My father ran a restaurant -- a small, unassuming, diner kind of place, with a smoke-filled bar attached.
This meant that while my friends' fathers were engineers and pipe-fitters, with college degrees, journeyman's cards, or at least fancy titles, my dad breaded chops. He wasn't working on his masters on the side and wasn't in line for any kind of promotion, ever.
And to be painfully honest, as a selfish, myopic teenager, I was often embarrassed.
I felt like the Chinese version of Toula in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Growing up, on any given Saturday I'd doff my stained dishwasher's apron, go home and shower, then head to some junior high dance wondering if I still smelled of frying oil.
Much to my chagrin, birthday dinners were always held at the restaurant. It was the only way my dad could be there on my birthdays. My friends loved it, of course. Instead of eating delivery pizza, they could order anything off the menu and have the run of the place.
How cool is that?
"Not very," I'd mutter.
Gawd, I was a brat.
So when my dad announced that he'd be leaving the restaurant open on Thanksgiving, I was mortified. Not only would this mean I'd have to work (because he was giving everyone else the day off), but who on Earth would want to come to our trivial mom-and-pop-shop on a holiday? We didn't offer prime rib, or twice-baked potatoes, or hollandaise-covered anything.
Today's Hot Topic-wearing teen might have begun cutting, but it was the 80s, so I merely grumped, I slumped, I down-in-the-dumped.
I rolled my eyes and slogged through a haze of holiday drudgery, as my mom strung lights and decorated a fake tree that had seen one too many Christmases, while my dad stayed up all night baking pies and stuffing turkeys.
In the morning, I washed dishes, set tables—the usual—certain that we'd spend the day in our empty place of business, with nothing but the hollow, mocking, I-told-you-so songs on the jukebox.
Meanwhile, I imagined my friends enjoying their Norman Rockwell families and their postcard-perfect tables of Betty Crocker greatness. I secretly wondered if I'd been adopted, robbed of my rightful destiny, to be raised by a normal family, as I mentioned something to my dad about the banks being closed, a sarcastic nod to the cash register, which sat empty and unmanned.
"No need," he said.
"What do you mean, no need?" I was the one always running off to get more one-dollar bills or rolls of quarters to make change.
"No charge today. It's Thanksgiving."
The good thing was: I was certain no one would show. The bad thing was: I was certain my dad had lost his mind. Why? Because he said he'd invited all of our regular customers, whom I envisioned politely declining, preferring their own families, their own traditions, to slumming around with us.
So when the first little old man wandered in, I assumed he was lost, probably asking for directions. Instead my dad took his hat and coat, and poured him a glass of wine.
Then an elderly woman showed up and gave my dad a hug.
Then two rough-looking kids in their mid-20s who once worked for my dad when "they got out."
Then a retired cop.
A bus driver.
A carload of little old, canasta-playing ladies.
Some brought desserts. Others brought quarts of eggnog with 7-11 price tags, or dollar-store boxes of candy canes. In all, more than 75 people would pass through our doors. The men who appeared like clockwork after work and nursed lonely drinks at the bar. The walker-bound lady who came by cab from a retirement home, who had more money than friends, who ate the same meal week after week, because she had no place else to go.
They ate, drank, and sang (loudly!), watched football, and played cribbage in the bar.
And when we ran out of turkey, my dad fried hamburgers.
On any other day, I would have been a whining teenager.
Instead I cut French fries. Grateful for my family -- for my dad's leathery, blue-collar hands, with scars from kitchen knives and frequent burns.
Late into the evening, after sweeping up broken plates, scrapping grills, wiping counters, washing dishes, reveling in the glorious mess, we finally locked the doors.
We went home, exhausted, leaving the Christmas lights on.
Jamie Ford is the great-grandson of Nevada mining pioneer, Min Chung, who emigrated from China in 1865, where he adopted the western name “Ford,” thus confusing countless generations. His debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and won the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. Having grown up in Seattle, he now lives in Montana where he’s on a never-ending search for decent dim sum.