Where the Wild Things Are

- by Joanie!

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. I love the overeating, I love the family squabbles and inevitable hysterical laughter that comes after the squabbles, and I love the sense of calm that comes with the post dinner, tryptophan-induced coma-like nap that everyone in my family takes within twenty minutes after eating, and lasting anywhere from half hour to four hours.

My husband’s family, not so much.

In graduate school, it was too expensive to go all the way home for Thanksgiving—break wasn’t long enough for me to drive, and the flights available cost obscene amounts of money.

So I was planning to cook a turkey in my apartment, watch every movie of the Planet of the Apes series starring Charlton Heston, and silently enjoy my post dinner coma. Oh, also, I was planning to be lonely as [expletive deleted].

So my now-husband, and then-boyfriend of just under eight months, offered to bring me home with him for Thanksgiving.

Now, at this point, we were starting to be serious, and though I’d met his parents, it had been brief due to our diverging travel plans. So this was really it, then, meeting and getting to know his family for the first time. (Side note: there will be a blog post coming up on the Christmas immediately after this trip—Michael’s perspective of his first holiday with my family.)

Terrifying for most, right?

Let’s multiply this times 100.

Michael had bragged on his family’s Thanksgivings before—how every other year, all of the Bergs gather, renting a large cabin outside of Jasper, Alabama. There, anywhere from 30 to 60 people congregate, depending on who’s available to come that year, as well as how many strays they’ve brought with them.

It’s a thing for the teenagers and college students in the family to drag along friends, roommates, exchange students, and any other souls who have nowhere to go for Thanksgiving. This posed a slight problem for the new people, as you couldn’t always tell if someone you met was part of the family or a guest. But we’ll get to that…

Not only would I spend time with his parents and brother, but the entire extended family.

So I went with Michael on a 12 hour drive to Birmingham, re-met his parents, and brother, and was introduced to the family dog, Doodlebug. She is notorious for biting new people, but jumped onto the couch with me minutes after my arrival, and it is Doodlebug’s instant trust for me which I credit my in-laws’ also instant approval of me as well. Apparently, at some point in this trip, Michael’s dad pulled him aside and told him very emphatically to please not screw this up and keep her around.

Good job, honey.

Now, before we get to the cabin, a quick description of the major difference between my family and his:
Michael’s family are huggers. Mine are not.

There’s a movie that makes a joke about coming from a British family, where they only show affection to horses and dogs. It’s a little like that. It’s not that we don’t like each other, we do indeed! It’s just that…well…we like “personal space.”

When Michael and I had known each other for more than one day, he gave me a “see you later” hug. I stood perfectly still, tensing, and said, “what are you doing?” in a tone that suggested he’d physically accosted me in some way, which, of course, he had. I am not a horse. Why on earth was he hugging me?!?

He soon learned that entering my personal space is a very long and gradual process, and that developing trust with me is part of being able to enter my three square feet of personal space. Beware, armrest hogs on airplanes.

It’s actually quite a bit like gaining the trust of a horse.

So we arrive at the cabin, shortly after dark the night before Thanksgiving. I am swept inside, without even being given the opportunity to help unload the car (apparently, proving my usefulness is not part of the test to be liked by his family, as it is in mine, as Michael has discovered through numerous backyard projects with my dad).

His grandmother walks to me, gives me a giant hug and says, “I’m Nanabet!” Everyone calls her Nanabet, even friends. Michael swears he didn’t know his grandmother’s first name (Elizabeth—nickname Betty, which is where the “bet” in “Nanabet” comes from) until college.

Shocked does not begin to describe my feelings in the first 15 minutes of being there. There were SO…MANY…HUGS….

Almost everyone hugged me.

The swirl of aunts and uncles and cousins and names I’d struggle to remember for the next day and a half was not quite so overwhelming as the influx of more physical contact than professional football players experience.
So I was uncomfortable. But I wasn’t going to SAY that…especially when these people so genuinely seemed to like me and welcomed me like I was already one of their own.

Over the last few years, I’ve grown accustomed to the hugs, and actually look forward to it this year.

But wait, there’s more!

Sleep wasn’t really an option, not with unlimited soda, a bunch of kids, and people who don’t get to see each other nearly often enough. Also, they like games.

Like Rook, Risk, Apples to Apples, and Bananagrams.

All of these seemingly innocuous games are in fact, contact sports.

Overwhelmed meter went up. Now, I enjoy a good game of Risk. And by enjoy, I really mean I enjoy when I win. When I don’t there’s usually a temper tantrum, and throwing things. And that’s not just me. My family has not spoken to one another for hours after completing a game of Risk. When world domination is at stake, we take it seriously. Even if it’s just in a game. Because the game prepares us for our real life dictatorships, right? Right?!?

But the most overwhelming of all, even more than the hugging and the intense games, was the pie.
Nanabet makes this nutmeg pie that is famous throughout the family. She makes two for Thanksgiving, as it is the most popular dessert by a very wide margin. Everyone gets a tiny sliver of this delicious pie. No one is quite sure how she makes it, as the recipe is not really written down. And watching doesn’t really help, since measuring is not really her thing.

So Thanksgiving is the only time to have nutmeg pie.

Keep in mind that I’m still pretty high on the uncomfortable meter. Let me repeat: hugging, physical contact. Add to that, people in the south make dressing not stuffing, which is blowing my mind. I’d had the same Thanksgiving foods my entire life, and so many new things combined with new faces and did I mention the hugging?

So in trying to prove my usefulness yet again (still not realizing that that wasn’t one of their tests for me), I go to help with the desserts. I pick up the pie to move it closer to the edge of the incredible dessert spread so I can help cut it up, and take a piece last (even though my very well-known sweet tooth was saying to my body, eat ALL THE DESSERTS! Also, I’m a stress eater, so desserts help lower the overwhelmed meter).
At that moment, an aunt runs toward me, takes the pie out of my hand, and runs out one of the doors into the woods. Half the children present run after her. Some of the adults, too.

Another aunt runs to the table, picks up the second pie, and runs out another door, also with a trail of kids after her.

And I’m standing there, my hands still held out as if the pie was still there, in stunned silence.

Michael, on the other hand, is laughing hysterically.

The pies eventually made it back inside, and my sliver was as delicious as promised.

I’ve now been to two Berg mega-Thanksgivings, and I think I’m prepared for this year. I mean, I’ve got my good running shoes and have started training for a 5K, so chasing down pies should be simple. I’m prepared for hours of Apples to Apples, which is where I tend to be the least competitive.

But all that hugging…

I’m going to need to watch a few movies about horses this week, just in case.