Thanksgiving in Los Angeles

For my daughter and me, whose New England family had cracked apart five years ago, L.A. offered an earnest, if ersatz, sanctuary

LA women

“We can’t not get the Thanksgiving dinner, right?”

I looked over the top of the menu at my 16-year-old daughter. She smiled at me, indulging the forced cheerfulness in my voice. I felt myself smiling too much.

I looked down at the photocopied insert: turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes and cranberries, the promise of pumpkin pie. It was all a promise for us here on Thanksgiving 2007, in the red vinyl booths of Du-pars Restaurant, a 24-hour coffee shop on the fringes of Los Angeles’ Farmers' Market. For my daughter and me, whose New England family had cracked apart five years ago with divorce that had since mocked our history of holidays, Du-par’s offered an earnest, if ersatz, sanctuary.

I searched for our waitress, counting the single men with and without kids in their booths. I thought about my ex-husband in Nepal on a trek with his second wife and our 13-year-old son — a trip, I suddenly realized, that was a replica of a trek he and I had made in 1990.

What a Thanksgiving that had been: our group assembled in a frigid tent, lit by smelly and hissing butane lanterns, huddled over lentil stew. Someone with a sentimental streak had packed in a tissue-paper-and-cardboard centerpiece that unfolded like an accordion to form a proud, full-breasted turkey. Our cook presented us with his best holiday cake. Made from Bisquik, it was decorated with the prettiest thing that grew in the Khumbu — cauliflower florets — and Maraschino cherries.

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I had taken such pride in the anachronism of that Thanksgiving. Even though I’d grown up in California, my Midwestern parents had delivered traditional holidays all my life, from groaning Thanksgiving tables to pine Christmas trees with homemade ornaments. We even snow-flocked our windows. I was a holiday traditionalist but reveled in my odd, high-altitude feast. I returned to New England and straightaway got pregnant with the child sitting with me, now. My fellow castaway, 17 Thanksgivings later.

I’d promised her, stranded at boarding school with a holiday ice hockey schedule that had kicked her off the Nepal roster, a rapid escape to somewhere weird and wonderful. “Let’s go to L.A.,” I proposed.

But the trip began with a wreck of bad juju, like a 10-car pileup on the 405 freeway. A delayed flight with no food. Lost luggage. Midnight. My debit card denied at the rental car office. Eighteen dollars in my wallet, none in hers. My hungry, worried child, slumped on the curb at LAX. These were the memories I was making with my brilliant, new Thanksgiving.

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I hailed a cab, showed him my money and said my daughter was starving. What did he suggest? “In-N-Out, right now,” he said. “They’re open still.”

“But this is all the money I have," I said. "All the money.”

“I’ll buy her dinner," said the cabbie. "She’s hungry.”

He was a man of his word and bought her a hamburger, large fries and a drink, then delivered us for the cheapest fare in Los Angeles history. But our trip was far from fixed. We blundered into a crazy string of no money, overdrawn ATMs and unsympathetic hotel clerks. I could see it now: My child would regale others with how her slipshod, divorced mother had not only ruined Thanksgiving by leaving her father, but that she couldn’t even afford the very escape she’d promised. Only through the kindness of cabbies and old friends who bought us breakfast and loaned us $200 in cash and the use of their Prius, had we managed to stay off the streets.

But as L.A. often does, it warmed us up and began to turn our tragedy into black comedy. Did the clerk at the hotel at 1 a.m. really run my card to have on file for emergencies (the reservation had been prepaid) and tell me we couldn’t check in? Did I not beg him to look at my daughter, sitting on the floor, and say, “Where will that child sleep tonight? Do you want that on your conscience?” Did we really borrow money to get her blonde hair highlighted at a West L.A. salon and end up in the hands of a celebrity stylist who cooed and clucked over her beauty? Did we eat at Nobu? Did we drive to Venice and drink smoothies, grapevined by rollerbladers? And now, were we doing what LA does best, which is to repackage the flawed into something we can sell … in this case, back to ourselves?

We gobbled down our sad turkey, fixings and pie, and faced five empty hours before boarding our red-eye flight back to Boston. What do traditionless refugees do when their restaurant bills are paid? “Let’s see a movie,” I said.

The closest multiplex to the Farmers' Market was in The Grove, a shopping center that was the biggest, fakest thing I’d ever seen — as if Walt Disney had constructed a tropical Bedford Falls. We entered The Grove’s carefully winding streets lined with boutiques, chain coffeehouses and the movie theater. Given that it was Thanksgiving, the whole place was already decked out for Christmas.

“Oh my god,” my daughter exhaled. “This is insane.”

It was, or not yet entirely, because then the snow began to fall. I peered up into the white flurry. After so many years of New England life, I did something without thinking — I stuck out my tongue to catch a flake, and tasted bitterness.

It was snow made from liquid soap, and it landed on our bare arms like bubbles blown by a child. Nothing melted. Nothing could. It was 65 degrees, this was Los Angeles on Thanksgiving, and we were receiving a soft and cleansing benediction. Every holiday could be this false, or this real. We went in and saw a movie, forgot it soon after, and slept, watched over by weary, holiday-deprived flight attendants, all the way home.

Tags: memoirs