Holidays, like the changing seasons or the pages of a calendar recur, and though we often follow rituals and traditions like templates, things change. Two of my favorite quotes address change, the first by the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, “The only constant is change” and the second by Henry David Thoreau, American author, philosopher and naturalist who wrote in his book Walden, “Things do not change; we change.” Both, I believe are true.
On a record-breaking hot summer day in July, 2012, my sister Roz died unexpectedly. She was absent from our Thanksgiving holiday last year. This year, my sister Tami is staying home since she’s recovering from being sick and we don’t want to compromise our 80-year-old mother’s health or make other family members sick. My brother Rick and his wife Nancy are moving to Colorado at the end of the year to retire to a state they both love, where Nancy has family, and where they’ve created many memories. We will never be together in the same way as in the past, things change. New holiday traditions will evolve.
Thanksgiving still remains my favorite holiday. It features sensual pleasures that delight, from the inviting aroma of pies baking and turkey roasting, the abundance of the harvest displayed for feasting, seasonal flavors that invoke body memories, the confluence of loved ones, and in my family, the cacophony of competing conversations.
It is a break from our work lives, a time to reflect and express gratitude, a milestone in the cycle of the seasons and a year. For me and my family of origin, Thanksgiving has also been a holiday sometimes marred by overindulgence, relaxed impulse control, and behavior requiring amends.
First a little background. I’m the eldest child of six. I grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, in a working-class family in the 1950s. My parents were young when they married and immediately began raising their family. They grew up as we did. We all learned about life along the way and from each other. We were bound closely together by love and dysfunction.
Gratefully, my childhood memories of Thanksgivings past fall mainly in the Hallmark Cards or Norman Rockwell category, however, there was always the possibility that someone would say something, the “wrong thing” or, do something that would set us off.
As we grew older and became adults, we took turns overindulging in alcohol and/or under-editing our words. We are a very emotional and auditory family; our words are highly charged and sometimes used as weapons and for sarcastic teasing. Our love for each other also enables our ability to hurt each other.
Now I don’t want to paint a picture that’s all sad and bruised, remember I hold Thanksgiving as a favorite holiday with cherished memories. What I discovered early in my life however, was not to be surprised when things changed. There was the year I was twenty when my sister Roz was in a car accident the day before Thanksgiving. My mother called with the news and edict, “You will cook Thanksgiving dinner this year. Your father and I will need to be at the hospital.” Roz was in a coma in intensive care and it was my mission to provide some normalcy during a time marked by tragedy. I never cooked a Thanksgiving dinner before, but that day I learned how.
A year later I married, and my husband Frank and I invited his sister and father to join my family for the holiday. It was the first time my mother used her wedding china for Thanksgiving because we had company for dinner. Soon my father-in-law remarried and Frank and I were invited — no, ordered — to eat two Thanksgiving dinners each year, first at my parent’s house at 1:00, followed by a second dinner at 6:00 at my mother-in-laws. Inez was a “food is love” proponent and if I didn’t eat heartily a second time, she took it personally and accused me of enjoying my mother’s food more than hers, which I did. After a few years of eating two meals on Thanksgiving, Frank and I invited both extended families to our home in Madison and cooked a seven-course meal including turkey, ham and duck in orange sauce. After the meal and clean up, we went to see the movie, The Way We Were with the “fun” relatives who lingered and after the movie we returned home to finish off the case of champagne Frank’s Aunt Char contributed.
Following my divorce and my coming out as a lesbian, my partners were invited to share the holiday with me. It was always eye-opening to observe this new person experience my family. Some years I would arrive the night before Thanksgiving and my parents and I would stay up all night drinking. We named this behavior our “cracker-barrels” to give it a more positive spin. We’d put a pot of cheese with crackers in the middle of the table and drink and talk all night. Ironically, those were some of my warmest memories, yet the next day we would struggle through the holiday with hangovers. There was also the year that Mom misplaced her beer, and the entire dinner preparation stopped until we found it in the cupboard where she left it when retrieving a serving bowl.
After years of drinking and cycles of shame, regret and remorse, I got sober. I celebrated a number of sober holidays with my family, but it was difficult. I no longer felt at home in my body or with my family. I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I was invited to join a group of recovery friends for “Orphan Holidays.” I began spending Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter with my chosen family. One outcome of this change was that my siblings approached me and asked how we could get Dad some help with his drinking. The most recent family Thanksgiving was a disaster. We planned and executed a family intervention with the help of a counselor from a treatment center. Dad failed to accept our offer for help, but Mom volunteered to fill the bed and began her journey of recovery and sobriety.
I became involved in a committed relationship of fifteen years with my partner Cindy and we created new holiday traditions.
After some healing occurred within my family, we alternated celebrations, spending one year with my family, Orphan Holidays with our friends the next year, followed by a year we would spend Thanksgiving with just each other.
After our relationship ended, I needed to make a decision on how and where I wanted to spend Thanksgiving.
For the past few years, I’ve shared the holiday again with my parents, siblings and their families. Some years I’ve also made a turkey dinner with all the trimmings at home the day after Thanksgiving, so I’d have leftovers.
A lot of healing and forgiveness has transpired. The smell of pies baking and turkey roasting invoke body memories of seasons past. It continues to be a confluence of loved ones and a cacophony of competing conversations. It is a break from our work lives, a time to reflect and express gratitude, a milestone in the cycle of the seasons and a year. For me and my family of origin, Thanksgiving continues to be a holiday sometimes marred by overindulgence, relaxed impulse control, and behavior requiring amends.
Yes, things change and remain the same. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
To read about how things changed for Thanksgiving 2014, click here.