Yesterday I took part in what has become a tradition. The Tuesday class before Thanksgiving break is typically not well-attended. I still require students to show up, and I make it a light day. I also share a piece of writing with them -- mine, to be exact. It's a piece I wrote six years ago called "Tofurkey." It was published in the 2003 volume of UMass Dartmouth's literary journal Temper, and it's about my 2001 Thanksgiving in which the vegetarians in my family finally outnumbered the meat-eaters.
I read this piece for its timeliness, of course, and because it was my first attempt at writing humor (and occasionally some students laugh). But year after year, the highlight of the piece is not my descriptions of tofurkey (frightful) or my then-five-yr-old nephew's reaction to seeing the real turkey sitting fully cooked on the table (he ate peanut butter and jelly that day). No, it's the description of my family traditions from another time and life. A time when there used to be thirty of us, and the table extended from the dining room into the living room. A time when my parents were still married, and we all still lived in the same county. A time when the only vegetarian was my mom. Year after year, the students resonate with this part of the essay, but they don't respond to my family descriptions -- rather, they immediately begin sharing their own family traditions and Thanksgiving stories and mishaps. They tell their own stories. The late Donald Murray would be proud, for, as he used to say, "when we read someone else's story, we write our own."
The essay also seems to be one of the things that sticks with them after they leave my class. I've had students, years later, ask me if I've eaten any tofurkey lately. I don't know if that speaks to my writing abilities, or the uniqueness of the subject, or the fact that it was one of the rare times I gave them a bonus point just for showing up to class. Nevertheless, it gives me a good feeling as a writer to know that I've touched a reader in some form.
I only read the essay once a year, and usually, as I read, I think of all the ways I might tweak it. But this year, interestingly enough, as I read, I read. It was as if there was a second reader beyond the one attached to my voice, thinking, damn, this is a really good essay! And I don't mean that to sound conceited; but for some reason the piece got to me this time. And not just the humor of it. I actually felt myself starting to choke up when I came to the part about my family as I read to my first class. There was something deeper than the story, my story. I'm not sure what it was, but I was suddenly in awe for having written it, as if to say, where did this come from?
There are two films I must watch on Thanksgiving Day, in addition to the Macy's parade and the Cowboys game: one is Miracle on 34th Street (the classic black and white one, not the god-awful remake or the horribly tinted color version... thank you, Ted Turner); the other is Home for the Holidays, with Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft, Robert Downey, Jr., and an outstanding cast. Both have fallen into the categories of pure tradition and nostalgia. I first saw Home in the movie theater-- twice-- with my friend Autumn; we were blowing off studying for finals. We continued to recite lines from that movie years later. Home is about the dysfunction of a family at Thanksgiving. Not very cheerful, you might say, but there is something profound about the protagonist, Claudia, as witness of all that happens to and around her. It is what we as writers -- in particular, memoirists -- need to be. And the ending will take you back to your own home movies, or thinking about those perfect moments from your life, the ones that last for 15 seconds but stay with you for an eternity. Ditto for Miracle. I tear up at both every single time.
As we read someone else's stories, we write our own. As we pass on our traditions, we inspire new ones. It's the secret to immortality.