November 26, 2012 1 Comment
Over the years it has occurred to me that most of my friends were dreading the arrival of Thanksgiving. As a holiday meant to be spent surrounded by your relatives, some of them fearing the generational gap that sometimes separates conservatives from liberals, a Thanksgiving has been often associated with political disputes over the cooking of a turkey – for vegans – over the recent election results in 2008 and 2012, over the choice of significant others for LGBT people, or simply issues such as global warming, corporate welfare, or whether or not one follows Glenn Greenwald on Twitter. As an outspoken progressive raised in a liberal family, the only moments voices are raised over my family table are the discussions surrounding the differences between liberals and environmentalists; hardly anything causing boiling blood. But this year, I have been invited by a friend to spend Thanksgiving with her and her family in Virginia.
Before my Brooklyn, NY self departed for my destination, I made several comments aloud or in social media supposed to poke fun at mt travel to a southern state. It was full of the stereotype any European would have of the American South, mainly, that everyone is a religious radical, a gun-toting extremist, a climate change denier and emphasizing the difference between “rape-rape” and “legitimate rape” in-between the mashed potatoes and the cranberry sauce. Little did I know that my arrival in Virginia was greeted in the best and most unexpected of ways: that I was not necessarily wrong, but that it didn’t matter.
First of all it is important to note that S., my friend, is an outspoken Democrat and a fervent Obama supporter. We have disagreed over the course of the campaign as I was more likely to defend Gary Johnson than I was to step up for the incumbent, so disappointed I was in his first term and his slightly scary civil rights record. All the same, we agree on fundamental issues and have always had a grand time discussing human rights standards and other progressive issues, such as the Keystone pipeline or reproductive rights for women in the country. A true Southerner, S. is sometimes feeling a bit isolated and couldn’t have been more proud when Virginia turned blue during the 2012 election. Even I couldn’t have predicted the state would vote Obama, as it isn’t even a swing state. But hey, crazier things have happened, and I was ready to find my place at the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I was not given any forewarning. No one told me, “listen, those people are die-hard Republicans and you better keep your socialist mouth shut.” No one did, because no one needed to. I wasn’t attending a Thanksgiving dinner in the hope of “converting” anyone to my side of the river, I was coming along because I like new experiences, had never been to Virginia before (*) and wanted to meet my friend’s family. Her older daughter, L., was going to be there and I wanted to meet L.’s baby boy. I was excited at the idea of meeting new people and going to a real Thanksgiving dinner cooked by real people – instead of my school’s usual Thanksgiving dinner which, despite being really friendly and sweet, was prepared by freshmen as some sort of cute initiation ritual and often ended up with a messed up pumpkin pie. My friend Amber came down from Maryland to join us and, after a breakfast made of various local beer, we took the road with our little troupe to meet our hosts in Danville.
The funny thing is, I was crushing under the proverbial weight of tweets from people coerced into attending family reunions they’d rather avoid, I was happy not to be bitter and lonely and to be in rare form, wearing a designer dress that had an upside down cross on it without any second thoughts, and massaging my stomach in the anticipation of casseroles to come. We had brought tea and moonshine as is the custom in this part of the world, and I discovered a beautiful house sitting among century-old trees, the sun preparing to set behind the wooden hills, as I was relishing from the relatively warm temperatures. Everyone was eager to meet me, the person that had travelled all this way to share dinner with strangers from a faraway state. Everyone embraced that strange accent I have that no one seems to be able to place. When we were all there, we all ate our food, buffet-style, from homemade casseroles, pies, and even mac and cheese. No one questioned the fact I wasn’t eating any turkey (I’m vegan). They were only interested in finding out whether I already had apple pie, which is the local code word for apple-made moonshine. They made me drink some from a jar and yes, it does taste like apple pie. “You don’t even need to chase it”, said J., and he was right. I took a sip like it was water. A little more and I would have been drooling on the floor. It was all about sharing what makes their life so interesting, and about discovering a piece of land I had never set foot in before.
Politics didn’t even enter the territory before I visited their barn. It was where they parked their four-wheelers and I went to take a look because I’m curious and had heard an old car was being entirely rebuilt. Inside, I found four-wheelers, and many, many stickers that could have been construed as provocative from a liberal point of view but really, to be honest, I found them funny. They were so precisely stereotypical that I could not believe they were true. On the wall was a sign that read: “Recession is when a friend loses their job. Depression is when you lose your job. Recovery is when Obama loses his job.” Another sign depicted the muzzle of a gun straight at the onlooker with a notice that read “We don’t call 911” (apparently this is a local favorite). Various anti-Obama signs were to be seen all around the place as well as stickers and posters that professed their mistrust of anyone wishing to restrict Second Amendment rights. I was grinning to myself thinking that those signs exist, they’re not just weird bumper stickers I usually see when my Megabus is driving through Maryland. However, my host was showing me around with communicative enthusiasm and I am, personally, not against shooting guns for sport in a shooting range or even, say, owning a gun (**). I toured the place and went back to the house with her where I visited the basement to see several pictures of the family attending target practice competitions dressed in cowboy outfits. They were good at what they do. Not only are they good, but they are committed, and while their son was playing a video game, I even envied the possibility of being so engrossed into something that is ultimately harmless and fun – they did treat gun ownership as being a sport, not being a threat to the current administration – that I wish I knew people like that around me.
I never thought I could spend Thanksgiving with the Romneys, the Ryans, or the Santorums. I don’t believe a single second they would accept a mixed race kid that has recently defied US Immigration and who benefits from universal health care. However, this family I was in was loving, caring, open-minded, and terribly funny. They were just so lovely, and interacted with each other with such love that the values of staunch individualism transmitted by the 2012 version of the GOP just could not apply. This was not a family that was going to reject anyone based on their differences. It wasn’t a family that was going to feel threatened by my own set of beliefs. They were so comfortable with each other, themselves, and me, that we all became one, and Amber and I were part of the clan, and even our dogs got along. It was a progressive’s worst nighmare: long hours spent ingesting massive amounts of food stuck in a room with people you don’t know. But at no point did anyone say that I was wrong or that I was not welcomed. To the contrary, the same night, one of them posted on their Facebook, “I am glad I made two new friends today”. I guess what we believed were differences in choices and values were not that important in the grand scheme of things.
In the end, does political affiliations matter if you really love the people you’re with? I have been wondering ever since. I always thought I would never know what my friends were suffering through until I became vegan and heavily tattooed, two things my liberal, union-leading, socialist-supporting, environmentally-conscious parents vocally disapprove of; and having a holiday meal with them became way more complicated than it was eating peas, a string bean casserole and custard pie with people in the middle of Virginia. What mattered is that we all profoundly cared for each other and through that learned to love no matter what, and to accept whoever would walk past the threshold because it was what Thanksgiving was about. True, they were religious, and perhaps a Christmas meal would have been different with a non-believer sitting at the table, but that day I knew I had found people I wanted to go back to, and that is probably more important than who I would have voted for on November 4.
(*) did I mention I live in Brooklyn? Best place on earth.
(**) as long as one possesses the required permits, that the weapon is registered, and the owner is neither mentally ill nor a known terrorist. Strangely enough I do seem to support Mayor Bloomberg on the issue.