AMHERST, Mass. — I parked my gray car under gray skies. I turned off the engine. I looked ahead at the stark blue door of my old apartment, which glowed amid a blustery New England fall day.
I stepped out of my car. The giant farm to my right was littered with snow. Cold, icy rain fell in sheets, icing my bones. A cold fall day. Bitter. Beautiful.
I walked up to the door, just as I had done for my entire senior year of college. One of the best years of my life. Before my job. Before moving. Before growing up.
I couldn’t enter. I don’t live there anymore. But it was the start of a three-day journey filled with football, friends, family and an unexpected discovery about Thanksgiving days before that holiday would arrive.
The path around the old apartment leads to a bus station as familiar to me as any walk I’ve ever made. In those days I’d board Bus 31, head into Amherst. Grab Mexican food at Bueno Y Sano with a friend and meet up with classmates and old crushes at the High Horse bar. It was enjoyable then. It feels meaningful now.
This past weekend, I traveled home to western Massachusetts. I wrote some articles about the football game between BYU and the University of Massachusetts, my alma mater. I saw my sister and brother-in-law. I ate dinner with grandma. I went out on the town with best friends. Grabbed breakfast with family. And of all the moments I had during the past weekend, the visit to my old apartment stood out the most to me because it made me realize how far I had come, and how much my life has changed.
Like millions of millennials, I needed to travel thousands of miles from my home to find work. I’ve lived in Salt Lake City for six years. It’s become my new home. My family — cousins, mother and aunt — live in Utah. I have new friends. Co-workers. A girlfriend.
All of those people are the makings of a good Thanksgiving. But I am not going to have a classic Thanksgiving this year. I’m heading out of town for a youth soccer tournament. Plans are to eat Thanksgiving dinner at Cracker Barrel. I’ll miss my 10-year high school reunion, which is on Friday. Everything I thought I would get this year — a classic Turkey Day and a 10-year reunion — won’t happen.
So I went home the week before in search of Thanksgiving.
Stories with a friend
My oldest friend Kyle and I met up Friday and spent the day reminiscing, catching up with old friends and learning about our new lives. We stopped by our high school to visit with an old teacher (we couldn’t enter until after school hours, which is a sign of the times when it comes to people entering high schools). We grabbed pizza from a new Greek restaurant. We ate truffle fries. We walked around the Holyoke Mall, a place that felt smaller to us now. We talked about our family, friends and earliest memories. Kyle spent a lot of time telling me about his recent breakup and his ex-girlfriend. I opened up about my new relationship.
Later that night, I sat at my desk in the hotel room. Kyle was sitting on the sofa of the room, scrolling through his phone. I pulled up an old video of us from those years. He said he couldn’t believe he had a bowl cut hairstyle in high school. We laughed, cringed and smiled at our old selves.
But here we were, 10 years later, looking at our younger selves, reflecting on who were and who we used to be.
We connected through the power of story.
“I feel like a third of myself is back,” Kyle said to me. “As our lives blend, it feels like the back part of my brain is here.”
We blend together because we were raised together. Our stories blend us together. Our stories connect us, allowing us to be one person yet again. There are too many memories between us to stop being in touch.
Seeing him again made me realize that through story, anything is possible.
Toothpaste FC reunites
After covering the UMass and BYU matchup, my plans were simple — meet up with my good friends from high school. We call ourselves Toothpaste FC. It’s a long story. We still communicate regularly through a group chat.
We ate Indian food together. The restaurant was packed. Time stretched for eternity as we waited to give our order, and then waited some more. Shouldn’t we be talking more? Shouldn’t we have more to say?
Finally with food, the stories started again.
My friend Mango has been with his girlfriend for two years. Crows has been with his girlfriend for at least five or so years. And me? I’m new to the game. My relationship is only four months in.
Still, we each had something to say. We planned a couple’s retreat. We talked about wedding plans, whether or not we met parents, how we planned to handle building a family.
What brought us even closer together was talk about our future and talk of building our families. We are no longer the childish boys looking for a date for a night or a week or a month. We consider our futures. We consider how we’re going to build the rest of our lives. It’s no longer just about the now. It’s about now and later.
It’s about all the future Thanksgivings.
A visit with grandma
The rain poured in buckets as I drove down Interstate I-91 to see my grandma. She’s currently at a Catholic-based nursing home tucked away in the hillsides of Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was late at night. I was meeting up with a friend later. So it gave me the perfect opportunity to surprise her.
I knocked on her door. My grandma — soft gray hair and beautifully big eyes — turned to me. She took a beat. I took a beat. And then she realized I was there. She threw up her arms. I walked inside. We hugged. She invited me to sit down. She had the New England Patriots game on. We watched it until the end. We talked the entire night about our lives. She has a group of friends — she calls them the “Golden Girls” — and she has three jobs. She’s on the “council” at the nursing home. She’s 87 and she’s keeping busy.
We talked about God and how as long as you have faith, you can get through any trouble you face. God can help you through any tribulation. Faith can help you no matter what befalls you.
We talked about her son, my father, who passed away when I was 1. We shook our heads about how our family is no longer so close.
For that moment, we were together again. Just me and my grandma. She can tell a good story.
We went downstairs for dinner. I wheeled her there. We sat with her two friends. Over sandwiches, the Golden Girls grilled me for hours about my relationship and what it’s like being a reporter in the age of Trump.
My grandma handed me half of her apple turnover. She ordered me a cup of decaf coffee. We sat and ate together. I didn’t think of it until much later, but one of the first cups I ever had was with my grandmother at her Thanksgiving dinner. That year, she brought the entire family together to her house. She had just suffered a heart attack that year. So we all wanted to be together.
I remember asking her for a cup, which surprised her. I was young. Today there was no surprise. We drank and ate together. We talked about her life. We talked about my life.
Just like any Thanksgiving.
The sisterly love
My sister picked me up from my hotel. It was raining ... again. We drove into Amherst for some Chinese food. I ate dry chicken. She ate orange chicken. My brother-in-law ate duck.
Then something familiar happened.
“I’ll take one more big bite,” I said.
My sister whispered something to her husband. He nodded. I asked what they were talking about. They didn’t say anything. I sat my fork down. What a meal.
My eyes glazed over my plate seconds later. One of the chicken pieces looked pretty delectable. So I picked up my fork and ate one more bite.
My sister started laughing hysterically. Her husband did, too.
My sister said she knew I was going to take another bite. It was something we always did as kids. It’s something our mom did. We eat our meals and then we decide to have “one more bite,” which turns into two more or three more bites.
We weren’t eating Thanksgiving dinner. But we were having a Thanksgiving moment.
I’m no good at goodbyes
Ask anyone — I’m no good at goodbyes. Late night conversations by a car. Talking on the cellphone. Texting. I’ve never mastered a goodbye.
So when I said goodbye to my sister, my grandma, my aunt, my best friends, my oldest friend, my favorite parents in the world, former high school friends — I stumbled. I told them I’d see them soon. I told them to visit Utah. I told them our story wasn’t over. Our tale hadn’t been written.
There’s always another chapter.
And isn’t that the case with Thanksgiving? Isn’t that what we are all searching for?
Thanksgiving is where we reconnect, we write another chapter and we continue the story. We bring everything together again.
I traveled across the country in search of Thanksgiving. I was searching for some monumental experience where my friends and family come together, we lock arms and we sing some sappy song with full stomachs and smiling faces.
I didn’t find that. No one finds that. What I found was something deeper. I found new chapters. Spending the night in an empty town with Toothpaste FC talking about our relationships. Chatting endlessly about life’s problems with Kyle. Meeting the Golden Girls with grandma. Learning how much my sister really knows me.
Thanksgiving can come anytime. It is written in the laughs. In the small meals. In the drives to see your family. In the little group text messages.
When I got here I thought that stark blue door that led into my old townhouse represented the past. It was actually the threshold I passed through leading to my future, leading to the stories I choose to live and to share.
Thanksgiving is always around us.
We just have to look for it.