When I was a kid, my mother, father, grandmother, and I would go to my aunt’s for Thanksgiving. It was such a special day! I would get to see my two cousins who lived all the way out in Tigard. We would run to their room to play while the men talked and the women pulled dinner together. The fare wasn’t sumptuous, but it was hearty and always enough with the big turkey as the centerpiece of the table. Sometimes there would be paper cutouts of gray-clothed pilgrims and sometimes a small bunch of flowers from the wintering garden. No one had heard of Martha Stewart back then.
After dinner, we kids would fill out our Christmas lists, all of our desires practical and inexpensive. (If we got too imaginative, such as asking for a pony, or too extravagant, like listing the Barbie Dream House plus Complete Wardrobe, my grandmother would frown disapprovingly. She had come through two World Wars and the Great Depression and still believed a tangerine and a handful of pecans, both somewhat exotic back in the fifties, was a worthy present.) Then the whole lot of us would make another list, a list of thanks.
A magical day spent with love, joy, and plenty, it was always hard to say goodbye, but I could take solace in knowing that next year, like clockwork, it would happen again.
Then everything changed. We stopped going to my aunt’s, and I found out that for years, my mother had just been going through the motions. To me, Thanksgiving meant play and excitement, but to her it was a little bit of a nightmare. Where I saw dress-up and celebration; she saw my dad fighting with his sister, my uncle drinking, and us kids getting rowdy and out of hand. She stuck with the tradition until we were teens, then when she deemed us old enough to deal with the harsh reality of the real world, couldn’t be done with it fast enough.
For me, it was worse than discovering there was no Santa Claus. What I’d believed to be one thing was really another. Bad enough that my perfect day was a lie; how easily I’d been deluded shook the foundation of my being.
As I grew up and over the half-century that followed, I often tried to recreate those perfect Thanksgivings. I had kids of my own, then grandkids, and every few years, I’d host the holiday dinner, trying to capture the innocence of my childhood memory. I would don a calico apron and run myself ragged making turkey and all the fixings, buying flowers to arrange in a centerpiece with candles and hand-painted gourds. (by then, Martha’s uber-styling was setting standards for home décor that no real person could ever meet). I’d slug back a few glasses of wine, shout at my husband about nothing, shudder in the corner with anxiety. I’d listen to one son fight with his wife as the other got drunk. I’d watch my granddaughter throw temper tantrums while my grandsons slouched, glued to their Nintendos. I’d read off their Christmas lists, pages of expensive toys, electronics, and designer clothes, knowing that I couldn’t afford even one of those things; knowing full well that they expected to receive them all.
These gatherings drained me, never coming near my ludicrous expectations; I was just going through the motions.
Some time back, I quit trying, quit controlling, quit judging. It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t easy to let go and let people be who they are, but serenity was a goal well worth attaining. I quit attempting to relive a past that, though wonderfully real to me, was illusion. I’d never understood the whole picture of my childhood fantasy, and I needed to move on and take the holiday for what it was.
What it is.
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