Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Countdown to Thanksgiving: The Mellow Hours of Remembrance

Ah, those mellow hours one spends counting down to Thanksgiving. The turkey is in the icebox awaiting its dressing, then to be popped into the oven; the giblet gravy is simmering; the cranberry-orange relish is shimmering in its special cut-glass dish; and the pecan pies are cooling on the kitchen counter, imparting their heavenly nut-vanilla-butter scent to the air.

Thanksgiving. The quintessential family holiday. Mama and Papa and children around the table, heads bowed in thanks, Mama smiling and ladling, Papa slicing away, grateful rosy-cheeked children holding up plates with beaming faces, anticipating the feast.

My memories? Not so much.

I’ve been thinking about Thanksgivings past after having read Sara Robinson’s advice on Alternet today about how to survive political battles at the Thanksgiving dinner table ( That got me thinking: I recall absolutely no political battles at our Thanksgiving table. Battles yes—battles aplenty.

But political ones? None that I can recall, ever. We were all Democrats, after all. What was there to fight about?

We certainly knew that there were Southerners who had gone over to the party of wealthy economic elites in the Northeast, who had imposed Reconstruction on our forebears. We were not among these turncoats. As with most unpleasant realities, my family simply chose to pretend that they didn’t exist. We could imagine them in about the same way one can imagine, say, a lizard mating with a beautiful parrot.

The outcome is thinkable. But it is not something one chooses to think about.

We had even, God help us, heard of Christians who claimed that they could simultaneously be Republican. Lizard-parrot again. We resolutely chose to ignore that which can be imagined but is not worth notice outside the realm of the imaginary.

So no political battles at our Thanksgiving table, thank you very much. But battles aplenty, nonetheless. And battles for which no primer could prepare someone headed to our “celebration,” because they were the quintessence, the absolute perfect embodiment, of insanity. Of a very special kind of insanity that ensues when you get family members together. Add whiskey. Ignite. And va-voom!

Permit me to explain.

First you need to realize that Thanksgiving was not really our thing. We did the holiday because everyone around us did it. But we did it with a grudging suspicion that this was simply not our day. We were doing our duty, and an onerous one it was.

Christmas was the Southern day. Thanksgiving? Merely a day to be gotten through on the road to the real feast, the yule-log and eggnog day that pointed to the non-Puritan past. Puritans in top hats and black cloaks? Please. Our forebears in Virginia were doing Thanksgiving for years before those Johnny-come-latelys cornered the market and turned our cozy little dinner into their national myth.

And second, you have to understand that, as with any big family gathering, we did not do Mama, Papa, and all the children around the table. We did grandmother and grandfather and aunts and uncles and cousins and stray quasi-relatives and waifs who had no other table at holiday time.

And the children were banished to a small table in the breakfast room. We did not sit in the dining room until we had grown of age. Mercifully banished. Mercifully absent from the adults. And the whiskey that flowed like a river through the celebration. And the cacophony that began once drink had been taken.

My brother Philip and his wife Penny enjoy watching Eckart Tolle. They think that he looks like a cross between Steve and me. His mannerisms remind them of what one might get (lizard-parrot) if one shook parts of Steve and parts of me up in a jar and poured out the result. Scary.

And yet I can see what they mean when they say this. Maybe because of that association, or maybe because Tolle is simply wise and entertaining, we all particularly enjoy his comments on how Thanksgiving and Christmas produce some of the most explosive events in any family’s life, because at these occasions, our “pain bodies” find their way to the table and interact with the pain bodies of others.

We laugh. Because we know. That is precisely what happened at our family gatherings every Thanksgiving, every Christmas. Like clockwork. The script apparently sat waiting from the previous year, waiting to be re-enacted this year with perhaps a soup├žon more bitterness here, a smidge more sarcasm there, a lot more hurt and cruelty throughout.

In some ways, the script never varied. In other ways, it was, each year, a fresh new hell. Somehow—in ways that far surpassed the ability of any of us children witnessing the annual debacles—it made absolutely no sense at all. Because, I have concluded as an adult, it was rooted in childhood experiences of the adult family members about which I knew nothing. Old wounds ripped open and showed around the table. Old scores to settle.

The amazing thing about every Thanksgiving dinner was the sweetness and light with which it began—the pre-whiskey sweetness and light. Admittedly, there was that high hum of tension all around the room as sister pecked sister’s cheek, as mama clucked her tongue at the sloppy table setting. That high hum of tension that attends any Southern gathering—the exhausting pretense and politeness, the litany of lies that form the foundation of polite society.

At the beginning of the day, all was sotto voce, so much so that (Philip, Cousin Greg, and I have compared notes: we agree on this point) we who were the mute witnesses of the day’s drama, we children, actually looked forward to the day! Assuming that this year the sweetness and light would pervade the entire afternoon!!

The way it did in Mayberry when Aunt Bea and Andy and Opie gathered to give thanks for their turkey and dressing. The way we assumed it did with all the other families gathered together that afternoon.

Then, one by one, the knives came out and got slapped on the table. Beside the tumblers of bourbon. You could count on Pauline to tear into Billie, as a way of poking at Billie’s husband Eddie. Some current of malice and/or jealousy deeper than I could ever fathom ran between the two—or from Pauline to Billie.

And Eddie was the catalyst, the willing catalyst. We all knew he had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. We knew he was an alcoholic, though what that term could possibly mean in our liquor-sodden family context, I have nary a clue.

And we knew to avoid him. Just as we knew we could not avoid him. He had that way, that sly, zingy way of spotting the chink in one’s armor. He’d slip his blade in, twist it, draw blood, long before you knew you’d been poinarded.

Pauline enjoyed the blood sport. She played back. Using Billie as her target. With Eddie as the intended target.

Billie then turned on Eddie, though not overtly. She knew better than to set herself up for the kind of punishment he was capable of delivering. Her attacks took the form of hot little digs about his German-speaking family, his mother and sister who, she was convinced, talked about her in German when she was at their family gatherings.

As that side of the table began its love-feast-gone-Hitchcock, the other side tuned up. There the script was equally murky, equally terrifying to us children who watched it play out. Kat would suddenly launch into an attack on Margaret. Sweet Kat, who took such tender care of us as children. Sweet Margaret, who would not hurt a fly.

Sweet Kat become shrewish monster, eyes flaming, lips pouring out accusations; sweet Margaret weeping and humming hymns the more viciously she was attacked. Stale old arguments about the ugly yellow naugahyde chairs and yellow formica table with bent aluminum legs Margaret had bought for the breakfast room, which Kat adamantly wanted out of her house.

Which was not her house. Not really. It belonged also to her mother with whom she lived, and her brother who had come back home after an abortive marriage, child in tow to be raised by Mama and Sister. Brother, who suddenly turned his wrath on Kat each Thanksgiving, accusing her of mishandling his child, of being incapable of raising children, as a single woman, an old-maid teacher.

Through it all, Margaret’s husband Bill sat placidly chewing the Smithfield ham he insisted on buying for the family gathering each year, sipping his Old Crow, lighting his cigars. Perhaps knowing, perhaps not ever realizing, that he was the real object of Kat’s wrath. He had taken Margaret away from home, after her first failed marriage.

After some unspoken agreement between Kat and her that she would thereafter live at home to care for Brother and Mother. An agreement she apparently broke by marrying Bill years after the first failed marriage, which had ended, I knew from a letter I had found in my grandmother’s dresser, letter from the first husband, was doomed from the start when Margaret discovered that s-e-x—something about which she knew nothing at all—was part of the marriage bargain.

And so it went, year after year, my mother jumping into the fray to lash out at me: “He thinks he’s so much better than us. Sitting there reading St. Teresa of Abalalala in the living room, watching every drink I take.” At which point Billie would chime in, “Oh, yes, a little birdie flew into his bedroom and told him to become Catholic” (pronounced with a huge emphasis on the –lick syllable, to make the very idea even more ridiculous).

Energized by the blood sport, Pauline would add, "No personality at all. Just like Susan. They'd rather be bumps on the log, swelled up old toads, than let their hair down and have a little fun."

Pauline who, I learned years later, had kept company with my father's brother Carlton before marrying Frank, strange, brooding Frank, Frank of the folders full of x-rays of every part of his body, Frank of the mystifying ailments who took his annual vacation at the Railroad Hospital in Texarkana, being x-rayed yet more. Though Pauline had never wanted Carlton, she disliked his wife, the daughter of her former minister at First Baptist Church in Pine Bluff. And by extension (in that twisted logic that governed family connections in my family), she resented me. For being a Lindsey. A son of the man she had introduced to my mother as she dumped Carlton for Frank.

Go figure. Family. And so it went. Our annal family love feast. And we were just warming up to the real feast, Christmas. When whiskey would flow like rivers through the house.

The turkey is in the icebox, the pies cooling on the counter. The mellow hours, the countdown. To the quintessential American family gathering. Which, if it’s anything like my family’s annual “celebration” in other households in the land, is just about as far from familial sweetness and light, from family joy, as a gathering can get.

But perhaps not that far at all from family. Truth be told.