By Cory Armstrong-Hoss / Herald Forum
Dispatches from an out-of-town Thanksgiving.
Wednesday: You drive south with your B and Cole, leaving Everett at 2 p.m. on the day before Thanksgiving, picking up Sammy and CeCe on the way down the speedway.
After three hours your minivan crawls into Fife, and you’re starting to get short with the kids, the bumper-to-bumper traffic and full-volume Curious George episodes fraying your nerves. Your 13-year-old insists he’s got to go to the bathroom, so it’s Fife for dinner. The kids debate between Jersey Mike’s or Taco Time, until the glowing Denny’s sign grabs Cole’s attention, and CeCe and Sammy are quickly swayed by the promise of pancakes for dinner. You order the Eggs Benny and OJ and take in the Barney Fife photo signed by Don Knotts, and the regulars in mechanic overalls and faded flannel.
After dinner we check out the Boot Barn next door, and see a white pickup with Texas plates parked near the front, big decal letters on the back window: “I identify as a Prius.” We browse the $49 “Cody James” flannels and $300 boots, and CeCe brings up a bedazzled pink belt and vest to show me. B asks if we are done yet, and I notice that other customers aren’t wearing masks. Time to ditch Fife.
You get to Shelton late but happy to see your parents, to spread out and relax.
Thursday: You should probably work out today.
You ask Cole to get off his phone.
Your sister plays Christmas hits on Spotify, and you are instantly offended by these modern charlatans, from Pentatonix to Bieber. You and Cole lobby for Christmas classics only, with an exception for Mariah Carey, of course. You will tolerate a sprinkling of Buble.
We break bread with my parents and my sisters’ family, her 3-year-old Ben moving and talking non-stop through the grace, through the “What are you grateful for?” sharing, through the hot sourdough rolls coming out midway through. You listen and eat and try to get Sammy to have some fruit or carrots.
The kids watch the newer, animated “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kenan Thompson, with the Roast Beast and His Heart That Was Two Sizes Too Small, then B reads the girls a book before they go to sleep.
You eat too much: Pumpkin cheesecake and apple pie and Diet Coke and salted cashews.
Friday: You should probably work out today.
After breakfast you ask Cole to get off his phone.
Grandma has reserved the athletic club pool for an hour, and you meet more family there. You learned of one relative’s cancer back in August, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She’s just a couple years older than you, and you’re in the pool when she arrives, a black beanie over her head. You’re scanning as she walks to a bench, and she is walking OK, talking OK, and what do you say? You don’t know, but later you learn that this third round of chemo is rough, she’s lost her hair, and she is sleeping more and very tired. She seems mostly like herself, if someone turned the volume down. Her fourth and final round is coming in December, and that will be a doozy.
You can’t get the pronouns of the 12-year-old right, and keep apologizing. Three months ago he said he was a “he” instead of the “she” you’d known since birth, and you’re amazed that his parents are in the flow and talk about him — even in the past tense — like a him. You find something remarkable in the way they are rolling with things, just trying to figure it out, stumbling through it, making sure their kid feels loved.
You cannot forget, because Cole won’t let you: it’s Black Friday at Walmart. You walk down the aisles and see 24-piece-sets of Tupperware for $7.99, $14 Reebok fleece hoodies, $449 Oculus VR Premium packs and $9.99 wheat-free Advent calendars for dogs. You buy Madden 2022 for Xbox for Cole, and he says he’ll pay you back when you get home.
More than 10 years ago your Dad planted a field of noble fir, and they’ve given rise to a new tradition: the Annual Christmas Tree Hunt in Shelton. Saturday it’s going to pour, so today is the day. We walk the third of a mile out there, while Dad throws his Stihl chainsaw in his gray Silverado and rumbles to meet us. Then follows the discovering, debating and deciding, and then family photos before the whir and smoke of the Stihl. Then Sammy and Cole carry off this year’s tree to the pickup, a pair of Christmas conquerors.
You eat too much: Prime rib, rolls, roasted Brussels sprouts, spinach, mashed potatoes, fruit salad, and pie for days.
Saturday: You need to work out today.
You ask Cole to get off his phone after breakfast, and make a deal with him: If he’ll play basketball at 10 a.m., he doesn’t have to come to the pool again later with all the cousins. You go two-on-two with your brother and his son, and Cole hits some mid-range jumpers, but still needs help on his inside game for his eighth-grade team, so his uncle teaches him some post moves. To force some interaction, I take Cole’s phone with me and leave him with Grandpa.
B takes Sammy and CeCe to get their second covid shots today at Walmart, and you hear that they were champs, the nurse administering the shots saying they’re the best kids she’s seen yet. B’s been waiting for this moment for months — maybe longer — and when I see her she is lighter, unburdened, a mother who has done all she can to protect her kids.
The kids are in some kind of groove today: Art, Play-Doh, googly eyes, and pushing each other in Grandpa’s office chair down the hallway. You teach a couple about how the rook and bishop move in chess.
You do work out today. Sammy’s next to you, watching YouTube Kids on your phone, the agreement you made as long as he keeps churning on the elliptical. You watch the Michigan Wolverines pound the Ohio State Buckeyes, and he watches a teenager narrate his Minecraft adventures.
Dinner is take-out pizza from Westside, because no one wants to cook anymore: Cheese, pepperoni, chicken and pesto, and a BBQ, with breadsticks and chicken nuggets on the side. You and your brother each tie trees to the top of your vans, so you can roll out in the morning.
After dinner is Pie In The Face, Grandma’s idea, with three cans of Redi-Whip at the ready. Everyone knows that Grandma brings the fun, and you win the competitive round, but tradition demands that you turning the rollers until the plastic purple hand delivers a glop of whip cream to your face.
You eat too much, but not as much as before.
Sunday: Two miles before the Narrows Bridge a large readerboard warms “Severe Side Winds on Bridge.”
You pay the $6.50 toll, and accelerate toward the bridge, where you feel the wind, coming from the south, nudging you left. Cole shouts: “Dad, the tree is falling off!” and you check your mirror to see the bottom of the tree — which was facing forward — hanging off the left side of the roof. B notices I’ve dopped below 40 mph, and shouts, “You can’t slow down here. You’ve got to get off the bridge.”
You don’t know if you can make it off the bridge before the tree falls off.
You: “I don’t know if I can make it off before the tee falls off!”
B: “You can’t slow down!”
Cole: “It’s falling!”
Sammy & CeCe: (Random, excited, unhelpful yelling)
You: “Why are we yelling at each other!”
You breathe a little easier when you get to that first offramp in Tacoma, with only a couple feet of tree hanging off, and you putter into a Shell station. You fill up and retie the tree.
An hour later, you pull into your Everett driveway.
You’re tired but full of gratitude. It’s Thanksgiving, after all.
Cory Armstrong-Hoss is nonprofit guy, father of three, and community volunteer. He lives in Everett.