Family time has always been a mixed bag for me. (Which makes me unique amongst my readers, I’m sure.) On Thanksgiving, I’d drive down to Houston in the morning, have dinner with my family, and drive back to Austin in the afternoon. Friends and acquaintances who didn’t know my family found the brevity of my visits odd. I found them sanity-preserving. As did my shrink.
Now, I miss those days. I miss the dozen plus people in the house, mostly in the kitchen getting in each other’s way, all frenetically trying to put the finishing touches on their dishes. I miss my brother’s gravy-making. And his turkey carving. (He’d taken over those duties when my dad couldn’t do them any more because of the Alzheimer’s.) I miss arguing with my nieces about whether we would make skinny mashed potatoes, or pour in the half and half and softened butter. (I wanted the latter. It was Thanksgiving, dammit.) Due to all the alcoholism, Thanksgiving was dry at my house most years. Or rather, it was dry in the house. The drinkers would duck outside for the beer or rum and coke waiting in their vehicles, claiming they were stepping out for a smoke. Or to cool off. The house was always too warm. In the beginning, the bodies and cooking caused it. As the years passed, it got progressively warmer. My aging parents, feeling a chill that wasn’t there, would turn the thermostat higher and higher. If only the house had been cooler, I might not have punched my brother in the face that one year. (Not a true story, but the heat was conducive to arguments.)
Eventually, dinner would make it to the table, remarkably warm. Probably because the house was so hot. There were always two tables set–the big table in the dining room, and the kids’ card table in the adjoining living room. Seated at the grown-up table, my dad always at the head, were my mom, my two brothers (and before they divorced, their wives), my sister, her husband, and me. (I haven’t brought a date to Thanksgiving for thirty years.) My six nieces and nephews would sit at the kids’ table. We’d then go around the tables and say what we were thankful for. My mother generally was thankful that everyone was there and healthy (even when they weren’t). My dad was thankful for his dog. My oldest brother, when he showed up, was thankful for his girlfriend (who would later kill him, but only figuratively). My younger brother would tear up as he expressed thankfulness for his children. (He and I were especially sentimental.) My sister would tell him to hurry the hell up, and then express thankfulness for the fact that she could leave us and go to Galveston as soon as the kitchen was clean. The kids would be thankful for family, or the giant pile of mashed potatoes on the plate before them, or their new puppy yipping outside in the back yard.
I can’t remember what I was thankful for. That I’d dumped my most recent crappy boyfriend, adopted two fluffy black rescue kitties, or lost ten pounds and had room in my Thanksgiving jeans, were likely contenders.
Now, I’m thankful I had all those precious years with the seats at the table filled.
This year, with both my brothers and my father dead and no desire to spend Thanksgiving at my sister’s, I stayed home in Austin. I got up early and did the 5-mile Turkey Trot (which turned out to be 7.34 miles what with all the weaving through the people on the course and getting to and from our parking spot) with my friend, Dora, and then headed to her house for Thanksgiving dinner. It was a nice Thanksgiving, and due to the absence of perceivable alcoholism in the group, there were many bottles of bubbles and wine. No one rushed off right away after dinner. We played Tabu. The house was nice and cool. The pumpkin pie was made with fresh pumpkin. The stress-free smoked turkey from Rudy’s Barbecue was moist and delicious. My Tuscan kale gratin was a hit. There were squabbles amongst Dora’s children from time to time. But rather than causing me consternation, since they aren’t my family, I found it amusing. (I may have even instigated a bit, just for fun.) I pronounce this my new tradition: Turkey Trot followed by Thanksgiving dinner at Dora’s.
Friday morning, I drove to Houston to see my mother. She’d spent Thanksgiving at my sister’s, along with my sister’s husband, her two adult daughter’s, the boyfriend and husband of each, and my eldest niece’s four-month-old baby. A baby! Everybody loves a baby. This particular baby has turned out to be a binding agent. Like eggs. Or mushrooms (as in these gluten-free meatballs).
When I arrived in Houston, I picked my mother up at her assisted living apartment and drove her to the house that she’d lived in with my father for over 30 years. The house currently is unlived in, save for a nephew in the garage apartment. I had invited my nieces and nephews by to spend some time with me and my mom, and had offered to take everyone to dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant. Later, the plan would morph into a family meeting as I arranged for everyone to meet a notary at the house to sign some documents the lawyer had prepared in connection with my father’s estate. My mom and I had several hours to kill before everyone arrived, and I found myself in the master bedroom with her, going through photos and momentos tucked away in her dresser drawers. (She was also looking for a ring she suspected my nephew had hocked. We never found it.) As we looked through the pictures, children’s drawings, and cards, I teared up numerous times. My mom said being in the house made her sad. The house being so devoid of people and commotion played a part in this, to be sure. As did the fact she’d taken many pieces of furniture to her assisted living apartment, leaving it rather sparse of inanimate objects as well.
Eventually, my sister, her husband, all six of my mother’s grandchildren, her great-grandchild (the mushroom baby), and the husband and boyfriend of my nieces (two different people), would trickle in. Then came the notary, and we all took turns signing her book and the three documents, generally milling about, and taking photographs with the baby. The baby, who is perfect, by the way. She looks like a little doll. A Gerber baby. She is beautiful, and oh so sweet. And she loves me, which is to be expected. Unexpectedly, however, is the transformation my sister has undergone. It’s like she saw that baby and her heart grew three sizes, much like the Grinch.
Here is my sister’s heart pre-baby:
Here is my sister’s heart post-baby:
And here is my sister with the baby on one knee, and me on the other.
Yes, the change was this dramatic. She hugged me. She talked to me when she didn’t have to. She kept handing me the baby and taking pictures. And then every one of us (all 12.5) went to dinner at my father’s favorite Mexican restaurant. (I’m not much for believing in dead people looking down and seeing what’s going on, but if he could have seen it, he’d have been feeling like the Grinch with the swollen heart.) I’ve got photos of all 12.5 of us at a very long table, all the seats filled, plundering the chips and queso, fajitas, and margaritas spread from end to end. (Since all the alcoholics now are dead, the ban has lifted.) Everyone had a great time. Everyone was happy we could be together. Everyone was happy that we were happy.