(Excerpted from my book The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad)
I'm looking at a photo of myself topless.
I'm five years old, playing the role of an Indian in my kindergarten Thanksgiving Day play, red war paint on my chest and cheeks, and a paper feather painfully stuck in my head. I remember being much more concerned about exposing my naked chest than about some historical sit-down between Pilgrims and Indians.
Thirty-seven years, one divorce, and many thousands of tuition dollars later, I still don't like being shirtless in public, and also don't know much more about Thanksgiving's true origins than I did then. So I did something I never would have dreamed of back in elementary school. I Googled Thanksgiving.
This is what we know: A long time ago, some 130 restless Europeans cashed in their frequent sailor miles for adventurous times -- and a helping of religious freedom -- in the New World. They brought their families, rats, and funky buckle hats. The Wampanoag Indians, happy to see the Pilgrims in the way deer are happy to see an oncoming tractor trailer, gave them corn and helped them survive the harsh winter. In return, the Pilgrims gave them small pox.
The relationship was probably doomed from the start. For one thing, the natives were probably still peeved at being called Indians, based on Christopher Columbus' misidentifying his destination as the West Indies. (That ship was mostly populated by men, so you can be sure no one stopped to ask for directions). In fact, ancient Algonquian writings were recently translated to say: "That Columbus idiot couldn't navigate his way out of a corn husk."
Fast forward half a millennium or so, and we're still replaying some of those early customs. We still carve turkeys, set our tables for guests, and stereotype Native Americans. Some of us watch the Patriots and the Redskins knock each other around over a pigskin. And our relations with guests go from cordial to confrontational by the third bottle of gift wine. There were no Thanksgiving Day parades during Pilgrim times, of course, but it's quite possible Willard Scott was there.
We like to think we're more civilized than our Mayflower forefathers, but not everything about today's Thanksgiving is an improvement. For one thing, I don't think the Pilgrims would tolerate hours of standstill holiday traffic the way we do today. Especially with the little Pilgrimettes whining in the back:
"Father, hath we arrived yet? And willest thou change the radio station?"
In my first life as a father, Thanksgiving started with everyone getting up early and watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade on television. We yawned through the marching bands, delighted at the majestic floats, and gawked at B-level music stars moving their freezing lips to songs they'd come to hate. By the early afternoon, the kitchen would be abuzz with rolling, chopping, basting, sweating, and swearing.
Inevitably, someone would become inordinately worried about the turkey. Was it taking too long to cook? Was it too pink? Too dry? Was it organic, or did it have track marks on its leg? Was it really a chicken?
We complimented everything on the table for fear of insulting a contributing guest: "This salt is so good and salty! Who here made this salt? And this water is to die for!" Meanwhile, my Dad looked longingly at the mute television as if it were calling out to him.
My ex and I plan to switch Turkey Day custody every year, so last year I spent my first Thanksgiving in nearly a decade without my kids. I yakked on about the weather, car troubles, and work as I usually do, but it still felt somewhat wrong, as if someone forgot to invite the turkey.
The day after Thanksgiving, my new wife Anne and I took the kids to Disney's High School Musical on Ice. What could be more patriotic than ice dancers simulating basketball to a syrupy Disney soundtrack? The kids were mesmerized, and I dropped cash at the souvenir stand as if I was competing for their attention with Thanksgiving itself.
When we got home, we immediately dropped our Disney gear, kicked off our shoes, and flopped on the couch to watch the previous day's parade on the DVR. In the kitchen, Anne was making chicken and French fries. Lazy cats were warming the furniture all around us.
With the familiar smell of comfort food in the air, I realized that all traditions -- even late-coming ones -- have a starting point. This was ours.
And these days, I get to keep my shirt on. If that's not something to be thankful for, I don't know what is.
Joel Schwartzberg is a father of three, an award-winning essayist, and author of the first-of-its kind collection of personal essays from the perspective of a divorced father, The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad