As with any good fantasy story, Harry Potter was, for me, initially a means of escape.
When I got my hands on Sorcerer's Stone, I was just one year younger than the hero himself, and Harry's adventures were the perfect analgesic for my morning bus ride. At the end of that school year, I half-expected that my July birthday would see the arrival of an owl bearing a letter addressed to me in emerald-green ink. Instead, July brought the news that my family would be moving from Washington state to Colorado just in time for my entry into middle school.
Suddenly, Harry's problems with horrible relatives and antagonistic peers became a lot more relatable. At my new school, I frequently read the latest Rowling tome in class, concealed in my lap under the lip of the desk.
Of course, my relatives weren't that horrible. The reason we were moving, my mother explained, was so we could spend more time with my grandparents in their twilight years. I nearly pointed out that my grandparents were still 12 hours away in Iowa, but stopped myself, grateful that my parents hadn't decided to move there.
True to their word, however, they packed me and my siblings into the car for that 12-hour pilgrimage every Thanksgiving thereafter. After hearing a few years of backseat whining and misery in three-part harmony, they brought Harry Potter along for the ride. The interminable miles of Nebraska were made bearable for everyone by the soothing, patrician tones of Jim Dale narrating The Prisoner of Azkaban over the car stereo.
But even that form of escapism had lost its effect by the time I entered high school. My grandparents had moved from their creekside rambler into a beige wonder of a townhouse, and I and my siblings found ourselves crammed in with too many relatives and nowhere to hide. Not even Jim Dale could help us now.
Fortunately, the new house was right around the corner from a movie theater — a theater that was playing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
We returned from the Friday matinee revived, bursting with excitement over the script, the monsters, the visual effects. My grandmother was concerned: Weren't those movies about witchcraft? People at her church said Harry Potter gave children a positive view of black magic and devil-worship.
My grandfather, on the other hand, was intrigued by our excitement. When they came to visit at Christmas and we siblings retreated to the basement to watch Sorcerer's Stone on DVD, he came too.
From then on, Harry Potter was no longer a means of escape — it was my inside joke with the people I loved best. My first glimpse of the new Dumbledore, of Alfonso Cuarón's visual jokes with the Whomping Willow, of Hermione Granger's nerd-girl-to-floaty-pink-belle-of-the-ball transformation — I shared them all with my siblings in the Des Moines Cinemark and, secondhand, with my grandfather.
When I returned home for Thanksgiving as a college freshman in 2006, we weathered the Harry Potter drought with some other movie but compensated by blazing our way through all four titles with Grandpa over Christmas. By New Year's, we were on tenterhooks for the release of Order of the Phoenix in July.
In March, however, I found myself on a plane to Des Moines for my grandfather's funeral. It was a case of succumbing to the inevitable, but I still found myself saddened by the small service in the cavernous church and the inept fumbling of the National Guardsmen as they folded his ceremonial serviceman's flag. Back at the house, an older relative asked me to go through Grandpa's things in the den downstairs. I descended, relieved to be alone.
Amid the knickknacks and antique telephones in various states of repair, I was surprised to find a DVD player and a small collection of discs. There were the predictable Bogie films and war flicks, but there were also copies of Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, picked up secondhand from a garage sale. For the first time that day, something within the process of grieving and picking up pieces truly connected me to the person I had loved — my Grandpa, the Harry Potter fan.
This Thanksgiving, of course, marks the beginning of the end for many Potter devotees. With the penultimate installment of the film series, they know it's only a matter of time before the cinematic version of the story is well and truly over. However, for my brother, sister and I, this is the first time a Harry Potter movie will be in theaters on Thanksgiving since Grandpa's death. Fittingly enough, it's also their first Thanksgiving home from college. For us, the premiere of Deathly Hallows will be the beginning of a tradition reborn.