My father moved out the summer before I began middle school, just before I turned twelve. The first months of separation were marked by his efforts to reach out to my two sisters and me. He came to all our concerts, helped coach my football team, and when Thanksgiving came around, he was back at our dining room table, sitting across from my mother. Despite the tough few months behind us, the meal passed without fighting, so we decided it was a good pattern to keep up. Dad came back for Christmas the following month and returned for both holidays the next season.

Our nascent tradition didn’t last long. Within a couple of years, Dad had moved into a new place, with a new woman. He then left the United States, right before I entered the eighth grade, to spend a year-and-a-half in Paris on assignment for the Internet company he worked for. When he returned, it was with a baby boy. A baby girl soon followed. As Dad took on the responsibilities of caring for his young children during my high school years, it became my sisters’ and my responsibility to visit him. We saw less of him during most of the year, but for the winter holidays, we always made it to his house.

On both Thanksgiving and Christmas, days began at Mom’s by default, since that was our home. We passed our morning eating pancakes and candy, watching the Macy’s parade or fiddling with our presents. In the early afternoon we departed for Dad’s. Mom cooked by herself during the hours we were away. Our route from Westford into Cambridge, where Dad lived, went along tortuous roads running through old farming towns. The drives to the city passed quickly and with good conversation; on the way home, the three of us seldom spoke, instead hiding from our own thoughts in the fading winter light.

Dad made many small gestures to encourage us to feel at ease at his new home. There was a key under the mat, a parking pass always at the ready, and an open invitation to stay over. But gestures are only necessary when you’re a guest, and these overtures never made us feel otherwise. We called ahead whenever we came to visit him, even though we knew we didn’t have to.

My sisters and I never stayed there for more than a few hours. We talked the way that we’d been trained to speak to extended relatives: asking the courteous questions, avoiding the taboo subjects. We would eventually gravitate toward our half brother and half sister. (They gripped onto our legs the minute we walked in the door, so it wasn’t hard to do.) Our fondness for them was always genuine, if a bit self-interested; young children are indelicate, a relief in a carefully worded milieu. One Christmas, my then five-year-old brother asked me, in a state of complete innocence, how it was possible that our fathers were the same person, but not our mothers. There was nothing like it to remind me of the absurdity of the innuendoes the adults had been using all day long.

Thanksgiving is a holid...

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