"Well!” exclaimed my mother, on some kind of pink-cloud high after having survived 18 straight hours of cooking the previous day. “What’s on our agenda?”
“Throwing up?” my brother suggested. It was the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, 1996. Mom, Dad, my 16-year-old sister, 13-year-old brother, and I (then 18) had groggily reunited around the kitchen table for our annual Déjà Vu Breakfast. Everybody was still stuffed. But no matter: For my family, this holiday has always involved more than one discrete feast; it doesn’t end until the refrigerator is bare.
I was a college freshman suffering from temporal whiplash. I had left my midwestern campus, where I had just seen snow for the first time in my life, and been drawn back to November in my hometown, Miami. So I was out of sorts. And I knew from experience that the morning after Thanksgiving would only disorient me further.
First my siblings and I would be force-fed leftovers: a mauled turkey, fruit pies suppurating a bloodred filling, a sweet potato casserole marred by lupine claw marks…a truly ghoulish tableau at 8 a.m. We’d eat our turkey-cranberry sandwiches and our turkey burritos with all the tableside cheer of the Donners. Then around noon—or, as we liked to think of it, “teenager dawn”—we would get conscripted into Family Friday, a yearly outing meant to cement our filial bond.
Why not end the ritual madness? Why not just say, “Hey, family, for a lark I am going to eat Grape-Nuts for breakfast instead of scooping mysteries from this hollowed-out bird cadaver. Surely even our Pilgrim forebears would encourage us to chuck this spooky roast”?
But none of us ever did. These Déjà Vu meals were a family tradition, some perverse homage we paid to the Great Depression ethic of my grandparents: Waste not, want not. We were almost superstitious about the practice, steadfast in our belief that we had to finish every bite of Thanksgiving dinner, no matter how many antacids were required afterward. Honestly, it really is some sort of miracle that Americans are able to spin one holiday afternoon into a week of Thanksgivings—even if by the time they get to the dregs of that final meal of leftovers, they may have decided that, going forward, it would be preferable to photosynthesize.
No, there was no getting out of Thanksgiving breakfast, but this particular year I had hoped that I might obtain an exemption from Family Friday. I had paid hundreds of dollars to fly to Miami in the middle seat between two rotund men, on a red-eye flight. To my mind, I had already gone above and beyond. Plenty of my friends, I told my mother darkly, had stayed on campus. They were having a Thanksgiving of red wine and cigarettes, and sleeping in past 10. This argument failed to impress her.
She asked again: What did we want to do today, as a family? We kids voted. “Digest” was the hands-down winner. We wanted to groan on the sofa and heal our brains with TV.
“No,” said our mother. “We’re not just going to laze around.” Yet again our family was revealed as a sham democracy. Our mom smiled a beautiful, dictatorial smile, cursing our plates with more cranberries, more pie. “We are going to go biking! In Shark Valley!”
We gaped at her. It was 87 degrees. Shark Valley, located in the Everglades, is chockablock with mosquitoes, snakes, and alligators, and we were all winded from eating. I come from a family of small, potato-shaped people. We are not athletes; my siblings and I will flip a coin to determine who has to walk to the mailbox. Getting us to go on a family outing is not like trying to herd cats—that would imply kinesis. It is like trying to herd a bunch of fire hydrants, or Stonehenge.
Why couldn’t this year’s adventure be, oh, I don’t know, a Festival of the Nap? Long ago, in a never-repeated coup, we had convinced our mother that it would be “an adventure” to watch the movie Waterworld. But no such luck today.
“My friend Marcia’s family went to Shark Valley and loved it,” Mom said. “We’ll commune with Mother Nature.” My mother’s enthusiasm for these outings is the glue that holds the five of us together. Without her, we wouldn’t be a family at all; we would be cretinous, wholly independent units. Still, this particular idea sounded both bonkers and potentially fatal, as if someone had brightly suggested, “Hey! Let’s go play shuffleboard with grenades!” or “I know! We can take boogie boards to Mount Vesuvius!” And that, essentially, is what we were going to do—ride a fleet of bicycles through the Florida swamp, which is gator-infested land, a labyrinth of plants with teeth and Mesozoic lizards.
“Are you sure they’re even renting bikes today?” my brother asked hopefully. “Maybe we can just ride the car around.”
Not a chance. When we got to Shark Valley, the parking lot was packed. Dozens of other families had journeyed here to ride their bicycles—very fit families wearing helmets, sipping out of water bottles, flexing calf muscles the size of bowling balls. A trail called the Scenic Loop cut through the saw-grass prairie; it was 15 miles long. A big sign said something like: CAUTION—MAINTAIN A 15-FOOT DISTANCE BETWEEN YOUR BICYCLE AND THE ALLIGATORS.
This was not possible. The gators, who were illiterate, did not respect the sign. And there were hundreds of them, black and blacky green, with priggish eyes and massive jaws. We saw whole families of gators: 10-foot bull gators and hissy mothers and scores of bug-eyed hatchlings.
It was terrifying. “Zag! Zag!” one woman screamed as she tried to swerve her bike around them. My siblings and I knew how she felt: We steered clumsily past one gator after another, attempting to avoid making eye contact with them. We worked just as hard to maintain balance and not fall off our bicycles, which could have been calamitous.
Alligator attacks are extremely rare. Nonetheless, on the day after Thanksgiving, the food chain was on our minds. After hours and hours of casual gluttony, it was strange to consider ourselves lunch. The alligators rolled their eyes at us. They rolled their eyes at their own potbellies and stout gray legs. This was a look that my family recognized: “Hey, these gators are like us,” my sister huffed, with relief. “They are too full to move!”
After that revelation, we relaxed. These alligators weren’t going to chase us—they appeared to be in their own reptilian version of the post-Thanksgiving fugue, bewitched by the heat and the trillions of calories of ibis that they had recently consumed. Setting aside our fears, we felt a kinship with the gators slumped roadside. If our own human mother hadn’t urged us onto these swamp-cycles, we would have assumed nearly identical postures, sunning ourselves on the rocks of our suburban couch.
When we finally pedaled into the Shark Valley parking lot some three hours later, we clutched one another, laughing and even shedding a few tears—exhausted by the exertion and the stress. And we were thrilled, too, realizing that we had done the nearly impossible: We had worked up a genuine appetite. By the time we got back to our home, we were starving. When the turkey made its entrance again, like an aged, deluded rock star coming back for yet another encore, we were actually happy to see it.
I’ve always resented a certain grocery-store commercial in which a little Pilgrim upbraids the viewer to “count your blessings,” but that was exactly the arithmetic I did after we returned from Shark Valley. For maybe the first time, it occurred to me that these Déjà Vu meals might be worth savoring—if for no other reason than this one: My family wasn’t going to gather around the table in these same positions forever.
In a day’s time, I would be flying back “home” (overnight, home had become a mobile concept) to my snowy campus. Years later I’m still grateful that I was denied my “exemption” and dragged against my will to the Everglades. No televised parade or Black Friday shoe sale can compete with my memory of that adventure in the swamp—the one in which the five of us, fortified by sweet-potato casserole, dodged a maze of monsters and felt truly grateful to come together, as a family, on the other side of the Loop.
Karen Russell is the author of Swamplandia! ($15, amazon.com) and St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves ($15, amazon.com). She is the writer-in-residence at Bryn Mawr College, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.