April 22
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Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 18, 2010 7:27AM

Our Last Thanksgiving

Rate: 42 Flag

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.

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What is it about these holidays that congeals the free-flowing emotion we just let go of the rest of the year? Read from top to bottom, Sophie. Very well done.
So I finished reading this and just sat for the longest time, thinking about the story and what it was like for you and wondering what happened to all those people, and how your brother was doing, and Leslie, and if Trudy knew you sent flowers from her and if she was mad. You get me every time.
Great story. I miss mine to and they are only 10 miles away, except for Dad. Sorry about the title mix-up!
This sounds like my family.
and rated with tears and hugs
Sophieh, Great story. Couldn't help but think the rest required after a meal of turkey and all that commotion. "Like Dan and Roseanne Connor’s family" without the comic relief was funny. Families ...
I read this earlier and needed to think about it before commenting.
First, I love the way you wrote this!
Second, why does there have be so much drama in family?
Third, I hope this holiday is better!
Well done, very well done.
I'm sorry the family Thanksgiving blew up in everybody's face that year. There never were families like those on the old TV shows. We all fell short.
A tender telling. Sometimes I wish we had never heard of Ozzie and Harriet, Ward and June, Ma and Pa Walton. Maybe then, we would yearn only for what we really had.
Linnnn, having that many people that you may feel strongly all together may be part of it, right?

Ann, thank you. Everybody is well! My brother has done so well since he acknowledged his condition that he is now watching his weight. Leslie gave birth to a daughter eight years later; she has beautiful long hair once more. Unfortunately, she is still smoking. Trudy knew I sent the flowers; once she saw the baby, all the other emotions faded away.

Scanner, I still can’t fathom that we chose the exact same title and published on the same day! Thanks for letting me know.

Linda, it is a common story, is it not?

Scarlett, after the commotion, we all went swimming, as if to wash away the consequences of those events. Thank you for stopping by.

ladyfarmerjed—thanks very much for your kind comments. Drama just seems to be part of the package, with some families. I have had so many lovely holidays since that day, just never with that same volatile combination of folks.

sixtycandles—you are so right. Those old TV-show families had their place, but not in reality.

greenheron, I know what you mean—love the ones you’re with. Perspective makes a big difference.
Ugh, I so get this. I wish your last one provoked a better memory. I have some stories to tell about this kind of thing too. I am sorry you miss it, I understand that too. Maybe you could could invite them all to Florida and just see who makes it. At our family, everyone has their own thing to do by now and it has lately evolved to a me, my husband and my kids, they are all in college. Maybe that is how it is supposed to be. I don't know. So many have passed away and the ones left I recently saw at my sister's funeral, and frankly, I am not sure I could see them again......I really do wish you a wonderful holiday. Make it your own. That is what I am doing. I still miss my parents and siblings, the old, old days. But, this is new, and the idea of something new is good too. Maybe.
Oh, forgot to say congratulations on the EP, well written and certainly well deserved.
I am sorry. I know how it is to miss a family but the need to keep a distance.
Sophieh. I'm sitting in the corner of the school library.
I just heard the bell ring, but I'm not moving. It's been awhile since I've read something that makes me just want to sit with the words as long as possible. So well done.~r
Liked your story very much. Why can't people just "chill" and enjoy he day.? I'm so sorry that you haven't had a Thanksgiving together in so long...
Well done, Sophie, so very well crafted. I know these feelings. I miss mine at times too but not enough to do anything about it. Congrats on the EP and front page slot.
SheilaTGTG55—thank you for your wishes—I intend to have a great holiday this year. Your comments are so well-taken—moving to Florida taught me how much it is possible to celebrate in different ways, enjoying what is new.

Lady Dove—in a way, keeping a distance supports the missing part—maybe that’s ok. I would rather miss them than dread them. Thank you for your comments.

Joan H.—Thank you so much—I can picture you sitting in the library reading—a nice picture.

Steve—Thanks for reading and for your comments—I don’t mind not celebrating Thanksgiving with them, not so much. I enjoy them when I see them.

Dr. Spudman44—Thanks, and thanks again. We do miss them, but life goes on.
Wow....what a story, holidays can really bring out such emotions, but I can feel your love for your family in your's sad maybe that I'd take drama over silence any day when it comes to families and invites for Thanksgivings.
Silence is what our family offers.
It was worth the wait; I love your posts. Your writing is honest, bareboned, beautiful and gets me in the heart everytime.
I feel like I got through just a part of a novel. I'm interested in what happens next. It's just so foreign from our tiny little 4 person holidays...
Nothing lasts forever. I am here in Turkey and i doN,t see a bird in sight.
Beautiful writing, Sophie, and so sad. Families can be our most grueling lesson and yet love, the radical, non-lilylivered thing that it is can sometimes, not always, filter through. I've just finished The Gathering by Anne Enright. Your post made me think of these powder keg gatherings with their underlayers of raw sadness, the longing, the loss.
Just Thinking—I understand about drama vs. silence. I grew up with a bunch of Italian Catholics, and now I hang out with Jews, and there are many similarities—eating, arguing, laughing—all in volume. I have a best friend who has a German+Methodist background, and I find that silence far more painful than a good fight.

McKenna—Thank you so much. I am happy to know that.

Blue in TX—When I read your post, I thought about those differences. I am relieved that you are interested in what happens next—I don’t post often, but sometimes I have trouble keeping my posts blog-sized. Thanks for your comments.

Algis—Right you are. I wish for the birds to come back to you, and to us all.

Gail, how eloquent you are—I like that term "non-lily-livered". Wonderful. Love is not simple, I agree. Thank you for stopping to read this.
With all of that, I can still understand why you miss them. Even if the interactions are sometimes unpleasant, at Thanksgiving (and Christmas), there's something appealing about being surrounded by people who really know you, and something sad about their absence.
Every Thanksgiving I recall has been a trial, with me being forced to choose either brother or sister to invite since I would not allow these lifelong enemies to make drama in my home. A good argument is one thing, vicious insults another – and I vowed my children would not be subjected to that kind of commotion at their own dinner table.

This year my mother is gone, and the siblings have both decided that I, my husband and two adult kids are too civil - not worth the strain of having to pretend that blood bonds are sacred. Finally, we all agree, and I will not miss that tension one bit! This isn’t family love – this is defiance of growing up. It’s just plain bullying, an expression of rage against the safest and most secret target when the rest of the world demands that adults make an effort to avert conflict in consideration of the rest, especially their own children.

So come on over, Sophie! You and Donna are always welcome here. Just bring your favorite dish to pass and I’ll take care of the rest. We’ll talk about anything and everything and agree and disagree (respectfully) and laugh while we do. The only tears allowed are for our dear nieces and nephews, who may never know the pleasures of a harmonious Thanksgiving with their extended families. :`(
Bellwether, what Donna said was true--we still love each other. Thanks very much for stopping by to read this.

Julie, I am so sorry that you have had to deal with such a painful family situation. I had an aunt and uncle who did not speak for decades. When my aunt's daughter (my cousin) died last year, however, he simply appeared at her door. Sorrow sometimes has a way of clearing the smoke, and as you illustrate, sometimes it doesn't matter what you do. I am indeed, sorry for your nieces and nephews too, and I hope that if you can't at least have a Thanksgiving all together, you can be together in other ways.
Isn't it amazing, no matter how crazy we all seem, we are still family. R Have a nice holiday anyway!
Blu Speck--Thanks--it really is amazing!
Congratulations on your well-deserved EP. I don't know why we always have higher expectations of family events than they deserve. We always want to believe it is going to be better. RRR
Bernadine, thank you! I don't know why either. Thanks for stopping by.
thanks for sharing this slice of your life. rated
I can absolutely relate to your story. Our family gatherings never ended in quite so much fighting, but that's only because some people in my family chose not to take offense for the greater good :-). Now, I also live on the other side of my country, and I won't be going home for Christmas (although I miss my family, and Christmas is my favorite time of the year at my grandma's house, I'm feeling relieved about having canceled the trip). Rated :-)
Cherish every moment with loved ones because you never know what is around the corner.
Sophie, I really enjoy your don't do it enough. Yours sounds a lot like my own family. I miss them too. R
I have never experienced an afternoon like yours, so I am in no position to say, but maybe you miss the dream of family but not the reality of them. In any case, really well told, and thought-provoking.
Caroline, thanks for reading!

S.ophie—great name—thanks for stopping by.

maryway, good advice.

Fay, thank you—it’s true, I don’t write much. And…we will both be missing our families : (

Dianaani—thanks for reading this—yes, I believe the dream and the reality are difficult to reconcile, so true.
I remember a sketch on Saturday Night Live years ago about the "dysfunctional family Christmas" & how my siblings & I watched it & laughed our asses off at how true it was! I don't know what it is about holidays -- expectations, maybe? -- that turn us crazy so that there is always somebody in a bedroom crying with the door locked.

Reading this I got so involved with your family, with "the characters" that I ended wanting to know what happened to everyone. I wanted a big epilogue with everyone settled in & healing. sophie, this is gorgeous writing!
I don't think anybody has a Norman Rockwell family. Holidays are the time when family members try to get along. You did well. And you may try it again in the future. It's hard work.
I ditto what ladyfarmerjed said in her comment. This knocked me around my head and heart until they both hurt.
Sometimes I miss my family, but when I go back to see them, I can't wait to go home. Great story. -R-
Whoa. hey Sopheih, thanks. For years I took consolation in, I believe it was Richard Bach's statement, that sometimes members of a family don't always grow up under the same roof. you and my daughter share the same birthday, btw.
Family disruptions can haunt us like nightmares.
The contrast between the Norman Rockwell image we wish for and the really perfectly fine reality--is so much of the reason this time of year has such a sad thread running through all the forced joy. We're real, flawed, and normal, and that doesn't look as hot in red velvet. I guess it's a sad part of growing up to realize that.
This was such a moving piece. You're a writer's writer.
I love your story even though it shows so truly what can happen in a family that is so close, really too close to fight. A fight can damage the structure.

I am relieved to know that while you don't celebrate Thanksgivings together that you aren't estranged because of that one awful holiday. Such a moving piece. Rated.
Well, at least it started well ;-). Hope your Christmas holiday memories are better.
Family feuds! A terrible curse.