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I Hosted Thanksgiving Dinner for My Parents and Lived to Tell About It

How I survived a modern rite of passage

Overhead shot of hands reaching out for Thanksgiving dinner
Getty Images

In the Hamar tribe of Ethiopia, a naked boy must jump onto a bull and then run to and fro across the backs of three other bulls three times. When he’s done, a shout is given and the boy is a maza, or man.

If you’re a boy from the Sateré-Mawé tribe of the Brazilian Amazon, you must stick your hand into a glove woven with bullet ants and withstand their ultra-painful stings for over 10 minutes without making a noise.

While my rite of passage wasn’t nearly as painful as those, it was no less traumatic and stress-inducing. Last Thanksgiving I did not go to my parents’ house. Instead, I invited them to mine.

For a middle-aged man, returning home for Thanksgiving is the closest we will get to reimmersing ourselves in childhood. You buy some flowers, maybe pick up an easily reheatable dessert and then sit down to watch football while your parents wait on you hand and foot. The whole holiday is one big midlife security blanket, with leftovers. It’s a reminder that even though you’ve got a paunch and a few gray hairs, you’re still their kid. Your position in the family hasn’t changed.  

But then, things do change. My parents were getting older, and it wasn’t as easy for them to host anymore. I’m almost at the half-century mark. It was time for me to jump naked onto the bull. It was time to take ownership of Thanksgiving.

Almost immediately after inviting my parents, I panicked. Which is perfectly normal, according to Mark Aoyagi, a sports and performance psychologist at the University of Denver. 

“Accept that anxiety is going to be there,” he says. “Whenever we care about the outcome, and the outcome is uncertain, anxiety is going to show up. If we accept that and don’t try to fight it, the experience is actually much more manageable.”

Barbara H. Fiese, a psychologist and author of the book Family Routines and Rituals, says our high expectations for hosting Thanksgiving may come from memories that aren’t entirely accurate.

“We remember past traditions as sometimes more perfect than they really were,” she says.

So rather than try to do everything exactly the same, Fiese suggests introducing some novel traditions to Thanksgiving. “A new recipe, perhaps,” she says.

My girlfriend, Lila, would do most of the cooking, because I don’t technically know how our oven works. But I wanted to bring something to the table, so I volunteered to make the safest side dish possible: stuffing.

I found a recipe online with the highest ratings and quickly regretted it when I learned it involved making my own croutons. I hand-tore the bread into 3/4-inch pieces and slow-dried them in the oven. Then I visited four different markets before finding all the ingredients, and almost got into a fistfight with an aggressive grandmother over the last remaining package of spicy andouille sausage.

I won’t recount the preparation and cooking because I’m pretty sure it gave me PTSD. I will, however, admit that I now have a new appreciation for folks who live on Pepperidge Farm.

Cut to the mid-Thanksgiving meal. I looked up from my plate and it began to dawn on me that something was missing. My mother wasn’t getting up every five minutes, as she did when she hosted holiday dinners, to clear away dishes, bring out new dishes, check the pies in the oven and encourage us to eat more.

My parents were actually enjoying being waited on. They were eating our food, even my homemade stuffing, and not just poking at it with a fork like they suspected it might be a dead squirrel. It was a Thanksgiving miracle! 

Granted, my clothes were sweat-stained, my kitchen was in ruins, my head was throbbing, and I’d driven myself and Lila insane with stress and worry. But it was all worth it just to see the look of contentment on their faces. They laughed and told stories and ate way too much. 

I was proud that they’d so willingly passed the baton to me, but also a little traumatized. I was literally growing up in front of my parents, perhaps for the last time. And growing up, as we all know, can come with its own unique set of stressors.

As we cleared their plates, I saw my father reluctantly remove a $20 bill from his wallet and hand it to my mother. 

“I bet her twenty bucks this would be a disaster,” he explained.