As I am about to close another Thanksgiving in the books, I smile in utter amazement at how easy and low-key this holiday is compared to the many off-color Thanksgiving dinners from my past. But…since I have a flair for the dramatic, I’ll indulge by sharing some stories from the crypt.
My mother loved Thanksgiving. She loved the Macy’s parade and the food and the company and the drink. She also loved the preparation and production. The preparation spanned over a two-day period of time and included linens, place settings, centerpieces, silver, china, crystal, and, of course, the food. The production was really an illusion that I only began to realize when I got sober. Things really do appear to go a lot more smoothly with a few bottles of wine…per person, of course.
The non-alcoholic version of Chelsea would have to mentally prepare as I drove up the turnpike to my parent’s house on Thanksgiving Day. I would hold my breath and say a prayer as soon as I pulled into the driveway. “Lord, thank you for my family. Please help me love them, today. Help me to not argue with my dad’s inaccurate ‘facts’ and help me to not make my mother cry, this year. Thank you. I love you. Amen.”
Then, as I would crack open the door I would be knocked back by the smell of dog hair, mystery cooking, and barf — masked by a Glade warmer, of course. Expecting to get mauled by the two most unruly and undisciplined sheepdogs on earth, I always looked both ways before entering. If the coast was clear, I entered at my own risk because it would only be a matter of seconds before the dogs would jump all over me and bark anytime I tried to carry on conversation with anyone.
My dad would usually be wearing sweatpants with a golf shirt. Jerry Seinfeld once said, “Wearing sweatpants is like telling the world, ‘I give up!” but in this case, it was a step up from flannel man-jammie-pants with holes. He would always assign chores to any of the males in the house. Fix the computer. Take something out of the attic. Make fun of the women. Listen to boring stories about track and field coaching.
As my mother aged and her alcohol consumption increased, it became very important to keep an eye on her in the kitchen. One time, I watched my mother attempt to make some kind of something…I don’t know…it had apples, cheese crackers, and mayonnaise. Apparently, she misplaced all the spoons, because she was using her hands to mix everything together. I turned away from her so I wouldn’t get too grossed out, but that was a mistake. While I wasn’t looking, like a ninja, she added something to make it yellow and something that looked like cat food – which I found out later were some old furry-looking walnuts. She kept licking her fingers and sticking them back in the disgusting concoction to mix it up. Woof…or maybe I should say, meow? P.S. I never found out what made the yellow tint.
Just as we thought we were about to sit down to eat, my mother would dramatically leave the room to change clothes. No visit to my parents would be complete without my mom making at least one costume change. Then, something magical would happen. As we all filed into the dining room, the food would be in place, my mother would reappear (for her second act), and we would all take our seats for the feast. Candles lit, quiet music, and joined hands, my mother would say a blessing she memorized from a Hallmark card she bought in the 1960s. This was my favorite part of this holiday.
Everyone has a full plate when my mother would start passing around the annual “mystery casserole/salad.” This thing was always interesting. As I stated earlier, if we didn’t keep an eye on her, she would manufacture something from anything she had in the kitchen. I often noticed it was full of things I would find expiring in the pantry with some old crackers crunched up on top. One year, I swear I saw a gummy bear and M&Ms in it. No joke. My mother would push this dish off on everyone like a drug dealer. If you didn’t take some, she would pout. Therefore, everyone learned the art of taking a spoonful and pushing it around on the plate to make it look like you were eating it.
At some point during dinner, my dad would talk about his rejected childhood, calling his mother a whore and telling all of our guests how she died of venereal disease. This was only a distraction from my mother nodding off with her manicured fingernails stuck in her mashed potatoes. By the time dinner was finished, everyone was so willing to get the hell out of there that clean-up was an all-hands-on-deck event.
The players included in this melodramatic comedy usually included my family, in-laws, outlaws, friends-at-the-moment, and often random strangers who my parents would meet and invite on a whim. People got drunk, food was consumed, drinks were spilled, and something always got broken (hearts included). Every year, my dad would offend someone, my mother would cry, and no one got leftovers – but the memories make me laugh. Dysfunctional? You betcha. I wouldn’t have it any other way because it’s gifted me with some really funny memories.
Mom has been gone for nearly five years. The last Thanksgiving that I spent with her was eerily quiet, yet speaks the loudest memory. There were no guests, no mystery casserole/salad, no chaos. She was so sick and my dad was so helpless. I fixed our Thanksgiving meal that day and fed my mother. Since then, I’ve worked to make my own traditions for my family. A tradition I carry over in memory of my mother is watching the Macy’s parade. We always said we would travel to NYC on Turkey Day to watch it in person – and in her memory, one day I will take my daughters and do just that for her.
My dad spent the last two days with us for two different Thanksgiving meals. He was so quiet. He was so at peace. It feels good to have him with me for a softer side of life. Sometimes I feel like I lived two different lives and, in a way, I have. I’m thankful for both because if it weren’t for “Life, Part 1,” I wouldn’t be so blessed to experience “Life, Part 2.” I hope everyone is blessed with good humor to shape your memories. Happy Thanksgiving to all!