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Illustration by Juliana Neufeld

The moment I stuck one black leather laced-up boot out of the vehicle and stepped onto the busy road – with cars whizzing by in both directions – the idea of a head-to-toe Pilgrim costume seemed like a bad idea.

Blame it on my Canadian roots.

Growing up in Montreal, I’d never seen an actual American Thanksgiving except on the cartoon A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving televised each year. But when my Philadelphia boyfriend (and eventual husband) introduced me to my first holiday feast in grad school in the 1980s, I became hooked. He wooed me with his grandmother’s stuffing recipe. I went cranberry-crazy for my favourite U.S. holiday.

So, I was understandably a bit overexcited to attend my twin boys’ third-grade Thanksgiving school performance one year. Running late, as usual, I missed the red-light warning indicator. I ran out of gas on the side of a busy four-lane road, halfway between home and my kids’ school.

Trying unsuccessfully to flag down a taxi, I noticed the confused and slightly concerned look on each cab driver’s face as they zoomed by without braking. I could not understand their hesitancy until I remembered my Pilgrim garb. The absurdity of the situation sunk in.

I have a tendency to overdo things … to celebrate BIG. This is a byproduct of my cancer-cluster family, where we lose our kin far too young. Every gathering, every holiday, every reunion, every time any little bit of goodness rolls around, I don’t dare miss out. I work hard to make it memorable. Because memories are the most precious currency we have and time is far too fleeting. I have a wise cousin who preaches: “You better show up for the weddings because you must attend the funerals.” So, we show up. And make it bright, bold and unforgettable. Which can be a bit much. But so are many other effective coping mechanisms.

That day, I stood on the side of the road, in a long black skirt over my tall, black lace-up boots with a big white ruffled collar and crisp apron. What seemed like a genius getup while getting dressed at home now looked utterly ridiculous, poised at the side of the road with a car out of gas. I’d even plopped a white shower cap atop my head and tied a black velvet ribbon around it for added authenticity. From a historical perspective, I have no idea what I was thinking. But remember, I’m Canadian.

When one cab finally slowed down long enough for me to grab ahold of the door handle, the driver peered through his windshield warily as I hopped into his back seat. Deciding that explaining my costume ran the risk of making things much worse, I chose to say nothing. He said nothing. We both stared silently ahead. I pretended that wearing a shower cap and woollen stockings was perfectly normal in California’s sunny 24 C weather. We drove the 30 minutes in awkward, screaming silence.

Checking my watch every three minutes, I fretted about how late I’d be. Definitely, the last parent to arrive. Would there be an open seat? Would I miss my kids’ two measly lines? I dreaded giving off “deadbeat parent” vibes. Finally pulling into the school parking lot – packed with cars of parents who arrived on time, as instructed by the perpetually perky teachers – the cab driver let me out. I heard his relieved sigh as the door shut behind me.

All the parents were gathered on the athletic field while the kids stood on a makeshift stage, speaking one by one into a microphone. They looked adorable in their tall Pilgrim hats, white tucked-in socks, shiny buckled shoes, and chin-tied bonnets. Cuteness melted my heart.

I grasped the hem of my long skirt in my hands and dashed across the field, Little House on the Prairie-style, to join the throng of parents. I did not want to miss another precious minute.

Racing across the grass, a sickening realization dawned on me. Glancing from parent to parent, speedily scanning the crowd, desperately hoping I was wrong, I prayed my eyes deceived me.

The crowd wore Silicon Valley couture: dark jeans, logoed half-zips, yoga pants, comfortable shoes. Nice normal parent clothes. None of the other parents were dressed in Pilgrim garb.

For those keeping score: I was not only 30 minutes late, out of breath and sweaty, I was also the only adult Pilgrim on school grounds. The only conspicuously clueless Canadian.

In my excitement, I must’ve misread the teacher’s note. The costumes were only meant for kids. Grown-ups were not supposed to wear their holiday spirit.

As I made myself small and hid in the back row, desperately trying to blend in with the chic crowd, my friend stage-whispered laughingly: “Wow. Sexy adult Pilgrim costume to the school play? Cool. Didn’t think you had it in you!”

“Never underestimate a Canadian with cancer,” I muttered under my breath. We show up.

Lisa J. Wise lives in Merion Station, Penn.

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