Thanksgiving 2009. Like all American families, we were planning a traditional holiday: organizing a menu with mashed potatoes and stuffing, driving to Grandma’s, and discussing our Black Friday shopping strategies. No, wait. We weren’t doing any of that. We were flying to Mexico.
My in-laws invited my husband and me to travel with them, along with my brother-in-law and teenage sister-in-law, to Puerto Vallarta. They were members of a luxury vacation club and had to use up some of their travel days. And, apparently, the vacation club property in Puerto Vallarta was hard to reserve on holiday weekends. So even though there is nothing like my own mother’s Thanksgiving dinner, and even though one of my college friends was getting married that weekend, we took them up on the offer and celebrated the most quintessential of American days by leaving the country.
Our villa for the weekend was lovely, and the clear blue sky, white sandy beach, and palm trees swaying in the warm breeze were delightful after the grey cloudiness back home, where all the leaves had aged past their bright orange blaze and those still clinging to dry branches had turned crispy and brown. But, as is often the case in dramas, the characters in this story overpowered the setting.
We had Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant in the nearby Four Seasons hotel. I should have known things would not go well when my father-in-law got mad at my sister-in-law for wanting to order turkey, even though a “traditional Thanksgiving dinner” was prominently displayed on the menu. This minor exchange seemed to have the same effect as a match falling onto a line of gunpowder leading to a pile of dynamite. My mother in law shot back a snide comment, my sister-in-law sulked, and my father-in-law growled back a nasty reply. This shooting/sulking/growling pattern continued, escalating in both intensity and volume, and nobody gave any sign of calling a truce. Silverware was slammed. Tears were shed. Food grew cold. One of them would storm away from the table, then come back, then another would leave. My husband, brother-in-law, and I were trying desperately to pretend that nothing was out of order. We chatted too loudly about music festivals, or work, or…well, anything that seemed neutral. But we couldn’t drown out the din of the conflict at the other end of the table.
As I stared into my ratatouille, I became acutely aware of the fact that this was different than the usual family discord in one glaring way—we were in public. Not only were we in a crowded restaurant, we were seated at a table in the very center of the outdoor dining room. Like gravy that has escaped the mashed potatoes and spilled over onto the turkey and green beans, our family drama had infiltrated the holidays of the other families around us. And those families did not look pleased.
The rest of the holiday was awkward and tense, as everyone either placed blame on someone else or tiptoed around each other or pretended nothing had happened. We drank a lot.
I do have one fond memory of that Thanksgiving, however. After dinner, I retreated from the drama to my room and watched the most classic of American films, Casablanca, in English with Spanish subtitles. I read the subtitles aloud to myself, my words a few beats behind those of Bogart and Bergman, just to hear how they sounded in a language I couldn’t understand. It was the best conversation I heard all weekend.
Lisa Lance is a writer and communications specialist living in the Baltimore area. She is a student in the M.A. in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University. Her articles and essays have appeared in print and online publications including Baltimore Magazine, National Parks Traveler, Seltzer, Bmoreart, 20 Something Magazine,and Sauce Magazine. She loves to travel and welcomes unexpected drama because it gives her more to write about. www.lisalance.com