The Best Worst Thanksgiving Ever


November 27, 2013 by Julia

The apple pies are done and I’ve got two hours to write a Thanksgiving post! Instead of listing all the things I’m thankful for (BORRRRRRING), let me share a true story of two Thanksgivings past.

The year is 2011. Jack is about three months old, Fiona is three years old. My mom has implored me to drive eight hours to the farmlands of Ohio for a gigantic Thanksgiving celebration at my Grandma’s house. We have our usual argument, which goes like this:

Me: “My life is really hard. I have two small children. They will scream and cry in the car the entire way. I hate packing. It’s a ridiculous thing to suggest a road trip with a newborn. Wah wah wah, woe is me.”

Mom: “Oh, come on. It’s not that hard. The kids will be fine! Everyone has to see Jack! It’s going to be great! Suck it up, stop being a pessimist, etc. etc., now I’m going to build a Habitat for Humanity in Guatemala while also organizing the next church event and running my office through Skype and taking freelance photographs of gorgeous children and possibly painting them, too. See you in Ohio in two weeks!”

That was WORD FOR WORD. My mom always has a lot on her plate. She can’t help herself.

Anyway, this Thanksgiving in Ohio (Heartland of America), did sound so Norman Rockwell-ian that I discovered that beneath my quadrillion objections, I did actually want to give it a go. Live life! Don’t let a newborn stop you! I might be surprised at what we are capable of enjoying, if I just get out of the way and stop obsessing about the work involved!

So I packed, with a master packing list, and frequently texted my mom to say, “I’m not freaking out! It’s a Thanksgiving miracle!” and I took all week to do it, but it was okay. And we left, with me driving and Dennis on kid duty, in part because I get horribly carsick as a passenger and I actually don’t mind driving at all (he hates it.) The road trip to Ohio was good – great, actually. We took our time, and the kids had a few minor meltdowns, but overall, totally do-able.

And when we arrived at Grandma’s house, all lit up in the dark countryside, I was so happy. Her house is warm and cozy, and she’s amazing, which I realize more and more throughout the years. She was thrilled to hold Jack, and she actually GOT DOWN ON THE FLOOR to play with Fiona, which many a twenty-something-year-old won’t do, much less a woman in her early eighties. Like my mom, she has an energetic and youthful spirit. They both put me to shame.

So, we were off to a great start!

And then, right on cue, the coughing/vomit/fever struck in the middle of the night. Fiona has a long history of only vomiting while traveling (or before her own birthday). We went through about three batches of sheets, while trying not to wake baby Jack. In the morning, I did laundry, mentally reciting “I told you so!” to my mother. Point One: Pessimistic Julie! (No matter that Mom probably earned a point or two due to our successful road trip.)

But then she and the other family members began to arrive, and once again I happy to be there. Now, my mom has four siblings, and they all have spouses or girlfriends and children, which adds up to: eh…I don’t have time to count them. It was about twenty five people, with my cousins ranging in age from adulthood (I’m the oldest cousin) to pre-school age. It was a full house, to say the least.

Which I love. It’s what I grew up with – the noise and music and smells and board games and the big back yard with woods and a pond.  And seeing everyone, and showing off our new baby boy, was enough to beat back the moment of bitterness about Fiona’s sickness and the sleepless night.

Really, Thanksgiving day and seeing all my beloved relatives on my mom’s side of the family was lovely. Let me show you:

It was beautiful, but the five days or so that we spent there were still hard. Jack got overtired and his sleeping regressed to the point that he’d scream at bedtime. Fiona was overwhelmed by the number of people and wanted to spend at least half of the time in her little side bedroom, playing with dolls. She was extremely sensitive and needy, which made it frustrating when all I wanted to do was catch up with my long-distance family members and be a part of the fun. To sit in that little room with her and play dolls (like we did every day at home) while everyone drank wine and chatted and sang outside was like torture for me. Thank God Dennis handled this better than me, keeping our poor, sick girl company for hours on end.

One day in particular stands out, in which we begged her to walk down the street to my aunt’s house, where she keeps horses in her fields. I say “begged” because that’s what we were doing. I was dying to get out for some fresh air, and what little girl doesn’t want to see ponies? I mean, that’s just RIDICULOUS. But she wanted to just play in her little room. No. NO NO!! YOU’RE GOING TO COME LOOK AT THESE PONIES IN THE COUNTRYSIDE AND YOU’RE GOING TO LIKE IT!!

To which she screamed, in front of most of my relatives, “ I will NEVER GO SEE PONIES!!!!!” And that was that. It became the catchphrase of the week, my cousins repeating it and giggling and me shaking my head ruefully. Dennis stayed behind (what a guy!) while I bundled three-month-old Jack up and walked him to those ponies. It was cold, and he didn’t care, because he was a BABY, but at least I could say I did it. See how peaceful we look, here? Pictures are deceiving.

Again, though – all of this was worth it, for the chance to see my family. Things had gone about as expected, a bit of a roller coaster, but we were making memories.

And then the day of our departure arrived.

I am not joking when I say this was one of the top ten worst days of my life. You may say in that case I’ve had it pretty good so far, and I would have to agree. Still, just you wait.

We leave at a reasonable time, in time to make it back to the east coast by early evening. In my mind, we’ll get home, put the kids to bed, and watch everything that’s loaded up on the DVR – what a thing to look forward to. I get on Interstate Highway 70, which is what we’re supposed to take for hundreds of miles, and I mentally check out. The kids are happy, I’ve got my music, Dennis is reading his I-pod.

We’ve gone about 100 miles, and it’s time to get gas. I drive us back out to 70 East, and notice that we are going back the way we came. We are passing the same landmarks that we had passed five minutes before.

“Hold on,” I say. “Wait a minute.”

Dennis says, “What?”

And I realize that I had accidentally gotten on 70 WEST rather than 70 East when we left Grandma’s house, and I have driven us 100 miles in the exact OPPOSITE direction of home for about two hours. And we will have to drive another two hours just to get back to where we started from that morning. I had effectively added four hours and 200 miles to a family road trip that was originally going to be eight hours long.

I lost it.

I said, “How is this possible,” over and over, and I couldn’t stop sobbing. I mean, SOBBING. Dennis was obviously upset, too, but I was doing a good enough job beating myself up over it on my own, so I guess he felt no need to admonish me or even show much anger. Instead, he tried to talk me off the ledge. To make matters worse, traffic was stopped on 70 East. WE COULDN’T EVEN GET BACK TO OUR POINT OF ORIGIN.

We decided to get off the highway and have lunch at McDonald’s in hopes of the traffic clearing up once we got back on. Through the entire lunch I cried. I couldn’t eat. I felt like death. DEATH, I tell you.

It took me about two hours to stop crying. “We’re going to get through this,” Dennis said.

Gradually, things in the backseat began to fall apart. Whining, boredom. Jack wanting to be held rather than strapped into a car seat. It was dark, and dinnertime, and we were somewhere in scary redneck country when we had to stop for another fast food dinner. The people eating there looked they had just come in from hunting Democrats in the backwoods. The florescent lighting and stained technicolor carpeting gave me creeps. When we got back in the car I started crying again and Dennis ordered me to the passenger seat. He said I looked like a crazy person who was already asleep, or something like that.

We had a few more hours to go, and Jack screamed the entire way. As Dennis drove, I tried to reach back and comfort him with a pacifier, a bottle, and hand on his cheek – anything, please! – and I was so tired I almost fell asleep on my own arm, which was also asleep. It was bad.

We made it home around 9:30 or 10:00 pm. We dragged our bags to our house and opened our front door to a horrendous smell.

The electrical outlet that powers our refrigerator had short-circuited just before we left the week before, without our realizing it, and the un-refrigerated food had been rotting in our kitchen for six days. We’re talking frozen meat, produce, spoiled yogurt.

There was no “let’s deal with it tomorrow” option. The house reeked. Dennis had to unload the car, and then dispose of everything in the refrigerator, while I held a still-screaming Jack who was beyond tired and just couldn’t fall asleep. As I walked and bounced him around, I said to Dennis, “I give up. Why did I try? There’s no point in even trying to do this stuff.” I don’t know if he even knew what I was talking about. I’m not sure how coherent I was.

Bitterness had overtaken me. I was mad. I had done my best, my best, and still we failed. I failed, and by no small margin. 200 extra miles, round trip. Vomit. A sensitive, stubborn daughter fighting with us in front of relatives. And a baby who will no longer go to sleep peacefully.

Usually, I feel better in the morning, after getting some sleep, but not this time. It took me days to recover from this Thanksgiving trip. I had to tell the humiliating story over and over, until I could laugh at it.

My friends told their husbands so they could laugh at it, too.

And my in-laws got me a navigational system for my car for Christmas that year.

Which I laughed about. But it has seriously changed my life for the better, so thanks, Jon and Jackie!

The moral of the story? These things happen to the best of us, and that is why we must have compassion for each other. Don’t judge. Because you never know when you might take a two-hundred-mile detour by accident. (Okay, you probably won’t. But you get it.)

The other moral is that we survived, and things are easier when you don’t have a newborn, and I still want to do lots of adventurous, fun things with the kids, including taking them back to Grandma’s house in Ohio, where I will once again beg Fiona to go see the ponies.

Happy Thanksgiving! Love and gratitude to you all.


6 thoughts on “The Best Worst Thanksgiving Ever

  1. Emmie S. says:

    Even though that was probably one of the worst days of your life, I really love that story. It’s just like the most unbelievable thing ever and seems like a crazy comedy survival holiday movie. I’m thankful for your friendship and your great blog. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. I probably would have bawled too about driving the wrong way! That is just oh, so awful! I know exactly what you mean about needing to recover from trips with kids. It always takes me a few days to get back to normal after just a long weekend away! In my opinion your horrible experience is not really that uncommon. Anyone who asks people with little kids to travel should read this to know what they are really asking of you 🙂

    • Julia says:

      I was actually reliving it a bit while writing it…thankfully enough time has passed that I can look past that one day of travel and remember the good parts of the trip, too. Happy Thanksgiving, Rachel!

  3. Brilliant storytelling! It sounds like a horrible, horrible day but I am glad you can laugh about it now. Gosh, America is big isn’t it? It will be a three hour drive to my parents this Christmas; if we drove for eight then we would run out of land!

    • Julia says:

      Thanks, James! What is the use of horrible days if we can’t turn them into entertaining stories? And I’m guessing it’s harder to drive 100 miles in the wrong direction in England, but I wouldn’t put it past myself.

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