My family has long had a tenuous relationship with Thanksgiving. As immigrants — my parents, natives of Iran, moved with my sister and me from Sweden to New Jersey in 1988 — the sentiment behind Thanksgiving was certainly something we could get behind. Heartfelt gratitude was something each of us knew and felt intimately: for new opportunities, for a chance to realize our seemingly limitless potential, and, more than anything else, for the tight, loving bonds of our little foursome as we moved halfway around the world for a better life.
But, the mode of celebration seemed a bit “off.” For years, due in large part to my being a stickler for tradition (even new and unclear traditions), my family tried to hold “American Thanksgiving.” A day of roast turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pie. A day spent working in the kitchen or lazing about in front of the television.
Most of what I knew was learned from TV commercials and by observing the traditions of my American friends. It’s how things are done here, I’d say every time I came to my parents with a new-to-us idea. My dad would cock an eyebrow and my mom, gracious as ever, would acquiesce to my requests.
The discovery of the “green bean casserole” was momentous, as if we’d struck upon some great American treasure. It was also a bit confusing to our palates. Often, after hours of laborious cooking, we’d do little more than pick at our plates. It was a familiar refrain, every year, to hear my dad complain about the leftovers. Similarly, he complained when I tried to change the channel to watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade or football. “Wouldn’t you rather go outside?” he’d offer.
Food and activity preferences aside, Thanksgiving was also tinged with sadness. Two of our beloved family cats, on separate and unrelated occasions separated by seven years, passed away on or around Thanksgiving.
It should come as no surprise that in time, my family began to associate the day with a time of mourning, bad food, and restlessness. Still, a stickler for tradition and lover of holidays, I wouldn’t let go, and insisted on stereotypical “celebration” each autumn.
I was in high school when my family revolted. It was the week before Thanksgiving, and I was finalizing the menu. I’m not eating ham again, my father said. Or turkey. No ham and no turkey. His words fell like a gavel.
Before I could object — blasphemy! — my sister chimed in: And no more pie! Please, no more pie.
Seeing my eyes glaze over with tears, my mom tried to soften the blow of mutiny. But Maggie, the pie filling. It’s just so gooey.
“It’s Sarah Lee!” I shot back, my face hot with the shame of betrayal. “It’s Sarah Lee.”
No amount of frozen pie or pleas of It’s just how things are done here! helped my case.
That Thanksgiving, we decided to choose our favorite foods; these would serve as the feast over which we’d express gratitude for each other and the blessings in our lives. My mom made Persian rice and stew, and I baked dessert — homemade pie that left poor Sarah Lee’s creations in the dust.
Since then, we have refined and revised our celebrations. About six years ago, tired of doing nothing all day, my sister and I signed up to do a 5-Mile Turkey Trot with my best friend, Darius. It got us out of our parents’ hair for the morning and gave us something to do with our energy. We’ve since made it an annual affair, turkey costumes included.
By loosening my reigns on stereotypical American traditions — and letting go of my ideas of what Thanksgiving “should” be — true family traditions have emerged. This all-American holiday is now a can’t-miss at the Fazeli Fard house. Roast turkey has even made a comeback (albeit in Persian form: basted in saffron and lemon juice, and served with crispy basmati rice), and our plush turkey hats are slated for delivery in time for Thursday’s race.
In the process of discovering our own unique American identity, we’ve circled back to wholeheartedly embracing the cause for celebration in the first place: Gratitude.
Maggie Fazeli Fard is an Experience Life senior editor.