Every family has its way of doing things. Celebrations, holidays, religious observance, even household chores are done in a way that suits that group of people. We each adapt to our unique situation and get cozy with it. It is human nature. Of course the sparks fly when marriage happens and negotiations begin on how this new family is going to cut the turkey, trim the tree or bake a cake. New versions of traditions emerge.

Our family has been celebrating Thanksgiving in our own style for years. I don’t know of anyone who does what we do, and certainly not for the same reason. Two years ago one of our daughters was engaged during Thanksgiving and her fiancé wanted to know what to expect. Our daughter knew what we did, she just didn’t know why. Like all good traditions there was no explanation for our habit, it was just how it is done. (cue the soulful fiddler swaying on the roof as the song “Tradition” is played from Fiddler on the Roof.)

I wasn’t surprised our kids didn’t know the why of our Thanksgiving. The adaptation began when they were too small to remember. We didn’t mean to start a family tradition. We were just responding to life and its demands. I’m sure that is how most traditions start. Kind of like that joke where the daughter asks her mother why they cut two inches off the roast before they cook it and the mother says she doesn’t know, that is just how her mother taught her to do it. So the daughter asks grandma why she cuts two inches off the roast before she cooks it and grandma says, “So it will fit in my roasting pan.”

Our way of doing Thanksgiving began the year my brother moved an hour away. It was the closest he had lived to me in years. We both lived far from the rest of the family, so it fell to me to be his keeper. My brother was a special needs guy, but in a he-doesn’t-fit-neatly-into-any-diagnosis-box kind of way. He was in his 20’s, but had the emotional age of a 10 year old boy. He couldn’t read or write beyond elementary level and lived in his own apartment with the help of a weekly caretaker who managed his social security money, took him grocery shopping and paid his bills. He was a pain in the butt and joy.
He drove me up the wall because I could not accept that he was not going to change. No matter what elaborate charts I hung up in his kitchen or schedule I devised, Rex was not going to outgrow himself.

Our first Thanksgiving with Rex was a disaster. I precooked all the food because his small kitchenette couldn’t handle the demands of a full holiday meal. We bundled our three little kids up and drove the hour to his apartment on the fifth floor of a low-income high rise mostly populated by elderly ladies on fixed incomes. It was a quiet building and that is how the residents liked it.
Rob and I planned to do the usual Thanksgiving glut, watch a little tv with Rex and in a the late afternoon, mosey on home. What could go wrong? Turns out, everything.

My brother was so excited to have all of us for a whole day to himself with no distractions from household chores or errands that he was talking fast and loudly when we came in. We tried to calm him down, but no adult nagging was going to stop his fun. He began rough housing with the kids on the living room floor and the kids rose to his joyful noise level. I hurried to get the food served to distract Rex. He loved to eat, especially when he didn’t have to cook it himself. He specialized in ramen noodles and hot dogs.
What should have been an easy 40 min. meal was demolished in 10 minutes. Rex gulped his food down and wanted to get back to playing. He was lonely living alone and craved the company of our kids. They were his peeps. The kids were happy to oblige his invitation to play with his cars and Legos and other toys. Within 30 minutes came the first phone call. We were making too much noise and needed to tone it down. Yeah, right. Rex was gleefully playing Hide and Seek and then Chase between his bedroom, bathroom and living room, the three musketeers-in-training trailing behind.

In desperation I suggested we take the kids (including Rex in that group) to the park to burn off steam. Rob looked out the window doubtfully, but agreed we needed to do something.
It was freezing cold and windy outside so the park idea was abandoned before we even got out of the parking lot. We decided to drive to the mall. We could walk around there. It would be stressful to corral Rex and three kids in public, but what was our other option? When we drove up the mall, it was shut tight. All the stores were closed, not a car in sight. Rex and the kids started whining in the backseat. My stress level was hitting high.

As we prepared to leave the mall and take Rex back home, aborting the day for lack of places to be rowdy, I noticed a light on in the movie theater attached to the mall. As we drove closer to inspect, I could see employees inside. The movies! Rex loved movies. Perfect! The first showing of the day was an 11am showing of 101 Dalmatians, the Disney remake with Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil. We gratefully bought tickets and entered the theater complex. We were the only ones there besides the miserable looking employees. The place was as quiet as a church, but without the restrictions on behavior. We were the only ones in the movie theater, so Rex and the kids spent the previews changing seats to find the best view. Rob and I collapsed into cushy seats, congratulating ourselves for our excellent babysitting discovery.

The next two hours were awesome. Rex could talk loudly, the kids wandered the empty aisles and I didn’t have to apologize for one blessed thing. There was no one to annoy. After the movie ended, the kids and Rex excitedly ran up and down the halls and used the bathrooms before we left. Rex was tired from his adventure and was content when we suggested we just drop him off and head home. Our kids were all asleep by the time we pulled up to his front door.

That was the beginning of our annual Movie Day on Thanksgiving. It became just what we did. No explanation needed. We kept it up even after Rex died at age 33 from an aggressive brain tumor. We did it not because our teenagers needed it as a distraction, but because it was fun to negotiate what to see and sit together in an empty theater, enjoying the once-a –year luxury of not minding our manners in public.

Now as the kids are spreading their wings and leaving the nest, it will be interesting to see what traditions they come up with to meet the needs of their special group. Don’t bother calling our house on Thanksgiving afternoon to wish us happy holidays. Rob and I will be gone to the movies for the early matinee. It is a tradition worth keeping to us. Rex would love it.