I   hope   you’re   in   the   “Oh   boy, Thanksgiving!” camp, like me, but we all know at least one someone who dreads the annual family ritual. Usually it’s because it’s the one time of the year drunk uncle Chuck gets to misbehave in front of the whole family, or punked out niece Nikki proudly displays ALL her piercings, tats and latest radical ‘do, or bigoted cousin Caroline lets key words slip too many times to excuse it away, and her apologies sound more like doubling down. And if someone is foolish enough to bring up politics or, God forbid, religion, look out.

Let’s face it, all families are a little dysfunctional, some majorly, so sometimes it’s just the bickering that drives you nuts. Over the turkey, who sits where, the weather, any- thing. Of course the flowing alcohol adds fuel to simmering fires, and if you get through turkey day you still have Christmas with this crowd to contend with.

Not me, lucky me. I love my extended family. I’ve been going to Tempe for a large Thanksgiving gathering since I was three. It was born and took root at my uncle Harold’s house, which was out in the sticks back then. Now it’s just three traffic lights from massive ASU, with a student population nearly equal to all of Santa Monica, surrounded by metro Phoenix’s 4.5 million.

Uncle Harold, an insurance salesman who dabbled in real estate (smart) and became mayor, built that house with his own hands and a few friends, on weekends mostly. He was no mason or electrician or plumber, just figured, hell, I can do this. He was a big, strong man, whom I was later in awe of for throwing a bowling ball faster and harder than anyone I’d ever seen, including pros. Scored over 200 regularly, as did his brother, my dad.

He had cows and a donkey and other critters, and a corn crop in the front yard nourished by an irrigation ditch. The Phoenix area was crisscross covered with them, carving that future metropolis out of an unforgiving, brutally sun baked desert. All this made a pretty great playground for us kids.

My dad’s family was from was from upstate New York, tiny Egypt, just a skip and a spit from Fairport which was just southeast of Rochester. The subzero winter home of 20- foot snowdrifts. Once somebody from their neck of the woods moved out to Arizona, after the war, and wrote back with glowing descrip-tions of desert life to the pitiable snowbound masses stranded back east, a number of them, like Harold and my dad and Aunt Ruth, got smart and headed west (Aunt Mary flew like a free bird south to Florida). So there was a whole slew of happy expatriate New York State folks at those first Thanksgivings. Started out with a couple dozen, I’m told, but quickly grew to 50 or 60, seated at a long line of picnic tables. Outdoors, of course. Can’t do that in Fairport.

We still sometimes get 40-50, usually at least 25-30. No surviving New Yorkers. We lost Aunt Aletha a few years back, everybody’s aunt, still pinching cheeks into her 90s. Family comes in from Washington and Oklahoma and wherever, friends are there from Serbia and sometimes there’s a cousin or two from Holland. Always, new young’ns fill in the spaces, and can’t really see an end to it. We always set an empty place for those who are no longer at the table.

We all love the opportunity this yearly gathering provides. No dysfunction shows up at the table in Tempe. Without any ill will intended, nor any sense of superiority whatsoever, I have to say it’s kind of not my usual crowd to hang with. If they weren’t family, I don’t know if I’d seek them out as buddies.

Which would be my loss.

The biggest concession is, why they put up with me. It’s probably because they’ve known me a long, long time; at age three I wore cowboy boots and I still do. That’s just cousin Charles. Long hair (sometimes) lefty, a little too Hollywood, doesn’t go to church anymore (we still let him offer the blessing), but we love him anyway.

Do you know anything about Phoenix? My family is pretty Phoenix. Church has always been important to them, personally and as part of community. They always have been active in social outreach. Politically, there’s a range: from center to far right. (Okay, maybe a couple of exceptions.) So yeah, not my usual crowd. But what makes it all work, for me any-way, beyond their amazingly good hearts, is that they are independent thinkers. Uncle Harold was probably the most conservative, but he was always questioning things, including his own beliefs. Probably what I miss most about him was the private chats he would always make time for, usually later one evening after the crowd had dispersed.

“So, Charles,” he’d start out, none too subtly, “what do you think of our new President/labor law/LAPD/those folks out demonstrating?” and we’d take off from there. He always listened to my ideas, and I to his. I don’t think we changed the other’s mind very often, but did add something to consider. Uncle Harold was very well informed, very smart, and very wise.

His son-in-law Dennis and I had the same kind of chats until his recent passing. There may not be another to step into that space but that’s okay. It’s kind of like that for me with the whole family, bits and pieces of entering their worlds and they mine and everyone coming out the richer for it.

I think the loving relationship I’ve always had with my Arizona cousins has been an example to me to always dig below the surface, because you could miss something. As I traversed the live music scene in LA for business (and pleasure), since 1980, some friends would exclaim, you went to THAT club?! With the mohawks and piercings and black lipstick? Sure, I’d respond. Those are just costumes, uniforms. You wear one too. People are people, once you talk to them.

This attitude has even brought me to talking to local figures I used to cross the room to avoid. If Boehner and Barack can call each other friend, maybe someday I’ll even knock back a few with Pam O’Connor.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus. But the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan.” – Dalton Trumbo

Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for almost 30 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at therealmrmusic@gmail.com.