Thanksgiving is all but upon us. Angie and I are heading over to beautiful Manhattan Beach to share the holiday with a group of friends at the Lipps household, Tammy and Mark. Tammy is responisible for our amazing wedding reception dinner (we still have, believe it or not, a log of filet mignon frozen in our fridge). She's an astonishing chef and afterwards we always play parlor games...I'm hoping to get a spirited game of 'Celebrity' going again. I first came upon this game on Sanibel Island many years ago while doing theatre down there at a horribly named yet high quality joint called 'Pirate Playhouse.' I did about 15 plays down there back in the 90s, everything from Two by Two to Boys Next Door to Run For Your Wife. Great place to work; wonderful, beachfront accomodations, beautiful surroundings, good actors (for the most part), sassy place to be around the holidays if you live in NYC as I did at the time. I always worked it so I could be down there around November, December and January. I had some really great holidays on that tropical island...I specifically remember laying on the secluded nude beach on Christmas Day. Great memories.
Like a lot of professional actors, I spent a number of holidays in the company of other actors away from home. We nomads would gather at someone's place and make our own family holiday. I remember one Thanksgiving on Sanibel, getting up at dawn and cooking the turkey, drinking tons of wine all day, having a great feast and then playing a five-hour bridge tournament. I think we were doing Wait Until Dark at the time and, strangely, all of us played bridge. Not a lot of bridge players left in the world.
Another time, I was in Chicago (although at that time I was still living in New York) and I was doing 'Carousel' at the famous but now defunct Candlelight Dinner Theater. We had a show Thanksgiving night and all of us gathered at my place for the turkey lunch/dinner. I was cooking and I misjudged the time it would take to cook the turkey so we all had to eat in about ten minutes and then rush to the show.
Another time in Connecticut doing '1940's Radio Hour.' We had a double header that day and between shows the entire cast went out for Indian food.
Another time in Virginia doing 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and we cooked the huge Thanksgiving dinner and then walked up a big hill and went sleigh riding all afternoon.
So most of my holidays are marked not by family memories but rather by what play I happened to be doing in what state.
One of the memories that I think about often is a Thanksgiving I had in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was doing 'Lost in Yonkers' at Arkansas Rep. The cast gathered in my small, one bedroom apartment the theater had provided for me (again, I was living in NYC at the time) and again, I was cooking the turkey. There were about eight or nine of us. One of the people there was a slight, shortish young man, very quiet, very polite. I'm ashamed to say I don't remember his name. I think he was the lighting designer for the show. In any event, the rule that year was that after everything was on the table and before we could eat, each person was asked to write a short (two or three pages) essay on what they were thankful for. It was terribly emotional. When I outlined the rules for the day, I didn't realize how moving some of the essays would be. When it came time around the table for this young man to read his essay, all was very quiet. Again, no one knew this guy very well, he kept to himself during rehearsals. As he began to read we heard his story. His parents had died early in his life and he had been shuffled from one foster home to another. His sister was developmentally challenged and living in a state run 'home.' He had worked his way through college, getting his degree in light design at the University of West Virginia. Aside from his temporary foster living, he'd never spent Thanksgiving with another person. Always alone. He adored actors because he was so very shy himself and was amazed that people could get on a stage in front of other people. A year earlier he had been diagnosed with Cancer. He'd lost a lot of weight but was now in remission. As he spoke, the silence in the small dining room was palpable. He ended by quietly reading that this was the best holiday he'd ever had. There was no self-pity in his reading, no whining, no self-indulgence. He was just happy to be around other people on Thanksgiving. I got a phone call about six months later that he had passed away.
Tomorrow I spend Thanksgiving with my beautiful and loving wife, a group of very close friends, in an astonishing house in one of the most elegant neighborhoods in the country. Before I take my first bite tomorrow I shall think of this young man. It has been about fifteen years since he died. Every year before I eat I take a few seconds to think of him. And the hope he represented. I take the time to be thankful. Since that day many years ago, I've spent many Thanksgiving dinners alone myself, resigned to the idea that it would always be that way.
Of course, he is only one of millions that persevere in the face of great cosmic injustice. And his small and thankful essay that year will stay with me all of my life.
I cannot begin to write about all I am thankful for. The list this year, 2010, is so long and filled it would simply be impossible. I had, over the past decade or so, come to despise the holidays. Christmas music and lights and all the trappings of the holidays made me indescribably sad. I began volunteering in Chicago for homeless shelters on Thanksgiving. And when the food was all doled out I would sit with strangers, the addicted, the hopeless, the bottom rung of society, and eat and talk and pretend I wasn't lonely. And each and every time I would take a few moments to remember that doomed young man in Virginia all those years ago. I shall do the same tomorrow.
See you then.