Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks Our Way (Revised)

Stella Benson wrote, "Family jokes, though rightly cursed by strangers, are the bond that keeps most families alive."

If only other families could swap insults with impunity the way mine does, there would be no petty or protracted estrangements and Jerry Springer would be out of a job. While we looked forward to Thanksgiving that year, we all were a little apprehensive as well. It was the first one without my dad. Before we all got to my mother’s house, my sister e-mailed me and my brother to say, "I'm looking forward to y'all getting on my nerves this weekend."

The year was 2006. Picture seven adults, six kids and a few dogs cooped-up in a three-bedroom, two-bath farmhouse the size of a double-wide. (Well, it may technically be a double-wide, but it's so well-disguised that my dad always joked a tornado could never find it.) It's probably the only 20-year-old pre-fab dwelling with hardwood floors and ceramic tile. The Winnebago-style Fiberglas showers have yet to be upgraded to imported Venetian marble, however. I say “cooped-up” because I am a spoiled upper-middle-class American brat. A lot of families in this world probably happily sleep that many in one room. In fact, my Russian sister-in-law told me she felt right at home with so many people in what seemed like such a small space.

When we got there late on Wednesday night, everyone else was way ahead of us in the celebrating department. They started the party without us. That's the way we roll. You'll be there when you get there, fend for yourself on the food and drink and snooze you lose. Music was blaring, margaritas were flowing, and my sister-in-law was dancing as my nieces and nephews ran amok. My brother was vegging on the couch while my sister and mother were in the kitchen probably making sure all the tequila was either gone or well-hidden before I arrived. My mother already looked pale and what my sister refers to as "beat down" while my sister raged in full party mode. My sister-in-law wanted me and my sister to take her to a nearby dive bar frequented no doubt by truckers with more wheels than teeth, bikers (not the Lance Armstrong kind) and leathery tattooed barflies. Sure, it would have been a good time, but we would have been torn apart and eaten alive while the jukebox played the theme song from The Dukes of Hazzard or maybe some ZZ-Top or 'Skynyrd. My sister-in-law had hoped to pretend to be a deaf mute when we got there. Just for fun. It would have provided some great material, but we opted to stay in that night.

My mother and my kids have late November birthdays, so we always celebrate them the day after Thanksgiving. We all also brought gifts for each other's kids. Not so much to keep them from feeling left out as to cover birthdays we forgot or to go ahead and get Christmas out of the way. That's just how we do it. We're slackers. We did hold off on the real birthday presents for the designated days, but the others were distributed at random when whichever kid or kids seemed to need a new distraction. Thank God one of the girls got the High School Musical soundtrack so we could be subjected to it at max volume while they danced and sang with such pure joy that the pleasure we got from watching them almost cancelled out our collective desire to beat the stereo to death with a sledgehammer. My son and the boys went about their business oblivious to the chaos they were both surrounded by and supplementing. The little ones played contently with lead-painted Chinese toys or tackled the older one as necessary.

My sister outdid me again on our mom's birthday gift. She probably found it on a clearance "As Is" shelf at a dollar store. She got her a fancy, tricked out, under the cabinet stereo, radio/CD player, with speakers and a clock and a remote. It was meant for the tiny kitchen in Mom’s glorified double-wide. The remote handily attaches to the nearby fridge with a magnet. Mom reacted with mock awe, "Oooh, a remote. Just in case I'm at the fridge and can't move that extra three inches to reach the stereo itself." And the thing probably also had a built-in can opener, corkscrew and egg separator, too. Whatever. Then my mother said to me, "Didn't you give me some foot cream last time? And what does this mean—'extreme repair'? What are you trying to say?" I also gave her a $50 Target gift card. My sister was then kind enough to point out, "Oh, like there's a Target in this town." As if our mom never goes anywhere.

My sister and I spent most of the weekend making puerile and vulgar references and gestures (one involving the raw turkey neck and some "giblets"). And we couldn't resist adding "so to speak" or "that's what she/he said" to any conceivably vulnerable word or phrase that popped up (so to speak). Our mother and brother tried to look down their noses at us, but they couldn't help piping up with their own tasteless jokes at every opportunity.

We had dinner later than usual, mainly because we are not planners and because we wanted to overcook everything and get the turkey nice and dry. Because we had decided to cut back on the gluttony a little, we only had four starches instead of the usual 16. And we decided to break tradition and have just plain green beans (mistake). We have this phrase we use, usually at Christmas, but often at other special occasions. As we surveyed the spread, Mom shook her head wistfully and said, "Just another disappointing Thanksgiving." And it really was when we tried to eat the chocolate pie. As Mom made the pie, my brother told her to cut back on the sugar, so it would be more like dark chocolate (which is theoretically fine). He is normally a good cook. Well, she decided to sneak in some Splenda which only made it worse. I can't blame her for trying. But thanks to my brother and my mom, the pie sucked. It tasted like, well, crap. Even my son wouldn't eat it. That's how bad it was. My husband reminded me that when he and our son made an escape earlier that day for a visit to his aunt's house, they enjoyed pecan and coconut crème pies not cooked at my brother's direction or doctored by my mom.

When my husband and son made that escape, it was a wet and windy 34 degrees. My son needed a warmer coat, so my brother-in-law (a baseball coach at a rival college) offered up a hoodie sporting his team’s logo. My son said, "I'm not that cold."

One night, my sister, my brother, and my sister-in-law sat at the dinner table drinking wine and trying to top each other with "my kid is more messed up than yours" stories. Then my brother decided to rank the kids mainly in order of cuteness. We were trying to determine the criteria and see if age was a factor (no it was not) and if intelligence played a role (to even the playing field, no). So we were pretending seriously to decide which of the six kids was the cutest or best-looking when Mom approached to see what we were discussing. She acted mortified and appalled, but I know she was mentally trying to put them in order herself. We all wanted our own kids to win, but I truly think my nephew Ben would have been the winner, had we really had to do a pageant. My other nephew Peter would have been first runner-up only because he was a year younger and still had a shot at winning the following year.

My brother is a philosophy professor. I told my sister that I get nervous every time I talk to him about anything more important than wine. (Is there anything more important than wine?) She reminded me that I was smart too and that she's always been the outcast middle child who got her degree in Home Ec. She said, "Our brother is only like on a balcony above you as far as intelligence. He's a Mount Everest above me." So that made me feel pretty good.

We left Saturday morning so we were going to miss the small-town parade that was planned for that night where my mother was to judge some no doubt fabulous crepe paper floats and the highly-anticipated doggie fashion show. I was disappointed to miss that, only because of the great fodder I could have collected.

If my dad had been there, that Thanksgiving weekend would not have been such a loud, wheels-off free-for-all. We would have had dinner on a schedule so we would be done in time for his football game. The kids would have been a little better behaved and my sister, brother, and I would have had even more wine and probably more civilized conversation. Things were not the same. Even sameness is temporary. I could see him rolling his eyes at our absolute lack of control and I think he was probably glad he wasn't in the middle of it. We filled the empty space with such deep gratitude for six healthy kids who rarely see each other and when they do, pick up where they left off just like old friends do. They were scattered like the clutter under our feet, then clicked together like perfect little puzzle pieces. Through all the rude and crude, under all the noises and voices, inside all the motion and emotion, over all the laughter and quiet after, we could hear Dad's voice (my brother imitates it so well). We could feel his peaceful pleased presence and we knew he was glad to be (somehow literally) above the fray, smiling on our irreverent reverence. Approving and glad that, even so soon without him, the laughter will continue to be the bond that keeps our family alive.

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