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Even a Sunny Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Do the food or the people make Thanksgiving?

I am a foodie. I love to eat, read about and look at fine food. The only reality television I watch revolves around food and cooking. When I'm anxious about something, I bake. When I'm euphoric, I bake. Alas, my cooking skills—once well-honed—deteriorated when the boys went off to college. I still appreciate fine food; I just don't want to make it anymore. The adventurous chef who once delighted in a new recipe has been replaced by someone content to eat cereal for dinner, or if necessary, a Slim Jim.

When Taylor was asked to work a cruise over the Thanksgiving holiday, he turned it down, instinctively knowing how much I love cooking for days on end, eating for 10 minutes, then getting up to wash 5,000 dishes. I was incredulous, then annoyed—thinking of sitting in the sun, no dogs to walk and no meal to prepare. After affirmations from both boys, he took the gig and we flew to Puerto Rico the day before Turkey Day, joining up with the ship mid-cruise.

We were met at baggage claim by a ship representative, which meant that—hallelujah!—we wouldn't be hailing a taxi then trying to cram all of Taylor's work-related luggage into a trunk the size of a diaper. Both boys brought backpacks and I packed a carry-on.

We've learned to pack light because Taylor can't. In addition to hockey bags filled with puppets, he also hauls a keyboard and clothes he wears on stage. We look like a caravan of carneys when we travel en masse, getting ready to set up our tents and begin reading palms and picking pockets. Sunburnt vacationers eyed us as we slogged towards the gangplank, hauling Taylor's bags behind us. Where is a sherpa when you need one?

Despite the fact that summer was but a few brief months past, we greeted the tropical sun like a family of moles being shoved from their burrow, eyes squinting, sniffing the warm air for clues. It doesn't smell like Jersey, and with a mountain of baggage to move, it doesn’t smell like a vacation yet. You might be wondering what a vacation smells like. It smells like sunblock, frothy drinks and a lack of dogs. It smells like crisp white sheets on a bed I will not have to make. Ever.

Taylor works exclusively for the cruise line where characters run rampant: princesses, mice, chipmunks, a duck and other creatures from a catalog of animated films. This particular cruise line attracts avid followers who save for years to afford a cruise with a mouse and what I assume is his spouse, although no one has ever offered proof that Mickey and Minnie’s union is legal. 

These devotees are not just families with small children, as you might expect. There are childless couples, senior citizens and newlyweds on board. These are people slavishly devoted to the whole cartoonish package: family fun and incredible customer service, with every detail taken care of, nothing left to messy chance. There is no gambling and the rowdies are on different cruise lines, the ones with no visible, 6-foot mice.

Okay, so it’s really not our scene. The boys are beyond Buzz Lightyear and 3-D movies, but I remind them almost daily we need to appreciate the fact that we are allowed to accompany their father from time to time for a free vacation. We are treated very well, so who are we to complain about anything? That's a rhetorical question because we are Masons and we don’t exactly fit in. We won’t be playing bingo or carving Chip and Dale out of seedless cucumbers. What we like to do is loll, and we do it well.

One son favors the fourth deck, where there are comfy blue lounge chairs. He can and will read there for hours. The other son likes this deck as well because it doubles as a track for him to jog on. The gym is barely used on this cruise ship, so we can work out whenever we want to. In other words, even for oddballs like us, there is plenty to do on this big tub o’ family fun.

Being someone who appreciates well-flavored, expertly cooked cuisine, I will opine right now that people on cruise ships often mistake quantity for quality. I am not one of those people. Just because there are mountains of food at all times, even in one’s sleep, does not mean the food is particularly tasty. And I understand, I really do, how hard it must be to cook for more than 2,000 people at a time and deliver plate after plate of delicious gourmet fare. Fab food, after all, is NOT the reason people cruise this particular line. They cruise with the Mouse because they appreciate the happy, smiling employees who bend over backward to please, the lack of drunken carousers and the good clean entertainment. Still, would it hurt to throw me a bone? A juicy T-bone?

Thanksgiving night came and, along with it, the realization we were not in for a warm, home-cooked meal. We were but one table in a sea of thousands, waiting for a mass-produced holiday dinner that would not include my Nana’s stuffing recipe or the brine-soaked turkey we’ve grown to love. My cousin Carol’s orange-cranberry relish would not be part of our meal and there would be no wonderful leftovers for sandwiches or a carcass to make turkey soup.

Looking across the table at my sons, I tried to tell myself it's the people that make Thanksgiving such a special day, and I should be thankful to be with my three most favorite people in the world. As I scraped a suspicious brown substance from the pink slab masquerading as ham, I gave silent thanks for the many blessings of this past year. 

I also vowed to stay home and cook next year.

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