“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.” — Oscar Wilde, A Woman of of Importance
In less than two weeks I’ll travel home to Racine, Wisconsin for the Thanksgiving holiday along with countless other families and friends all over the country who will travel to celebrate with loved ones. I also scheduled a few days off of work to use some vacation days before I lose them when my work anniversary arrives the beginning of December. At first I thought I’d have staycation time for myself at home before and after the holiday, to tackle some “to-do if I want to items” and see a couple of film matinees— and then I talked with my parents.
If I had been paying better attention to what I learned last year, I would have remembered that things change. My brother Rick and his family shared what might be their last Thanksgiving with us since they moved to Colorado last year. My sister Tami was sick and stayed home so she wouldn’t take the chance that our mother with a vulnerable immune system would get sick. Almost two years earlier my sister Roz died unexpectedly. Roz had the important responsibilities of carving the turkey and saying grace, now those duties were passed on to other family members; my sister Cindy now carves the turkey and we share turns saying grace, last year my Mother’s turn. We were grateful too that my niece Casey, her boyfriend and her three children traveled across the country to be home for the holidays.
When at the end of last year’s holiday, the family discussed how we would celebrate Thanksgiving this year it began with the realization that hosting our family and preparing the Thanksgiving repast had become too much for our aging parents especially our mother’s diminishing health. My mother is now blind in one eye and unsteady on her feet.
Last year Mom did most of the prep work and planned the meal. I was her sous chef, dutifully preparing the meal according to her recipes and direction, and getting it on the table with help from my sisters. Dad was our runner and fetcher, grabbing platters, pots, pans and bowls from high shelves and hallway closets and provisions from the basement pantry. The women chased the hungry males of all of ages out of the small, hot, bustling kitchen, until Thanksgiving dinner was on the table and Dad called us together for grace.
We have never been able to all sit together at a single table for Thanksgiving at our family home. Some family members claim precious real estate at the kitchen table which serves as the banquet buffet.
The rest of us, led by Dad and followed by my siblings, their spouses and children and their children’s children, travel downstairs to the cold basement which is home to “Dick’s 1960s Knotty-Pine Basement Bar” with your choice of bar stools, standing room at the bar, or seating around an old family kitchen table surrounded by Dad’s collections of University of Wisconsin Badger and Green Bay Packer football memorabilia. Let me just say it’s kitschy — and did I say it was cold?
I suggested that instead of all us of crowding into our family home and the work required to prepare the dinner then feed four generations of our family, and the cleanup afterwards, perhaps we should consider finding a restaurant that serves a family-style Thanksgiving dinner, where we could sit together at one table, pass dishes and share family stories. Because we are a pie-baking and pie-eating family we agreed we would return home to a pie buffet of apple, blueberry, pumpkin, and pecan pie with all the real whipped cream we could lather on top and sit around in loose-fitting clothes and comment on how full we were.
As often happens in families since that decision last year small group discussions occurred about not wanting to celebrate Thanksgiving in a restaurant with other people, speculation that maybe our hometown restaurants would only offer buffet-style holiday dinners and Mom being unsteady on her feet and blind in one eye would be challenged. Lastly when we age, bathroom needs and the ability to get to one quickly becomes a strategic necessity as it has for my parents.
During my last visit home in October, my parents informed me that the family was abandoning any plans to get together for the holiday. Mom said she and Dad would make a small dinner with a turkey breast and a couple of sides for themselves and us kids were on our own. I must admit this didn’t sit well with me. As dysfunctional as my family can sometimes be, I wanted to spend Thanksgiving with them. I’m not sure how many more opportunities we’ll have to come together as a family.
In the end, I volunteered to travel a day earlier to my parents and do the prep work for the dinner. Dad, who does the family shopping with help from my sister Cindy, will buy groceries and he asked me to pick up a couple of additional fresh items on my way into town, a pumpkin pie for Mom, dinner rolls and milk. Mom will serve again in her role as the chef and I her assistant getting everything prepared and on the table with the help of my siblings. My only bargaining chip was I’ll be absolved from cleanup duties. Cindy will most likely carve the turkey again this year and maybe sister Kelly or Tami will say grace (and yes, there will be tears). I will travel back to Madison at the end of the day and still have a three day weekend for myself.
The next time I called home to firm up plans and check in on my folks, Mom made a request, “Could you stay overnight and help me put the Christmas tree up the day after Thanksgiving?” She said Dad is already doing a lot for her as her main caretaker and could I help her put the artificial tree together and hang ornaments and decorations with her.
I paused. I said, “I’d think about it,” and then just as quickly I said, “Of course Mom, I’ll stay overnight and the next day.” How could I say no to my mother when every holiday now may be my last with her?
Home for the holidays — every family has stories to share and memories, good, bad — and maybe even ugly. One of my favorite film genres are dysfunctional family dramedies, especially featuring holidays, weddings and funerals — yes, in the right screenwriter and director’s hands even death and funerals can be humorous. There’s a thin line between comedy and tragedy and healing can be found in both laughter and in tears.
I’ve been known to prepare for family visits by watching some of my favorite dysfunctional family films. It’s become part of my holiday tradition. I offer the following recommendations if you share my quirky taste in movies and are grateful for both the comedy and drama we act out with those we love.
Postscript: Did I mention that the weekend following Thanksgiving I’m returning home to Racine again to celebrate the marriage of my niece, Jennifer, and her spouse, Becky? Oh yes, there will be stories!