1995 was the last year I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family. I didn’t know at the time that it would be my last Thanksgiving with them. As it turned out, it was memorable anyway.
Out of the corner of my eye, I was watching my 17-year-old niece pull tufts of short hair from her mostly bald pate and absent-mindedly drop them on my sister’s freshly shampooed white carpet. My niece had recently completed twelve months of chemotherapy. I was sitting beside her on the couch in the family room, watching the little hairs flutter and glimmer their way to the floor, saying nothing. The previous Thanksgiving, my partner, Donna, had spent the afternoon holding Leslie’s then luxuriously long and silky dark hair out of the toilet as Leslie vomited repeatedly after her first round of chemo. This year’s hair sprinkling was a big improvement.
Across the room, Leslie’s mother was sitting in the big red chair next to the fireplace, a vacant look on her face, downing an enormous glass of wine. My youngest sister, Frances, was in the kitchen helping her partner Jeannie prepare the meal, both of them shooing away all offers of assistance. My brother was in the living room watching football with Jeannie’s father and brother-in-law.
The table, nicely set for the meal, ran the length of the living room. My sister and her partner had included both sides of their families, as well as another lesbian couple whose appearance together always reminded me of the Frog and Toad children's stories, along with their three kids. The aggregated assortment of people was not necessarily compatible in terms of anything at all, but we all made the best of it by taking advantage of the extensive space. Groups of folks found comfortable corners in which to congregate as the afternoon proceeded. The half-dozen or so youngsters played together fairly well, interrupting now and then with a predictable minor injury and subsequent telling of the tale, followed by a parental admonishment.
Eventually, we all sat down, our place cards segregating us loosely by family affiliation, and enjoyed a magnificent meal together. We chatted, we complimented the cook, we excused the kids to play, we ate pie and we drank coffee. It was a pleasantly uneventful afternoon.
Then Trudy stood up from the table. She had to leave, she announced. Since she was staying the night with Donna and me, I rose too, along with everyone else we had chauffeured over. We all gathered at the foot of the stairs in the foyer, saying good bye to the other guests. My youngest sister, the hostess, disappeared upstairs.
We waited for Frances to return. My sister and her kids were spending the night with me because her husband had left them one week before. Bill had a new girlfriend, one that he apparently had since the previous March. March was the month my niece nearly died; Leslie had had exploratory lung surgery as a consequence of complications from treatment for leukemia. After the surgery my sister and I were in the recovery room with my groggy niece, propping each other up (we were having a contest about which of us would faint first. Trudy won). My partner was at home settling Leslie’s siblings into our guest room. Bill was in Germany. He was on a two-week field trip with his high-school German students. He was also schtupping the other chaperone—the English teacher.
Twenty minutes later, we were still waiting by the stairs. Jeannie climbed the stairs to investigate her partner’s whereabouts. She returned shortly. Frances was bereft. She had thought we would stay longer, would gather by the fireplace, play board games. Maybe charades.
It’s not that Frances wasn’t entitled to dream of a nice family gathering, but her expectations may have been unrealistic, given the cast of characters with which she was working. Even in the early 1960’s, our family never vaguely resembled any of those depicted in the old TV series—my parents were nothing like Ward and June Cleaver, nor did they ever refer to any of their daughters as Princess or Kitten. We were more like Dan and Roseanne Connor’s family in terms of economic strata, but without the comic relief. When Frances pictured a black-and-white-TV-family gathering, she probably didn’t envision the Munsters.
However, Trudy was tired. One daughter had only recently stepped back from death’s door. Her other daughter was suffering from anorexia. Her seven-year old son had recently been released from the hospital after a serious asthma attack. Her husband had had enough and bailed. She was exhausted and disillusioned and she had had too much to drink. She told Jeannie, with emphasis, that she needed to get her girlfriend under control.
Frances descended the stairs at that moment. She was weeping. Trudy let her have it. Jeannie let Trudy have it. Trudy let Jeannie have it. Jeannie went out the side door into the garage and began pounding her fist through the garage door. My partner Donna hurried the younger kids out to sit in our car by the curb. GET your sister’s keys AWAY from her! she hissed at me as went by. Then she went back to reassuring the kids. These things happen in families, she told them. It doesn’t mean they don’t love each other.
Somewhere during the commotion, Leslie had escaped to just outside the front door. The cancer patient was having a cigarette to calm her nerves. Jeannie’s sister, Stacy, also outside for a smoke, began berating Leslie about the family she came with. Mind your own business! Donna barked at Stacy, on her way back into the house. Donna trundled back and forth several times between the house and the car, alternating between speaking kindly to the children and ferociously joining the fray.
I remained in the foyer, trying to fish my sister’s keys out of her purse. I could hear Trudy arguing with a crowd in the office one room over—Jeannie’s mother was attempting to defend Frances. My brother, emaciated from as-yet undiagnosed AIDs, was still sitting weakly on the stairs when one of the Frog and Toad friends remarked “Your sister is such a victim,” referring to the recently abandoned, exhausted mother of three sick children. My brother had his own issues with his oldest sister, but family is family. He rose to his feet, a one-hundred-and-ten pound wraith, and angrily let Frog-or-Toad have it. I think his ghostly appearance frightened them more than anything he said. They departed the foyer.
Eventually, my partner drove the three kids back to our place. I put Trudy into the front passenger seat of her own car. I went back into the house, expressed my dismay at the way everything had turned out to my youngest sister and various remaining survivors, and then returned to my sister’s car and drove us home. While my sister continued to rant, I began to weep silently, and did so for the entire 30-minute drive. My sister eventually noticed and shut up. I couldn’t tell her why I was crying. I still can’t.
My two sisters didn’t speak again until the following March. That was the month Frances and Jeannie adopted their adorable daughter. I sent two flower arrangements, one from me, and one from Trudy. We both received invitations to the baby shower. The feud was over.
We all went our separate ways the next Thanksgiving, and in 1997, Donna and I moved to Florida. I visit my sisters and brothers often, and they vacation in Florida sometimes. But I’ve never been back for a holiday, never spent a Thanksgiving with both sisters again.
Donna is an only child.
I miss my family. I really do.