thanks, given

M. flew in late Wednesday night, and at the crack of dawn on Thursday we hopped in a rental car to head to his family's annual Thanksgiving reunion in Fresno, where I would be a complete stranger.

The drive was uneventful save for how stupidly excited I was to be out of the city, shouting and pointing whenever I saw distinctly non urban things. "HOLY SHIT! COWS!" ...  "Oh, look at the colors of the treeeeees!" ...  "Hang on. I have to get a shot of these power lines. There's just open sky behind them!" He'd barely pulled in to the rest stop when I jumped out of the car and made a beeline for the OMG red leaves on the ground.

Dey came from dis, which I spent a good five minutes climbing around/underneath for the Instygramz:

There was also fog, which M. was less than thrilled about, but which I just thought was fun, in a creepy movie sort of way.

Incidentally, this was the first time M. had ever been to a rest stop. Ever. I don't know, I think he could have shown a little more enthusiasm for the experience.

I personally think rest stops are fascinating. They're these desolate, metaphoric and literal way stations that exist in between everything. In between destinations. In between stories. I'd love to spend a day at one just talking to random people on their way elsewhere, find out who they are and where they're going. And why. 

On the way, we did a quick drive-through of Visalia, so I could see some of his roots. He ragged on the town, but I found it sweet.

I mean, come on. You've gotta have a little room in your heart for anyplace that has a Candy Cane Lane. It doesn't get more earnest than that. M. pointed out the hospital where he was hatched. "Only baby born that night," he said. "There, I mean."

Eventually, we got to his aunt's house in Fresno. She greeted us outside, on the quiet, tree-lined street where she lives, and ushered us into a modest but lovely home, frozen in time in the way that only an eighty year-old's is. Knick-knacks, carefully maintained but out-of-date furniture, and decades' worth of framed bragging rights lining a prominently featured bookshelf. 

We entered the house through the garage, and I barely had time to get my bearings in the crowded kitchen before an elderly man came charging at me with open arms. "I'm Uncle Bill," he said. "And I give hugs to pretty girls." And so it was that I met my new favorite octogenarian, a man who'd spend the day going out of his way to make me feel as welcome as possible in unfamiliar, emotional pang-inducing surroundings.

He was warm, spirited, and utterly engaging. He started chatting me up immediately, and pulled me back into conversation whenever he saw me getting overwhelmed by - or left out of - the bustling family scene. I was the only non-family member there. He asked me about my background, my interests, my political leanings - I think M. snapped this shot when we were bonding over a shared love of Christopher Hitchens:

In Bill's previous, pre-retirement life, he worked in retail. When I asked him what he'd done for a living and he said, "I spent most of my life in women's clothing," I decided I was going to adopt him as my uncle, too. He invited insisted M. and I come to Georgia to visit him, and I pretty much decided on the spot that I'd be going alone if I had to. 

There's been a lot of loss in M.'s family - not just his father, but a few other family members, as well. There's almost a complete generational gap between grandchildren and surviving grandparents. In a fucked up way, this made me feel even more at home there. Little Orphan Ellie wasn't the only orphan.

The other person I bonded with was M.'s aunt BG who was AMAZING. I'm not even sure how to explain this woman. Eighty-something firecracker who got absolutely plastered and spent the evening variously assaulting me with vaguely TMI family history, harassing the one teenager in attendance, and complaining about the food. All of this with language that would make a sailor blush. She was a riot in the best, most lovable way. Straight out of central casting, she is the perfect, slightly loopy great-aunt who adds hilarity and a touch of scandal to Thanksgiving dinner. 

I was a total interloper, but everyone was very kind to me. And I enjoyed seeing a family do the family thing: laugh, love, talk, connect, argue, snipe, and then laugh and love some more. A couple of times I overheard myself being talked about ("...both her sad...very sweet girl...") which kind of made me feel like I was floating above, looking down at the scene in a detached way. Me? They're talking about me? Why, what's the...oh. Oh yeah. But the moments of feeling maudlin and self-indulgent were few and far between, because I really was mostly busy enjoying talking to everyone.

Dinner was your typical Thanksgiving affair: jovial, boisterous, with occasional awkward silences when sensitive subjects came up. And the food? Well, nothing can touch my mother's Thanksgiving meal.


But I'll tell you what. Each bite was delicious if only for the fact that I was so, so, so grateful to be in the company of loving, welcoming people - and my best friend - eating turkey and stuffing and cranberries, rather than holed up in my apartment alone, munching on frozen pizza.

Everyone hugged me goodbye, and I purposely saved Uncle Bill for last. Saying goodbye to him was surprisingly sad-inducing, in much the same way that it was hard to say goodbye to Ezra, last December. I don't know what it is about me and old men. But damn do we connect.

I didn't get emotional the whole day, which I was rather proud of. But once we got out the front door, the tears hit. It wasn't as bad as my father's birthday, which had me positively wracked, sobbing for hours in the tub. Thanksgiving was always the holiday I spent with my mom, and that loss isn't quite as fresh. But just being around a family - god, the envy. Palpable envy that makes my stomach flip even now, if I let myself dwell on it. 

But I won't. Because I'm a damn lucky girl, all things considered.