When I was nine, my parents decided to shirk their ever-growing familial responsibilities of being the eldest siblings of dead parents, and pushed Thanksgiving off on their unsuspecting younger sisters. My parents, a black Pilipino lawyer from Manhattan and a white Presbyterian minister from Nebraska, are lesbians who chose half of my DNA from a binder with plastic covering over each of the inner pages. My white mother (as I used to call her) lost the coin toss and I received the other half of my DNA from her. (I hear it might be possible for women to do that without the price-is-per-milligram sperm sometime in the future, but then my mother could no longer use her favorite excuse for my bad behavior, “Well, she didn’t get it that from me.” )They chose a donor that had a similar complexion to my black mother (I actually never used to call her that, but now call her that exclusively), so it still looks like they could have defied the laws of (current) biology and cooked me up themselves. Sometimes we’d play a little guessing game when we walked along the streets of Philadelphia to see if we could figure out if the sneers of distaste thrown our way when we chugged along hand-in-hand down the sidewalk was because of the interracial marriage, the gay thing, or because we were taking up the entire sidewalk and not looking even remotely sorry about it. The bigots were easy enough to spot; they’d usually keep their glares exclusively for my moms. The racists would include me too, but their sneer would contort into a strange half-grimace, half-smile, as if to say, “Your existence is an abomination, but aren’t you cute in your suspenders?” The ones only put out by our rude sidewalk hogging were usually content with just a rude gesture or a passive-aggressive, overly-large step out of the way, gesturing us along as if we were some sort of gay interracial royalty. The bigots and the racists reminded me I wasn’t a princess fairly often, so there was no fear of the side-stepping going to my head.
My moms were really good at Thanksgiving usually. White Mom would bake a couple pies and a few casseroles. Black mom would take care of the Turkey while various siblings and cousins from both sides filled our house with sounds of mirth and contentiousness. It was an interesting combination, but the arguing was rarely more involved than who ate whose last piece of cake on their tenth birthday or who slept with Bobby Naylor in whose bed. The mirth was supplied in droves by my cousins, who were almost always as entertaining as they were kind. (Except Patricia. No one liked Patricia. I think her name contributed to her unpleasant disposition.)
The best Thanksgiving of my life though, was the year my parents decided to have a destination holiday in Hawaii. The story of this Thanksgiving begins on the flight, where no good story begins. (Well, I’m sure someone somewhere has a good story that begins on an airplane, but I feel if it truly is a good story it could probably begin just as well after you exit the airplane. The incommodious accommodations, rude passengers, and terrible food are seductive talking points, but they are not novel or truly interesting. If a good story contains any of these anecdotes, you may be doing your story a disservice. Let the story stand on its own. I, however, will not be doing this. Much to my own disappointment, my story must begin on the airplane.)
I sat between my mothers in the middle row of the large airplane with my walkman and three Babysitter’s Club books and settled in for what I knew was going to be an extremely long and boring flight. I could feel the complaints beginning to bubble already, simmering below the surface and threatening to explode in a flurry of, “I’m hot. I’m bored. I’m hungry. I’m cold. I don’t have enough space. How much longer?” It was in the breath before my first complaint, right as my white mother was about to open her Redbook, when an older gentleman stopped in the aisle in front of our row and pointed right at me.
“You know, I can see her niblets there,” The man chastised, looking directly at my white mother as her eyes grew wide and saucer-like.
Black mom came to the rescue with the quip, “Did you just call my nine year old’s nipples niblets?”
What felt like a rescue to me, may have horrified others, but I appreciated my mother’s ability to take any negative situation and turn it around on the other person. It’s what makes her a good lawyer. The older man’s face pinkened considerably, as he coughed around his outrage and mumbled something about, “heathens flying through the heavens” before moving his way to the back of the plane.
I looked down at my white t-shirt, the one I had painstakingly assembled especially for the flight. I had ironed pictures of Leslie Nielson and Julie Hagerty onto the stomach and drawn a crude outline of an airplane around them with a fabric marker. It was ironic and I was extremely proud of it. Except that the cheap T-shirt that I used to make the shirt was more see-through than any of us realized at four-thirty in the morning. When I looked down at my newly budding breasts, I did indeed see the tell-tale brown circles that signaled what should be my signal for pre-pubescent humiliation.
White mom patted my knee and leaned in to whisper, “I’ve got a camisole under my shirt. I’ll go take it off and you can put it under yours. Don’t worry about it, sweetheart. It’s no big deal.”
At first, I was confused by her soothing tone and worried gaze, but then I realized that I was supposed to be embarrassed by this exchange. I wasn’t.
I had nipples. So what? I had them last year and the year before that. The fact that it was now suddenly offensive for them to be seen through a T-shirt was incredibly irritating. What was that guy’s problem? Couldn’t he have just appreciated the cleverness of my t-shirt and then been on his way? Why did his eyes zero in on my chest like that, anyway? Was he some kind of perv? Probably. My friend David told me pervs were the guys that hung out at playgrounds without any children of their own, wore trench coats, and sometimes bought kids ice cream “just to be nice.” That guy didn’t look like a perv, but he did find it necessary to point out the existence of my nipples to me. I put him down for a maybe in the perv department.
“It’ll be too big,” I replied, pointing out the obvious.
“Well, just for the flight,” She replied. “We’ll get you a bra when we land. I’m sure there will be a department store we can stop into.”
“A bra?” I asked, newly interested in the proceedings.
“Sure, honey,” Black mom said. “I think it’s about time. Probably a little late really, but you never asked so…“ She trailed off as she began perusing the Sky Mall catalog.
“I didn’t know to ask,” I responded.
When white mom returned from the bathroom a few moments later and handed me the blue tank top, I was incredibly put out.
“It’s blue. It’ll show through the shirt.”
“Don’t make a fuss, Nikki,” White mom replied. She made the gesture that passive-aggressive pedestrians make when they allow us to take up the entire sidewalk. “Go on.”
I grumbled in the way required of nine year old girls being asked to do anything of even remote inconvenience and grabbed the shirt out of her hand in a way that expressed my extreme displeasure. I may have stomped to the bathroom as well. If I didn’t, I wish I had. I should have fought harder against the sudden push towards womanhood. I wasn’t interested in the hassle of having to wear something in addition to the clothing already required of me. I was, however, very interested in owning the pretty lace underwear I had seen in my parent’s laundry. Not because it represented a stage of womanhood I was eager to attain, but because lace was pretty and I liked the way it looked against my skin.
So it was a huge disappointment to learn that they don’t make pretty lace bras for nine year olds. Apparently, lace is too suggestive for a pre-teen. The perverts really ruin everything. I was stuck with three pairs of white triangles that wrinkled over my barely-there breasts and added precious seconds to my morning routine without the added bonus of being pleasant to look at.
By the time we made it to the hotel, my mothers were tired and jet-lagged, white mom was also still a little drunk from her in-flight cocktails, and I was crying furious tears that I hoped would turn into acid and burn away the atrocity across my chest.
I took my bra off and threw it across the room as soon as I entered the hotel room, a defiance I had been planning since we wheeled our luggage into the elevator. The white triangles spent the night draped over the lampshade where they landed. The hotel was having their Thanksgiving celebration the next night, so we made do with bar food and I ate half the chocolate from the care package left in our hotel room before passing out for the night, pleasantly bra-less.
The following day, under the guise of walking off some of my rage, I found a group of girls a couple years older than me wearing bikinis and splashing in the surf. Growing up in Philadelphia, I had little reason to own a bikini, my swim team-esque suit worked just fine when I was yelling “CANNONBALL!” at the local YMCA, but seeing those girls in their triangle shaped bikinis gave me an idea.
I immediately ran back to our room where my mothers were preparing for a day in the sun and an evening by the bonfire, where our Hawaiian Thanksgiving feast would be served. That was something I was looking forward to. The food. Okinawa sweet potatoes, coconut pudding triangles, Hawaiian smoked Turkey, steam Mahi-mahi- well, everything but the fish made my stomach ache with yearning. Thanksgiving in Philadelphia usually involved watery green-bean casserole- courtesy of my Aunt Lauren, burned pumpkin pie- courtesy of white mom, and bland turkey. The turkey’s lack of flavor wasn’t black mom’s fault, so much as one of my uncle’s inability to handle spice. He wasn’t a pervert, but sometimes he ruined everything too.
“I want a bikini,” I announced as I raced back into the room. “Three, actually. I want three bikinis.”
My mothers exchanged a look, each of them wearing an expression akin to patronizing amusement.
“You want to wear bikini tops under all of your clothes instead of those bras. Don’t you?” Black mom asked.
“Yep,” I nodded. “There’s a shop in the hotel that sells some. I saw it on the way back.”
“What about the white shirts? Won’t you need-“
“A white bikini top? They have one.”
“In your size?” White mom asked.
“Its fabric and a couple strings. I’ll make it fit.”
After a couple inhalations that I think was supposed to stall for time so that one of them would make a decision and save the other from having to be the first to answer, white mom shrugged and threw up her hands in a defeated gesture that seemed dramatic in the moment.
“Fine,” She grumbled. “But I’m not buying the bottoms.”
So that’s how I ended up wearing bikini tops for bras until I was fifteen and could finally fit into an A cup. Finding a solution to the boring bra blues turned a decently fun Thanksgiving into the best Thanksgiving of my life. The food was spectacular and I had a blast dancing around the fire during the luau, but it was the white bikini top under my homemade Airplane! T-shirt on the flight home that really made that holiday for me. Those bikini tops were my salvation. They saved me from mediocrity.
As an adult, I am always looking to be saved from that which I find tediously average. Not in the things that make up my day to day life, but in the things that make up my life as a whole. I do just fine with ordinary coffee and a run-of-the-mill car. I don’t concern myself with making exceptional dinners or finding the best parking space in the lot (unless its freezing and I’ve neglected to put on closed-toe shoes due to my, definitely-a-real-thing, feet claustrophobia). I do, however, hold my life story to a higher standard. Stories shouldn’t just be interesting, they should take you somewhere. They should entertain just as well as they distract. Especially stories about holidays. Holiday stories are always filled with the perfect concoction of self-discovery and familial bonding.
Which is why I made this one up.
Inspired by the brilliant David Rakoff and his hilarious essays that I’ve consumed en masse this Thanksgiving, this story’s existence is an example of how I spend my real Thanksgivings, with my real family.
Avoiding them at all costs.