11/24/2014 12:34 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Definitely Not Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving

Echo via Getty Images

In my family, the closest we ever came to resembling a Norman Rockwell painting was on Thanksgiving Day. My extended family wasn't very close, but we came together once a year, and generally speaking, people got along. In my family, food is the opiate of the people.

My parents grew up near their relatives, and were much closer to their cousins, aunts and uncles than my generation was. I always felt that I missed out on something by living in the suburbs.

Seeing these people once a year made for interesting comparisons. Not only who got taller or fatter, but also who was proving to be a good student, who was a musical prodigy, and later on, who came out as gay. These revelations were oddly disturbing. On the one hand, the subjects were my flesh and blood and their latest developments should be of interest; at the same time, I really didn't know them that well to begin with, so how much could I really care?

Like all kids, as we grew older, our friends became more important and helped us form our identities. In my family, some of the kids were rebellious and defiant, while others were much more acquiescent to their parents' expectations. Differences seemed more striking than similarities. While we'd promise each other to stay in touch and get together real soon, we all knew we were lying. If we wanted to be close, we would have been close. Instead, we'd trade phone numbers that would never be called.

At a certain point, family members my age began getting married and having their own children. As an interested but somewhat detached observer, I was struck by how much my peers became younger versions of their parents. Hearing them talk about the travails of parenthood always reminded me of the "What's the matter with kids today?" scene from Bye Bye Birdie. Same as it ever was.

It's hard not to be judgmental when there's so much perspective available in dealing with people you see once or twice a year. My life has had its share of ups and downs, and I knew that my affairs were a prime topic of discussion in my absence. If I couldn't have my family's approval, I found it easier becoming more remote. As I get older, that saddens me.

Whenever I watch a TV show like Family Feud, I can't help but be amazed by how demonstrative and affectionate these families can be. My family was never big on hugging, and sometimes we barely got along. But at least once a year, on Thanksgiving, we've come together as a family. It might require a cocktail or two to dispense with the defensiveness and past resentments, but by the time the turkey is brought to the table, we are, for at least a few minutes, a group that shares grandparents and great-grandparents, shares joys and disappointments and prides and failures. And we're thankful that we've got at least this much.