I stood outside 109 Wellington waiting for my math class, as I did every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Another class met in that room right before mine, and about a minute after I arrived, those students began leaving. Jack Chalmers from my class always said hi to Lizzie, a girl from that class whom he had known back home, as she passed by, but Jack was not here now. I saw Lizzie walk past, and I made eye contact and attempted to smile.
Lizzie noticed me making eye contact. She was fair-skinned with dark brown hair and eyes, and she wore a dark red sweatshirt. “Hey,” she said.
I did not expect her to actually say hi to me, considering that the few words she had said to me had all happened on days when I had been talking to Jack as her class left. Trying to think of something to say, I blurted out, “Jack’s not here.”
“Yeah. He was going to leave early this morning for Thanksgiving. He has a long drive, you know.”
“That makes sense.”
“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” Lizzie asked me.
“We always go visit my dad’s relatives in Bidwell. Mom and Dad are picking me up tomorrow morning on their way.”
“Where are they coming from?”
“Plumdale. That’s where I grew up. Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”
“That sounds like fun! I’m flying home tonight. I could have carpooled with Jack, but I have a midterm I can’t miss later today.”
“Good luck on your midterm! And have a great Thanksgiving!”
One of the best parts of being a university student was being surrounded by other people around my age at the same point in their lives as me. That makes it so much easier to make friends, compared to adult life with its compartmentalized and isolated experiences. And sometimes my friends would have other friends, and my friends’ friends would become my friends. This seemed to be happening with Lizzie, now that we had had an actual conversation without Jack being there.
This Wednesday felt more like a Friday, with tomorrow being Thanksgiving. But I was annoyed that the University of Jeromeville and its sister schools only take two days off, plus a weekend, for Thanksgiving. This was the same as I always got in elementary school, but in high school, I had gotten three days off, and in the 21st century I know many schools that take the entire week off. It was disappointing, not having more time off for Thanksgiving, but many real life jobs only have one day off, so it could be worse.
During math class, as Anton lectured about eigenvalues and eigenvectors, I thought about the rest of my day. Bowling class, two more lectures, and two hours of tutoring, and I would be done for the week. ready to go see family and stuff my face with food.
I had two tutoring groups on Wednesdays after my classes. Calculus with Yesenia and Kevin went as it always did. But in the precalculus group after that, I sat at the table for ten minutes waiting for the four students in the group to show up. If I waited fifteen minutes, and no one showed up, I was allowed to leave and still get paid for the fifteen minutes. One of the students, Jennifer, arrived just as I was getting ready to go home.
“I didn’t think anyone was going to come,” I said.
“We just got a midterm back, and I have a lot of questions,” Jennifer replied.
“I wonder if everyone else left early because it’s Thanksgiving?” I wondered aloud, remembering what Lizzie had said about Jack.
“Are you going anywhere for Thanksgiving?”
“Yeah. Just back home, to Pleasant Creek. My dad is coming to pick me up tonight.”
“I’m going to visit my dad’s relatives in Bidwell. That’ll be fun.”
Jennifer and I got a lot of work done. We talked about every problem she missed on the midterm as well as today’s lecture, and she really did seem to understand better by the end of the hour. After we finished, I walked to the Barn and caught the bus home, then proceeded to waste the rest of the night playing around on the computer and reading. Before I went to bed, I threw a few changes of clothes and my personal bathroom items in a bag for the trip.
Mom and Dad and my brother Mark arrived to pick me up around 10:00 Thursday morning. After everyone used my bathroom for their mid-trip pit stop, we left, turning north onto Highway 117. “We made good time,” Mom said as we left Jeromeville and our surroundings abruptly changed to fields and pastures. “We left right at 7:30, like we wanted to. And we’ll still get to Bidwell in plenty of time to check into the motel before we eat.”
“Oh. You’ll like this. We were on the phone with Aunt Carol earlier this week, talking about that time years ago when you brought your Game Boy to Bidwell and we played Tetris. I told her I always liked Dr. Mario, and she said she didn’t know that game, but it sounded fun. So we brought the Super Nintendo, so we can play Tetris and Dr. Mario with Aunt Carol.”
“That’ll be fun,” I said. Tetris & Dr. Mario was a cartridge for the Super Nintendo that included both games, which had been on separate cartridges for the earlier Nintendo Entertainment System. We had lost our Dr. Mario game when someone borrowed it and never returned it; last summer Mom had wanted to play Dr. Mario, so we got the Super Nintendo Tetris & Dr. Mario as a replacement.
The trip from Jeromeville to Bidwell took just under two hours, north on Highway 117 to where it ends, then north on Highway 9. In most of the towns between Jeromeville and Bidwell, the highway becomes a city street, which slows the drive down a little but gives a more close-up view of life in those towns than freeway travel would. Fields and orchards covered the land between the towns.
My great-grandmother Christine Dennison used to host Thanksgiving at her house in the hills on the outskirts of Bidwell. Her son, my great-uncle Ted, was a cattle rancher; he had sold the land around her house some time ago but kept the house for his mother to live in. We used to stay at her house when we came to Bidwell, and I always had so much fun exploring the old ranch land, going on long walks, even in the last few years of her life when the new owners of the land began building a country club and golf course there.
Christine had been my last great-grandparent, and this was our second Thanksgiving since she passed. Last year, in the absence of anyone wanting to take over the cooking and hosting duties, someone had decided to hold the Dennison extended family Thanksgiving at HomeTown Buffet. I thought that was a bit tacky at first, but having so many choices of food last year was kind of nice, so I was looking forward to it this year.
We checked into the motel and rested a bit before heading to HomeTown Buffet in mid-afternoon. “Hey, you guys,” Aunt Carol said as we approached the group of Dennison relatives waiting outside. Her husband, Uncle Chuck, Dad’s next-youngest brother, said hi and shook all of our hands. “Did you bring the game?” Aunt Carol asked.
“Yes, we did. Greg is waiting to play with you guys.”
“Greg,” an elderly bald man said, patting me on the shoulder. “How’re you doing? How’s Jeromeville?”
“Hi, Grandpa Harold,” I said. “I’m doing well. Classes are good this quarter. And I’m working part time as a math tutor.”
“A math tutor? That sounds perfect for you.”
I looked around to see who else was here. Grandpa Harold’s wife, Grandma Nancy, saw me and waved. I knew her as my grandmother, but she was not biologically related to me. Grandpa Harold had been married three times, and my dad, Harold Dennison, Jr., came from the second wife, who lived out of state and died when I was in high school. I only met Dad’s real mother twice. My dad’s cousin Tina, whose father had had the cattle ranch, and her four daughters stood at the end of the line. I made a note to say hi to them next. The oldest girl was 18 and the youngest 12; they used to play with Mark and me at Great-Grandma Christine’s house when we would visit. When Mark was around 10, he went through a phase of fascination with amphibians and reptiles, and we used to catch tadpoles in Bidwell Creek in the summer with the girls. I overheard Tina say that her parents would not be joining us, since they were having Thanksgiving with her brother’s family.
Uncle Glen, Dad’s older half-brother from Grandpa Harold’s first wife, showed up about ten minutes later, and we all went inside after that. Dad had one other brother, Uncle Jimmy, whom I never met; he died in a motorcycle accident in his 20s while Mom was pregnant with me, and I got my middle name of James from him. Grandpa Harold had three daughters with Grandma Nancy, but they all lived out of state and did not often come for Thanksgiving.
I stuffed my face so full that day. I ate three whole plates of actual food: turkey, ham, stuffing, fried chicken, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and all sorts of bread. Then I went back for dessert, returning with a giant ice cream sundae in a soup bowl, since the ice cream bowls were small, and two different slices of pie. “Are you going to be able to move the rest of the night?” Mom asked when I returned to the table with dessert.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” I replied, laughing. While we ate, we all caught up, sharing everything going on in our lives. A number of people asked me how school was, and I repeated the same thing I told Grandpa Harold outside. Mark just kind of grunted and shrugged when they asked him that question. I did not have the long walks around the old ranch to look forward to this year, but this was still going to be a fun holiday.
Today, many Americans associate the day after Thanksgiving with shopping. In the 1960s, police officers fed up with rioting crowds of shoppers beginning their Christmas shopping referred to this miserable phenomenon as “Black Friday.” By the early 2000s, stores began encouraging these rioting crowds, offering deep discounts, completely unrelated to buying gifts for others, only available early in the morning. The retail industry even fabricated a story about the term “Black Friday” referring to profits being in the black rather than rioting and vandalism.
Black Friday was never a big deal to me, not today and certainly not in 1995. While the rest of the world went shopping that morning, we ate a nice hotel breakfast, then went to visit Tina and the girls. We set up the Super Nintendo to play with them while the adults talked about adult things. After that, we stopped to see Grandpa Harold and Grandma Nancy for a while. I always found their house boring when I was a kid, and this year was no exception to that, except that Grandma Nancy had homemade pumpkin pie.
In the early afternoon, we drove about 20 miles south to a town called Rio Bonito. A few years earlier, Uncle Chuck and Aunt Carol had driven past a large old house in Rio Bonito that was painted a bright yellow color. The house had a For Sale sign outside, and Aunt Carol said that she wanted to live in that Damn Yellow House. So they sold their house in Bidwell and bought the Damn Yellow House. Everyone in that town of 1500 people knew the Damn Yellow House. Someone once even sent them mail addressed to “Chuck & Carol Dennison, The Damn Yellow House, Rio Bonito,” with no street name or address, and it was delivered correctly.
We parked next to the Damn Yellow House and walked inside; I carried the Super Nintendo. “Hello,” Aunt Carol said as we approached. “Oh, good, you brought that game.”
“Yes. Should I go set it up now?” I asked.
“We’re not going to play right now,” Mom said.
“That’s okay,” Aunt Carol said. “He can go plug it into the TV now, and it’ll be ready when we’re ready to play later.”
I connected the Super Nintendo to the TV while the adults caught up and talked about boring adult stuff. Most of the family vacations I remember involve the adults sitting around talking about boring adult stuff while I had to entertain myself. The 1989 invention of the Game Boy, Nintendo’s hand-held video game console, was a lifesaver for me on these trips, although I did not bring it this year.
After dinner, it was time to teach Aunt Carol to play Dr. Mario. I turned the game on and started a single-player game. “So there are three different colors of viruses,” I explained as I played the game. “You line up the pills, and whenever you get four of the same color in a row, they disappear. So you want to make a set of four that includes a virus. Like, watch those red ones on the left side.” I dropped a pill on the red virus, making a set of four; the red virus disappears.
“I see,” Aunt Carol replied. As I dropped another pill, she asked, “What happened there? You made a set of four that didn’t have a virus in it?”
“Yeah. That still makes the pills disappear. It clears space on the board. There’s also a two-player game where you compete to see who clears the viruses first. And whenever you get more than one set of 4 with a single pill, it drops garbage on the other player’s board.”
“That sounds like fun. Can we do that?”
I started a two-player game, putting Aunt Carol on an easier level than me since she was a beginner. The two-player game lasts until someone wins three rounds; I won the first two rounds, but Aunt Carol had gotten the hang of it enough to win the next round.
“This is fun!” Aunt Carol said.
We spent the rest of the night taking turns playing two-player Dr. Mario. Mom played against Aunt Carol, I played against Mom, Aunt Carol played against Uncle Chuck. Mark did not join in; he preferred sports and fighting games to puzzle games, so he sat in the corner listening to gangsta rap on a Walkman and occasionally making sarcastic comments.
“I want to try the one-player game for a while,” Aunt Carol said after a couple hours of multiplayer games. “Is that okay?”
“Sure,” I replied.
We spent some more time just talking and catching up while Aunt Carol was playing. Eventually Mom looked at a clock. “Oh, my gosh, it’s already 10:00,” Mom said. “We need to get back to the motel.”
“Are you gonna take my game away?” Aunt Carol asked.
“We don’t have to,” I suggested. “If Aunt Carol is still playing, we can leave the Super Nintendo here and pick it up tomorrow morning on our way out of town.”
“Oh, could you? That would be so nice.”
“Does that work, Mom?”
“Sure, if you’re okay leaving it here. Mark, is that okay with you?”
“What?” Mark asked, taking off his headphones.
“Aunt Carol wants us to leave the Super Nintendo here so she can play until we go home tomorrow.”
“I don’t care,” Mark said indignantly.
“You don’t have to get snippy. It’s your Super Nintendo too.”
“Have you heard me talk about the Super Nintendo once on this trip?”
“Well, it’s polite to ask.”
“I said I don’t care!”
We said our goodbyes and drove back north to the motel in Bidwell. “Aunt Carol sure got into Dr. Mario,” Mom commented.
“I know. That was fun.”
“It was nice of you to offer to let her borrow the Super Nintendo.”
“We’re leaving in the morning. I wasn’t going to play any more.”
“Still, that was nice of you.”
“What are we doing in the morning?” Mom paused, waiting for someone to answer. “Harry? What are we doing in the morning?”
“Sorry,” Dad replied. “I didn’t know you were asking me. I figured we’d stop by my dad’s on the way out of town.”
“What time do you want to be on the road?”
“I was thinking around 10 or 11.”
“Does that work for you guys?” Mom asked. I nodded. Mark, still listening to music on headphones, said nothing.
Dad had a nice visit with Grandpa Harold and Grandma Nancy in the morning, and by “nice” I mean that it was short enough that I did not get bored. We left their house around 10:30 and got to the Damn Yellow House to pick up the Super Nintendo a little before 11. I was the first one to the door, so I knocked.
Aunt Carol opened the door. “I suppose it’s time to give you your game back,” she said. We followed her into the living room, and I noticed that she looked disheveled and unkempt. The game was on, paused. “I was wondering if that special screen that shows up after levels 5, 10, 15, and 20 shows up again at 25.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never gotten that high.”
“The best I got to last night was level 23. But I had started that game at level 20. That’s the highest you can start at, I guess.”
“Yeah, “I replied, thinking that was still very impressive for a beginner
“This was a lot of fun. I might have to get this game.”
Mom and Dad said their goodbyes to Aunt Carol and Uncle Chuck as I disconnected the Super Nintendo. I joined them in saying goodbye, and we went back to the car and continued driving south on Highway 9.
“She stayed up all night playing,” Mom said. “Did you notice? She was still wearing the same clothes as when we left last night.”
“I was wondering that,” Dad replied.
“I didn’t notice, but now that you mention it, you’re right.”
To this day, whenever the topic of Dr. Mario comes up, Mom always brings up the time Aunt Carol stayed up all night. Aunt Carol passed away in late 2014; I did not attend the funeral, since she and Uncle Chuck had moved 500 miles away by then, but if I had, I would have shared the Dr. Mario story. In 2016, my cousin Pam, Aunt Carol’s daughter, commented on a Facebook picture I had shared of me and my friends playing retro Nintendo games. Pam said that they had an Atari when she was a kid, but her mother would always hog the controller. I told her about the time we brought Dr. Mario for Thanksgiving and her mother stayed up all night playing, and Pam replied, “So that’s how her addiction to that game started! She played that for years until the controllers broke.”
As a child, I loved visiting the Bidwell relatives and wanted those trips to last forever. This trip seemed short, only two and a half days, but I was growing up, as were my cousins, and life was changing. Uncle Chuck and Aunt Carol’s children were grown and did not live with them in the Damn Yellow House anymore. Mark had outgrown his tadpole-catching phase. And we didn’t have Great-Grandma Christine’s house to explore anymore; the old ranch was a gated country club now. Life moves on, but family stays family, even when those family relationships change over the years.