By now, most of us know what delectable foods will be adorning our table tops this Thursday. They will be so bountiful that Grandma’s beautiful tablecloth you treasure, the one with the vintage handmade Filet Lace, will barely be visible. All the tarnish has yet again been removed from the “special occasion” Sterling silver which now shines as brightly as a Brilliant Cut diamond, reflecting all the perfectly matched, autumn colored napkins and flowers strategically placed to make that Southern Homes and Gardens picture a reality.
The house is spotless to the point where that one little pine cone sitting atop the ‘oh so crafty’ confluence of pine branches, ribbons and sage sprigs in the rustic “Pilgrim” basket looks a wee bit “off”. It definitely needs to be straightened….but not too much!!
And the aroma! The entire homestead smells of roasting turkey, chestnut stuffing, pumpkin pie and memories from long, long ago. It’s perfect. From the moment one’s footfalls are upon the hearth, they are transported back in time. Back to when the world was a simpler place, where we played as children and mother and father tucked us lovingly into our beds the night before with stories of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a great bounty,
This was me and my house many years ago. My house was the “one”. All holiday celebrations took place here. All family crises, tragedies such as deaths in the family and funeral arrangements were discussed here. My home was the hub. Most of you out there reading this have probably been the hub at some point in your family life. Sometimes the hub changes locals but for me, it never did. I embraced it. It made me feel wanted and needed, especially during the holiday’s. It all had to be perfect for everyone.
I could never have envisioned how things would change over the years. Today, at 59, I spend Thanksgiving in my apartment, sometimes with one of my children, sometimes alone. The table is no longer a centerpiece of abundance and memories. It reflects now the truth of what was really behind all the pomp and circumstance of years ago. The truth of the matter is, back then, my brother was a raging alcoholic, my older sister was a heroin addict, my husband was an abusive, angry man, also an alcoholic and my other sister, the eldest, was a bitter, unhappy alcoholic woman herself. I also drank way too much, especially during the holidays, I guess just to self medicate my way through it all.
I have always been a Fixer. I thought if I could fix my family, my children, my relationships and any other ‘broken’ thing I came across that I would have fulfilled my purpose on this earth and be fixed myself. I am broken, my father saw to that when I was just a very young girl and since then, all I ever wanted was to be fixed. I just wanted to sit at that table and hold hands and say Grace like normal people. I wanted us to share anecdotes about our lives and our children. I wanted us to recall fond memories of our childhood, laugh about silly little misunderstandings that had long been forgiven, look at one another with love in our hearts and eyes and end the evening with a toast. A toast about family, love, tradition and lastly, a toast of thanks to me. Some heart felt and well deserved applause for the Fixer, the one who staged the show for the perfect Thanksgiving with the perfect family.
Being the youngest, I was convinced that if I set the perfect table, had the perfectly browned turkey on the silver platter, all the perfect side dishes of yams and marshmallows, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, chestnut stuffing, gravy (no lumps!) and pumpkin pie with home-made whipped cream and the perfectly decorated house that somehow, by some miracle, the perfect family would show up at my door!
The family that did show up were pleasant enough, at least when they first arrived but as the alcohol flowed and the tongues loosened, inevitably, all hell would break loose. My dear grandmother would sit astonished at the hateful words being flung at each other, often accompanied by a spoon or a pine cone. My once beautiful vintage tablecloth given to me by the incredible woman sitting across from me was now stained with wine and scarred for life by a burning cigarette ember. My young children had eaten and fled the table, not really understanding what was happening but knowing they wanted to go play instead. They had seen it many times before and knew that after a while, things would calm down and a lot of mad people would leave. Then they could wander back in and quietly inquire about that pumpkin pie they had eaten all their dinner for! Their reward for being good, for they were the only one’s that behaved and were civilized, other than my grandmother who just sat quietly, looking at me with such sadness in her eyes, but never saying a word or casting a judgemental stare my way.
My mother, sat and drank her wine as if nothing at all was happening. This was her norm. This is what she had been taught. She never took her blinders off. She would watch it all unfold as she quietly observed the smoke from her cigarette swirl around in such beautiful, hypnotic circles. Pie and coffee sat in front of her and occasionally, she would raise her shiny, Sterling fork and always, in perfect lady like fashion, place a small dollop of whipped cream on her fork before cutting away just the perfect bite size piece of pie. This would ensure the proper ration of each, knowing then she would never have to eat a bite of pie unadorned with whipped cream. When the heaviest of brawling commenced, she would gather her things and waltz out of the house like the Queen herself, allowing each grandchild to kiss her upon the cheek.
By night’s end, I was exhausted, emotionally and physically and my spirit once again broken for I had not been able to produce the perfect Thanksgiving with the perfect family. It is all that this little girl ever wanted and never stopped striving for.
As the years went by, the family got smaller. My grandmother passed away along with my mother and eldest sister. My other sister, still a raging alcoholic, bitter and ugly, moved away to North Carolina and I haven’t spoken to her in decades. My husband also died from cirrhosis of the liver and Hepatitis C. Now there are just a few of us left from what used to seem like a multitude. My brother got sober and has been for 27 years. My two sons still live nearby and I see them both often.
I don’t know exactly when it was or where I was but I know there was an epiphany. A heartbreaking, gut wrenching epiphany. I could not fix anything or anyone. I could not expect a perfect family to show up for dinner at the theatre that was my home, for I never had one. They would have had to have been hired actors and actresses and I the Director and Producer. I had the stage, design, props, lighting, soundtrack, even the perfect script. Everything in place so that I could produce the perfect movie of our loving family gathering for yet another holiday. Why was I always surprised and disappointed that the same cast kept showing up?
Now I am older and wiser and know that what they say is true, with age comes wisdom. After my lightbulb moment, I never hosted another Thanksgiving, even for the small family I had left. I don’t think I ever will but things change with grandchildren arriving (perhaps one day, who knows?) there is always the possibility to begin new loving and lasting traditions with them. Never say never. I have learned that as well.
People, family and friends, they are who they are, each individual and each carrying their own happy and sometimes traumatic memories from their childhoods. All the things we lovingly do to prompt those happy and cherished times may also prompt the unhappy and traumatic times that nearly all of us, on some level or another, experienced as children. Sometimes sitting at the table brings feelings of melancholy and sadness. We remember those that are no longer with us or those that cannot be with us. We all bring different feelings and memories to the table. We, the Fixers in life, have to realize that no matter what we do, no matter what we envision in our hearts, no matter what we try to visualize as the perfect day will never come to fruition. We set ourselves up for failure and disappointment because we cannot “fix it” into a perfect day.
Sad? Yes. It is sad for those of us who grew up in abusive, drama and chaos filled households with parents that perhaps should never have been allowed to have children at all. Many of us that have come from that environment feel we can change the script and rewrite all the things that need to be fixed. We can’t help ourselves. But I have come to a few, simple realizations. Make no mistake, they were not simple to come to, they were fought for with tears, heartbreak and loneliness. Realizations that left me feeling like a failure as a mother, wife, sibling and person. But they did come. They came with time and brought forgiveness to my saddened heart and things got better. I began to feel “fixed”.
I pass these on to you, take some, leave some, you never know what might hit home and I hope for some of the younger families out there, it might spare some heartache, save a lot of lost time and hopefully, some tears from falling.
Acceptance. I cannot make my two son’s love each other. They are four years and so many rageful and angry emotions apart that I have finally, finally, realized as a mother that I cannot fix them. I tried. I went to therapy and they went, too. We tried, all of us but the damage done by my husband and some, of course, by me, was so deep that at least for right now, I have to respect that they are grown men. If they are to find their way back to one another, it cannot be through feeling guilty about how it affects me as their mother. Seeing them so far apart and long removed from what I had always envisioned them to be is something I had to accept. It was one of the hardest mother moments of my life. Today, my son’s have nothing to do with one another.
No Regrets. I cannot go back. i cannot live in the past and wallow in self-pity or in the shadows of should have, would have or could have. I forgive myself for I know I did my best with what I knew to be my truth. As Maya Angelou said, “You do the best you can at the time and when you know better, you do better”. I really understand that now, deeply, to my core. My best may not have been great but it was my best at that time and far better than what my parents did for me. I know I broke a cycle of horrible abuse that had been passed down for generations. I do the best I can for both of my sons now. They know this and both know they can count on me to be there for them whenever they may need me. That is what I could fix.
Love. For me, Thanksgiving isn’t about food or setting the stage for a lovely dinner. It is a time of reflection. I make sure to remember the good things in each of the people who I allowed to make me feel less than I was. My siblings all possessed good in them, it was just broken and beaten away long, long ago. It might only be a fleeting memory or a few kind words spoken between us once upon a time but that’s ok, that’s enough. My brother and I live together now and are very close.
Forgiveness. I don’t think two people get together and say, “Hey, let’s have some kids and really screw them up, ok?” They only know what they were taught and experienced when they were young. My parents, nor theirs, did not have Outreach Programs, Abuse Counseling, Shelters and all the awareness programs out there to help parents and children in trouble. They just did what they knew and although, particularly with my father, the effects of that on my siblings and me left us scarred and emotionally unstable for many years, some of us reached out and got the necessary help to heal. Although still broken, the cracks have been sealed and on the outside, we look just fine. The real repair from within came with forgiveness. This is a lesson my son’s must come to on their own just as I did.
Mindfulness. I stay mindful of all that I have. I don’t sit and cry if I am alone on Thanksgiving I have friends that invite me, I have places I can go and sometimes I do. Other times, I like to just let the day pass for I have no preparations or stage to set and it all seems like such a relief to just sit and remember. I ponder all the wonderful things about each of my children, what they have brought and continue to bring to my life, my brother’s hard-fought sobriety, memories of my Grandmother who somehow remained sane and taught me a mother’s love. I think of all the animals who I have been blessed to know and care for, for they saved me from myself on more than one occasion. They, along with my “Nanny”, taught me unconditional love and I am always mindful of and grateful to them.
So, if you are a Fixer, take it from me at 59, you cannot fix it. You cannot fix people or their interpretations and memories or what was and what happened in the past. Do not surround yourself with the people who have not found their way out of the darkness of drama, judgement and abuse.
There is a big difference between tolerating that Aunt or Mother in Law that is always a bit critical or the cousin that always tells inappropriate jokes at the table and the drunken, abusive sister or the bitter and always angry Father in Law. You can fix that. You can keep them away! There is no seat at your table for them. Is that difficult to tell them? Of course. However, know that they are going to be angry, bitter and/or drunk whether they are at your table, at home or somewhere else. Why invite that negativity into your realm of tradition and memory making?
There are things you can fix. You can make this holiday yours, not what was taught to you but your own. Think of your children and what you want them to grow up remembering. Start new traditions. Let them help and make them feel important and included. Let them witness love and harmony at that table. Let them grow up and remember back and feel thanks. Thanks for the love of their parents, their siblings their friends and whomever it is you choose to surround them with during the holidays.
Thanksgiving, as we all know, isn’t really about the food, the house, the decorations or the history of Indians and Pilgrims. That is often what we make it about. It is about gratitude. It is about being thankful for what we have, right here, right now. Sometimes we have to remove the stage lighting, soundtrack and props to take a good look at what is really there. What we are left with, the faces we see and the eyes of our children staring back at us, those are the very things we have to be thankful for.
If you are the Director this Thursday, embrace the job. The movie you present, the real footage, will be the one your family and children remember and pass on to theirs. Set your table with love, laughter, gratitude and happiness. The rest presents itself. It all stems from that. Whether you have an elaborate Thanksgiving or a small, intimate gathering of just friends, make it about the gratitude and the memories you are making because once you leave this earth, what will you want those you left behind to remember? What do you want them to see in those pictures or movies made? What do you want them to pass on to future generations? Food? No. Decorations. I don’t think so. You want them to remember a time when it really didn’t matter whether it was family or friends or a mixture of both, a time when everyone was happy and laughing. Maybe there were a few tears here and there or a sad moment for those who couldn’t be there and that’s ok. That’s part of gratitude, being thankful they were once there and perhaps passing on some memories of them to those there that were too young to remember Grandma or Grandpa or whoever’s seat is vacant.
I hope everyone has a happy day on Thursday. I hope everyone can just relax and know that it won’t all be perfect but it can be joyful, real and memorable. I hope everyone focuses on what is important now, in this moment in this life. It’s just about being thankful, thankful for what we have, thankful for those who cannot be with us but are in our hearts and ever thankful for those who are serving our country so we can eat in secure peace and tranquility.
Set your stage with real things. Set it with loving friends and family, good food, gratitude and love. Surround yourself with those that love you and have something wonderful to bring to the table! In the end, do you want a standing ovation for a staged production you medicated your way through or a hug from your child saying, “This was the best Thanksgiving ever, Mommy!”