Lou Who” expression at once broke me in two.
“Not coming? Not coming?” Her lower lip quivered disapproval. Granted, she never said it out loud, but her face… that cherub face spoke volumes! “But Santie Claus is coming to town.” (Sniff.) Subtext: “Don’t you love me???”
(Gulp.) I was toast.
“I can’t come WITH you, Patti…because…because…I’m IN the parade,” I blurted out suddenly—surprising even myself.
“You ARE?!!!” she cooed. The smile grew wide on her tiny, pink-cheeked face, her eyes filled with holiday wonder as she cuddled closer, anticipating more story.
I did not disappoint.
“Yep,” I riffed, “I’ll be in the giant caterpillar!” I fabricated further.
It just popped out. Once I started down this road, the whole thing took on a life of it’s own and picked up momentum from there. I replaced her tiny tears with what I had long imagined would be the perfect way to spend Thanksgiving when I was her size: from inside one of my favorite childhood floats. And now here it was paying off in tiny-niece brownie points. She was completely eating this up. It was awesome! And the bonus: I could remain horizontal well into the late morning on Thanksgiving as initially planned. (Score!)
Lacking expertise in all things children, (again I was 15 years old, for crying out loud!) I figured Patti would most likely forget all about my tiny departure from the truth post parade. She’d be consumed with the whole “holiday experience”, right? Wrong. She exploded into the house that day jacked up on candy canes and cocoa—anxious to get every delicate detail I could impart. She cornered me, like a Super Fan at ComicCon as the rush of family poured into the dining room, bounding with bowls and platters teeming with Thanksgiving bounty. The excitable little magpie circled me like a satellite—grilling me within an inch of my life.
“You were in there weren’t you?! I saw your shoes. Are those the shoes you wore? I SAW them! How many people were in there with you? Did you get to bring your best friends? Were there any elves inside the caterpillar with you? I KNEW it! That’s how they get it to move, don’t they? Elves. How old do you have to be to be inside the caterpillar?”
As my father would say, I had buttered my toast, now I had to lie in it.
A year went by. I forgot all about the story I had fed Patti that Thanksgiving prior. She, on the other hand, remembered… every… ridiculous… detail. And as the holiday approached, once again I found myself being interrogated as to the comings and goings of parade life on and around Thanksgiving.
She tried to contain herself at first. “Are you in the parade again this year?” she began, trying hopelessly to contain herself. It was fruitless. Her enthusiasm snowballed.
I was in it now. I had to commit.
“You bet!” I jumped in without hesitation. “Only this year, I’m a Pilgrim!”
“You are?!!!” Her eyes widened as she turned on a pivot back to face me. There was moment there I thought she might burst. You could practically read her every crayon-colored thought. It was delicious! “I drew a Pilgrim in school.” She was eating this up. “Where’s the hat? Can I see the costume?!”
“Nope, sorry, it’s a surprise. We’re not allowed. You’ll have to wait for the parade like everybody else!”
She was thrilled! This was great, I thought! The kid’s happy, I’m happy. I LOVE Thanksgiving!
She rushed into my parents’ house following the parade that year, leaving the front door open wide behind her. She was exploding, “I saw you!! You were walking along and shaking everyone’s hands and waving!”
“That was me!” I said proudly, “I was even on TV!”
It was almost too much for her now six-year-old self to contain. This was better than Bozo. I enjoyed it as much as diving into a plate heaped high with perfect slices from a plump, free-range bird with all the fixins’.
Another year passed, we both grew a year older and, as you might have guessed, my vicious plot thickened.
“Did you see me?!” I offered up as the family assembled around the holiday table once more.
“You were a Pilgrim again, weren’t you?!”
“Nope, I was an Indian!!”
“I THOUGHT that was you!!!” she squealed with excitement.
My Thanksgiving Day parade ploy continued for two or three more years. But, like so many little traditions, it ultimately faded into the ether.
Or so I thought.
Early one autumn afternoon, after I had graduated from college and Patti was beginning high school, I happened to overhear her casually mention to a handful of her “tween-ish” friends, “My aunt was in the Thanksgiving Day Parade for years.”
“Really?” I asked curiously. “Who’s that?”
“What do mean? You, of course!” she exclaimed.
In all fairness, it had completely slipped my mind. I had no idea she even remembered the whole charade.
“Oh…Oh, Patti,” I paused. I bit my lip, apologetically shaking my lowered head. “Patti… I was never in the parade.”
She was at once solemn and serious.
“You were,” she said darkly, “I saw you. You were a Pilgrim… and an Indian. I distinctly remember you in the suspenders, funny pants and bump-toe shoes as one of the people in that giant caterpillar.”
“No, Patti. I was kidding.” I smiled sheepishly.
“You WERE!” She insisted. “I SAW you!”
“No, you didn’t,” I confessed. “It never happened.”
You would have thought I had at once choked the Easter Bunny, stuffed him head first into the Great Pumpkin, and fed them both to eight tiny reindeer. Then for good measure, I murdered Santa in cold blood in front of a school bus full of first graders. Anyway, that was the equivalent in Patti’s world.
To this day Patti questions her own memory of it all and stubbornly blames me for it. Resistance is futile. I don’t dare refute it.
Occasionally these days at family gatherings I’ll catch her staring at me. Squinting with a stern expression on her face. She seems dark, sullen, arms folded and untrusting. After a while she’ll lower her head, and mutter something about me being dressed as a Pilgrim under her breath. I leave it alone.
Of course, the real fallout of deceiving her all those years is that she doubts every utterance I have to offer on anything any more. Oh, and I’m not allowed to offer any holiday stories to her kids, real or imagined, for fear they may be maimed emotionally for life. Patti swears every time I don’t tell her the whole truth about anything she smells cinnamon.
Guess that’s the price I will continue to pay for attempting to catch a few extra winks on Thanksgiving morning when I was fifteen and hapless. Come to think of it, for one reason or another, I haven’t slept in on that day since.
As for this holiday—I wish you honest relatives and friends, and a season filled with hope, warmth, rest, and good food to share. Enjoy the day and all that comes with it.
Happy Thanksgiving! Make it safe, and make it memorable in a good way!
Copyright © 2023 by Kate McClanaghan. All Rights Reserved.