Thanksgiving Eve: How the biggest party night of the year became our homecoming

Growing up, my friends and I took for granted that we would always see each other the night before the holiday. Until we couldn’t.

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Bottom left: Jeremy Lapedis, Ethan Gillett, Anna Fishman. Bottom right:  Jake Scobey-Thal and Maria Alexander, summer of 2005 after our senior year of high school. (Image courtesy of Maria Alexander).

Bottom left: Jeremy Lapedis, Ethan Gillett, Anna Fishman. Bottom right: Jake Scobey-Thal and Maria Alexander, summer of 2005 after our senior year of high school. (Image courtesy of Maria Alexander).

In high school, I spent all my time with my friends. Really, all of it.

We met at Community High — a small public school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It has a reputation as a place for freaks, artists and kids who don’t want a traditional education. There are no bells, teachers go by their first names, and students can pitch their own classes and earn credit from experts outside of school. We took pride in and advantage of our independence: We created our own schedules, started our own clubs, and liberally interpreted the acceptable length of bathroom breaks in the middle of class to gather in our designated spot, on the ledge by the windows on the second floor.

Anywhere else, my friends and I would have been considered nerdy misfits, even a little rebellious. But in a school full of 500 weirdos, we were the ones who played sports. We bonded over being kind of normal.

We did most of that bonding in my friend Marie’s garage. There was a TV, a mini fridge, and a string of multicolored Christmas lights. Most importantly, there was enough distance from her parents’ actual house that everyone was happy: Our parents liked it because they felt like we were technically under supervision; we liked it because we felt like we technically weren’t.

We spent hours in there. We drank a lot of rum and Coke, danced to OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below on repeat, developed crushes, argued, changed our minds. We tried on different personalities, used one another as sounding boards, became the people we are today.

“I feel like I was figuring a lot of that out then,” Marie told me. “Like, I’m embarrassed of some things I did in high school, but I’m not embarrassed of who I was.”

It felt essential that we spent every second together. A few of us took classes at the University of Michigan while we were high school seniors: Marie took a Shakespeare class; my friend Jake took a class on urban planning; I took a philosophy class. Because we all wished we could be in each other’s classes, someone had the brilliant idea to pitch a course to our high school where we would teach our friends the highlights of our respective college classes. For some reason, this request was approved, and we earned high school credit for lounging around the garage, eating homemade macaroni and cheese, and vaguely discussing “Othello” and “The Origins of the Urban Crisis.”

My friend Anna remembers one time she got grounded for lying about staying the night at my house, when really we went to a party.

“I wasn’t allowed to sleep over anywhere for like a month and a half, and I just remember melting down and telling my parents that they were ruining my life, because if I missed a moment then I missed everything!”

After high school, most of us left town for college. We’d come home for Thanksgiving break, like lots of kids do. We’d go out the night before Thanksgiving and meet up with old classmates. Usually, we’d find ourselves in this dark, crowded basement bar in downtown Ann Arbor called Babs’. It was sloppy and fun, but after a few years, it started to get old. The novelty of rubbing elbows with the familiar faces from high school wore off.

I think that’s the point when a lot of people lose contact with their friends from their youth. High school slips into a bygone era. People get more serious partners and jobs, and it’s expensive to travel at Thanksgiving. You miss a year, and maybe it becomes a pattern. We could have fizzled out.

But then, Ethan died.

Ethan was one of our crew. He was brilliant and adventurous and silly and an amazing cuddler. He died in a rock-climbing accident when he was 28, in October 2015.

I was the first to find out — my mom called me while I was still in bed on a Saturday morning. I remember yelling “No!” into the phone, over and over again, as she told me what had happened. And then, one by one, I started making calls.

A month after Ethan died, we all came home for his memorial, which was the weekend before Thanksgiving. The two coinciding steeped the Thanksgiving Eve tradition in a whole new level of gravity.

“There was a sense of duty that I felt to be in this place, at this time, because our group of friends needed this night to solidify the bond,” Jake said. “And in solidifying, it was holding tight to the memory of Ethan.”

If there had ever been any doubt that we would keep coming home, there wasn’t anymore. We had already lost one person. We weren’t going to voluntarily lose someone else.

Ethan’s death brought the value of our friend group into stark relief. We all felt it: We were so lucky to have each other. That Thanksgiving after he died, we definitely didn’t want to go out to the bars, but sitting around in someone’s living room didn’t quite feel right either. Luckily, right around that time, our friend Steve had just opened up a restaurant in Ann Arbor, called Spencer.

That first year, it was somber. It was a private place for us to grieve together. But ever since, it’s been joyful. Each year, when we roll into town the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we all just go straight to Spencer. The restaurant is closed for the holiday, but Steve opens it up for us. His generosity gets the best of him, and he lays out plates of cheese and the half-filled bottles of wine left over from service the night before that are certain to go bad if we don’t finish them off. It feels like our own little clubhouse: Someone walks in, gets a hug and a glass of wine, and they’re home.

Now, our group of friends gather at Spencer the night before Thanksgiving each year. Steve Hall, front right, owns the restaurant with his partner. The shop is closed that night, but they open it up so we can all hang out. (Image courtesy of Maria Alexander)

When we all get together in Ann Arbor, it’s at once refreshing and grounding in a way that neither coming home nor coming together can accomplish alone. A handful of us live on the East Coast and have gathered there, but it never quite feels the same. A couple of my friends have moved back to Ann Arbor and live there full time, but they say it’s different when we’re all there. When everyone is together at home, it acts as both an anchor and a reset.

I have this image of getting older, where we’re just adding layers onto our personalities over the years. The selves we were at 15 are still buried there, but they’re obscured by all the life we’ve piled on top — the places we’ve been, the relationships we’ve built, the tragedies we’ve weathered.

When I go home each year for Thanksgiving, a part of me becomes the person I was when I was 15 — around those friends, I really feel like that kid in the garage, still deciding who I want to be. And somehow, at the same time, I remain the 31-year-old I am today, in Spencer, who has already decided.

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