Growing up a Thanksgiving impostor

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My mother had her first Thanksgiving in 1979, six weeks after she and my father arrived from Lebanon with their two small children. We were staying with my aunt in New Jersey while my father looked for work. My dad, who had gone to college in New York, was familiar with the annual rite of turkey. For my mother, it was an early lesson in American culture.

My aunt, who had immigrated from Lebanon about a decade before, prepared for the day with her usual busy anticipation: "Soon we'll have Thanksgiving. In November, there'll be Thanksgiving." A native Arabic speaker, my mother immediately took to the word "Thanksgiving." Its simple meaning warmed her to the holiday.

Years later, when my parents hosted their own Thanksgiving dinners, it continued to be her favorite holiday. She found it easy to adapt to - unlike the Fourth of July, which is pure patriotic romp, and Christmas, which featured a barrage of commercialism she wasn't accustomed to.

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Thanksgiving was more modest in its traditions and open to interpretation. It could be anything from a religious event to the raison d'etre for Martha Stewart types. For my mother, it became a way for her to celebrate her new country without totally suppressing her heritage. This meant that we had turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce - with pita bread and spinach pies and rice stuffing.

As I was growing up, though, our Thanksgivings gave me the same sense of cultural crisis I felt when taking a seat next to my friends in the cafeteria and drawing from my lunch box a Capri Sun and a lebne sandwich.

The child of first-generation parents, I was greedy for evidence that we were just like every other American family. What I usually got was just the opposite.

I remember one of my first mornings away from home after sleeping over at a third-grade classmate's house. There were four kids in Laura Kelly's boisterous clan. Sitting at their breakfast table one morning, as the only person fate had cruelly failed to endow with freckles, I finally understood the deeper meaning of the Sesame Street jingle, "Which of these things is not like the other?"

It got worse fast when Laura's mother passed around eggs cooked sunny-side up. Till then, I had only eaten eggs with pita bread, sponging the gooey yoke into li'mes - small bites. Now I had just a fork and a knife in front of me. I knew that if I poked the yoke with either, it would quickly spread like spilled paint over the entire plate. How would I possibly slop it up with these crude tools?

Experiences like this left me with an acute need to impose some sort of cultural order on my life. Never was this need more evident than on Thanksgiving, a holiday steeped in Norman Rockwell Americana. As a kid, I wanted to rewrite my parents' ways to the American Thanksgiving script.

I wanted to spell things out for them: Green beans are supposed to be bland and overcooked. You can't try to galvanize them with lemon juice and garlic.

I wanted to keep the story simple for my mother, who was piecing together the history of pilgrims and Indians from cutouts I pasted together in school. But historians, with their penchant for murdering myth, complicated my mission. They introduced disputes over the pilgrims' intentions, and the actual date and place the first Thanksgiving celebration occurred.

Tell immigrants that the pilgrims probably didn't eat turkey, and there'll be a lot of second-generation kids staring at Thanksgiving duck curry.

No matter what my parents did, it felt as if we were holiday impostors. My mother's rice stuffing with ground beef and pine nuts fed my insecurities. The intricate Persian rugs that filled our hall and dining room were at odds with the apple pie, I felt. I wanted nothing more than my relatives in Indian feathers and pilgrim hats.

It was not until college that I finally got over my childish craving for absolutes. If anything, college taught me that weird is relative. But I am not completely cured. This year, as I get ready to head home to New Jersey, I find myself longing for bread stuffing, preferably Stovetop. The difference is, I am also really looking forward to those spinach pies.

Samar Farah is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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