Even though it’s been years since I had Thanksgiving with my own family I still get nervous as this holiday approaches. When I was growing up November always brought a wave of panic. My mother wanted the house to be nicer than it was, so each year we were subjected to a frenzy of last minute decorating on a shoestring.
One year she bought cases of caulking compound to remedy the drafty chill. We had that caulking goop for years and in the summer we used the guns to play Combat. Another year she decided to make over the master bedroom. Her plan was to “tent” the bed in yards of gauzy fabric. But my mother didn’t know how to sew; she could picture the end result but not how to get there. We had that fabric for years. I made togas for Latin class, we wrapped gifts in it, and ten years later, when my niece got married, we made shower decorations with the last of our pastel yard goods.
While my mother was decorating, my father cooked. He would stay up all night tending the bird. On Thanksgiving morning he the scent of baking pies was added to the aroma of roasting turkey, and that would combine with the odors of Spic & Span and dusting spray, as my mother furiously cleaned.
Tension ran high. We were shouted into baths and clean clothes. When the doorbell rang at noon, we smelled, and looked good.
Aunt Junie always arrived first and brought her own pies. Yes, she knew my father was making the dessert--he did every year--but every year she brought her own pies and acted surprised. What can I say? She was his older sister. Sibling stuff doesn’t go away, it just gets played out in new ways.
Next was Aunt Martha, who pinched us –hard –on the cheek. We’d whine to our mother, and be told, “Be nice to her, she doesn’t have any children”, as if that explained why she’d want to torture someone else’s. Then there was Uncle Elmer who had one eye that drifted to the side and a big warty growth on his cheek. We perfected air kissing to deal with holiday hellos.
Soon the house would be filled with people. The cousins went straight to chasing and teasing each other. We saw then, but only knew later, the significance of each cousin’s ways: The one who always stood back to watch is now the writer; the cousin who schmoozed with the adults became a politician, and the one who happily ran to get refills for the grown-ups--finishing off their drinks enroute—is now a speaker on the recovery circuit.
Of course we didn’t see the adult side of things. I didn’t know about the barbs my mother got about our old house from the Aunt who “married better”. I didn’t know that this pain was the fuel to my mother’s annual decorating frenzy. I also didn’t know until later that the men sitting around the kitchen table were zinging their own darts at my Dad. He was the only one who had finished school and moved “upstairs” in the plant. Now I see why he had to excuse himself so often to “check on the turkey”.
Most of our families have a version of these scenes. On Thanksgiving we’ll be humming, “We gather together….”, but mothers will sigh over daughter’s hair, the childless will offer parenting advice, and the uncle who has plenty will tell those who have none how they should invest their money. Old wounds will be given a good jab intentionally or not.
We come to this meal each year hoping for the holiday we remember from childhood, the one with laughter and fun. So if the tension rises in your dining room on Thanksgiving just consider it a warm up for the December holidays to come, and like a warning shot fired over our feelings, let’s remember to be gentle with and grateful for the people we sit down with.