For as long as I can remember, my family celebrated Thanksgiving in the Midwest.

It was tradition to spend a cozy afternoon stuffing ourselves with food, catching up with relatives and watching the Lions lose.

Sure, the cast of family members would change. Last year, for example, my long-lost great uncle, an itinerant truck driver and ex-convict whom no one had heard from for 15 years, decided to make a guest appearance. (He said he spent his days off in the back of his truck doing crossword puzzles. Later that day, he also exhorted me to try a glass of rum and coke. My mom said no.)

While family members would come and go, the location was predetermined, implied. Without fail, our family would gather in either Michigan or Ohio on that fourth Thursday in November. It was tradition.

This year, though, the revered tradition was shattered. At 8:50 Tuesday morning, I reluctantly boarded a plane for Tampa Bay, Fla. That’s right: we were heading south.

From the outset, the idea of spending Thanksgiving in Florida was repulsive to me. It was heresy. How could I spend the holiday somewhere warm? It seemed almost as absurd as a hot Christmas day. When I think of Thanksgiving, the words cold, football, family and eating come to mind, and all are equally important for a successful holiday. If one’s missing, it doesn’t work.

But I knew I had to suck it up. The trip was an all-expenses-paid celebration for my grandfather’s 80th birthday. He had proposed the idea, and it was our job to acquiesce. The way I saw it, to complain was to solidify my status as the single most ungrateful person in the country. And I didn’t want that title.

When we finally got to Longboat Key, an island off the western coast of Florida, I felt displaced. Everything was different. The laid-back atmosphere induced feelings of uneasiness within me. I observed older men with slicked-back hair and sleek Oakley sunglasses brandishing tennis rackets like they were knights about to engage in combat. For them, this was life: An endless cycle of tennis matches against Don, the retired business mogul who lives down the beach. It didn’t seem right – at least not in November.

Not even the picturesque Gulf of Mexico could relieve the inner turmoil I felt during the trip. I often tried to lose myself in the water’s shimmering depths but had little success. It didn’t feel right to be by the ocean in November. I spent my time on the beach staring off into the horizon, watching in awe as water and sky imperceptibly became one.

Celebrating Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant also didn’t help me cope with the differences. The dinner was delicious, but it wasn’t the same as eating in a snug living room. I’m used to our family packed together elbow to elbow at a wooden table, which would undoubtedly be covered by a tablecloth aadorned with turkey graphics. Literally and figuratively, our family is closer in the Midwest.

And of course eating in a restaurant also means no homemade cooking. There’s no sweet smells of roasting turkey or apple pie. There are no opportunities to bond in the kitchen with family as the meal is collectively prepared.

Although I tried, I couldn’t comprehend this massive departure from our traditional family gathering. It was too different, a change of plans that was wholly disorienting. I kept grasping for a sense of the familiar that was absent. I needed to ground myself in something that wasn’t there. I wanted to relive Thanksgiving as I had always known it. I wanted to bridge past and present. I wanted tradition back.

Tradition is something that’s both universal and intensely personal. We all have our traditions, but they mean different things to each of us. And yet to articulate this feeling sometimes seems impossibly difficult. Tradition, indeed, can seem both elusive and intangible. That is until it’s taken away. For me, it then became concrete and identifiable. I could definitively say that something was not how it used to be. There was a void that needed to be filled. Something was missing, and I yearned for its return.

So while it was nice spending time with family, Thanksgiving this year wasn’t the same. My final verdict on the trip is still clouded by uncertainty.

And so that’s where I am now, somewhere lost between water and sky.

-Brian Tengel is a staff writer for The Michigan Daily

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