Gabriel Rivera’s Thanksgiving

Photos by Gabriel Rivera. 

I generally wake up on Thanksgiving morning to the sound of smoke alarms, and my first thought is to determine if it’s coming from our kitchen or one of the five other units in our apartment building. As I stumble out of bed and into the living room, I discover that, as per usual, the alarm is coming from the unit beneath us.

There’s another alarm unique to the fourth Thursday of every November that also rousts me out of bed. On the living room TV, Al Roker and Hoda Kotb are speaking over chilly winds gusts and a raucous crowd in Herald Square. From the kitchen, lids, pans and metal spoons clang as my mom cooks tonight’s dinner, denying all of my offers of help. In a reclining chair, my father is snoring through his second nap of what will likely be five today, six if my sister brings the pumpkin pie she has spent years promising to bake. I don’t need inflatable balloons or a turkey to know what day it is.

Deciding where we’ll have the holiday dinner is like spinning a roulette wheel. A month ago, we were planning to gather in the one-bedroom Washington Heights apartment my brother moved into recently. Last week we shifted plans to my sister’s apartment in Bushwick, then shared a venting session in our family group chat, in which the remaining Brooklynites complained about having to travel into Manhattan just to ride the L-train back into Brooklyn. I always include the MTA in what I’m thankful for.

We pivoted again a few days ago, settling on spending the holiday at my other sister’s apartment in Bay Ridge. But after more debate, we returned to the starting point: our narrow railroad apartment on the third floor of a building overlooking the noisy streets of Sunset Park.

There used to be so few of us that we easily fit around our small, brown dining table the length and width of a fire escape. But over the past eight years, our immediate family has expanded. Each of my three, older siblings has at least doubled their seats at the table and are now accompanied by their significant others. My eldest sister quadrupled her share of the dining-table real estate with the arrival of her two children, whom we accommodate by allowing action figures and rattling teething rings at the table.

Food, as well as action figures, crowd Rivera’s dinner table.

Our extended table fills up gradually as my siblings filter in. The younger of my two sisters and her husband arrive first, lugging aluminum foil trays of arroz con gandules, ziti, pigs in a blanket and other baked goods like pumpkin spice and chocolate chip cookies (this year she delivered on her pumpkin pie promise, too). My brother and his partner come next, carrying bags filled with Tupperware and trays of oven-cooked chicken and freshly baked bread. My oldest sister, her husband and two sons are usually the last to arrive, docking their food contributions, which consist of stuffed turkey and sweet potato casserole, with the rest of the trays adjacent to an active stovetop. My mom’s pasteles and pernil are always the star of the show; once the latter is finished cooking, it’s time to eat.

Rivera’s brother and partner cooking for Thanksgiving dinner.

A chorus of “excuse-me’s” and “what-do-you-want-to-eat’s” emanates from the kitchen. Paper plates are passed around — round ones because the square ones don’t fit in the microwave (and because no one wants to do dishes tonight). Anyone with a free hand corrals the seltzer, sodas and apple cider into the center of the two tables. I become a bartender, popping bottles, pouring red solo cups to capacity, and passing full plates assembly line style down the table, all atop a Christmas-themed tablecloth we bought from the 99-cent store last Thanksgiving. It’s proletarian class.

Once everyone is seated, we eat; we talk; we give thanks. It’s a special meal that grows more meaningful with each passing year, as moments shared around this table mark our changing daily lives.

Rivera’s family sitting around their table, finishing up their Thanksgiving dinner.

But it’s those fleeting, waking moments of the morning I’m most thankful for. It’s then when I wake to the void created by my family’s absence and filled with anticipation of their arrival every Thanksgiving evening. And even though we’re now stretched across five boroughs (actually four, because Sunset Park is the closest we’ll ever get to Staten Island), I know the quietude of those mornings — ringing smoke alarms, snoring and all — will invariably be disturbed by the sounds and antics of our motley Thanksgiving crew.