I used to dread Thanksgiving—well not so much the holiday as the obligatory meal with family friends in Harlem. For at least five consecutive years during my childhood, my parents would drag me against my will from our home (a home whose fridge was overflowing with my mother’s excellent Caribbean cooking: chicken wings so well seasoned that they were the epitome of savory, rice and peas made rich with coconut milk, macaroni pie that was an ode to cheese)—my parents would wrench me from our home (so full of deliciousness) and force me to accompany them to Harlem for a Thanksgiving dinner with an old woman who I suspected was trying to poison me.
This Harlem woman was old, the oldest version of old my young eyes had ever seen. She was skeletal and bowed over. Her eyes were yellowed and her skin was rough. She reminded me of the witch in Hansel and Gretel. And just like in the fairy tale, her home looked inviting from the outside, but it was a mistake to enter.
Her home was massive and built in the grand style of its era—high and intricately embellished ceilings, ornate staircase railings, hardwood floors. But despite the best efforts of its architecture, the house was not inviting. It was cluttered and dirty, the kind of disarray that comes with age (both of the home and the owner). And even when the lights were on, inside was always dark, as though even the light bulbs were weary of trying and could only do so much.
The worst room by far was the bathroom, and I would try my best to avoid using it. Everything in that bathroom looked disease inducing: the dingy towels, the deteriorating tiles, the ubiquitous dim lighting. While unappealing, none of this was what kept me out. I hated that bathroom because of the litter box. The Harlem house was also home to three or four (maybe six or seven) cats, and the guest bathroom was also the cat bathroom, housing a litter box that was always a minimum of three days overdue for a cleaning. The air was so rancid with feline urine, that it brought tears to my eyes. Going to the bathroom in that Harlem home required touching as few surfaces as possible and holding my breath for as long as I could.
But, by far, the worst part of Thanksgivings in Harlem was the meal. There was no one interesting for me to talk to. The only other child there, the old lady’s granddaughter, was so vile and spoiled, so selfish and rotten and bossy, that just the sight of her made me angry. The adults were no better. The women were gaudy and frivolous. They fawned a bit too openly over my father—paid him too much mind, complimented him too enthusiastically, and served him altogether too willingly. Their smiles and saccharine voices reminded me of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
If the woman were shallow, gaudy and insincere, then the men were loud, lecherous, and drunk. When they looked at me, my skin tried to crawl away from my body. They made jokes I didn’t understand and laughed violently at nothing. Everything they wore was an attempt to show off…right down to the gold front tooth each one of them seemed to have.
But the people attending Thanksgiving in Harlem weren’t the worst part. The crowning terror of the experience was the meal itself. It is the reason I dreaded Thanksgiving as a child. It is the reason I believed (with conviction) that the old woman was trying to kill me. Everything served smelled like poison and tasted like death. I suspect much of it was rancid or had realistic ambitions of spoiling right there on the table before grace was said. Figuring out what to eat and what to avoid was like walking through a minefield while juggling live grenades. And every year I failed. No matter what I did or did not eat, the ultimate outcome was always the same.
Every year that we spent Thanksgiving in Harlem—every single year—I got food poisoning. Some years I threw up on the walk to the train station, some years I threw up on the train. One year I thought I’d finally identified and avoided the vomit-inducing culprits (the rice and beans with bits of pork in it and the cranberry sauce). I felt fine on the walk to the subway, and fine during the train ride home. I thought I’d escaped my personal Thanksgiving curse. But as we entered the final stretch of our trip, just blocks away from home, I felt a familiar series of sensations. The saliva in my mouth went metallic, and then it was altogether gone. My head began to throb, and my stomach began to churn and wring itself out like a wet towel. I felt simultaneously cold and hot. I knew it was coming, and it came. The only thing worse than eating the bad meal was having to taste it both on its way down and back up again. There was no stopping it now, and so I threw up.
As a child I learned to dread Thanksgiving—a holiday I began to associate with cranberry sauce, nausea, turkey, stomach cramps, mashed potatoes, neglected kitty litter, sweet potato pie, and violent vomiting. Thankfully, my Thanksgivings now only include the better parts of the above along with good company. But one vestige of my Thanksgivings in Harlem remains: I still can’t eat cranberry sauce.