Saturday, November 27, 2010

pipe dreams

This Thanksgiving I found myself telling my mother-in-law a snippet of a story my siblings and I all know, but I don't believe I've ever repeated. Here's how it goes. I think that my mother ended every Thanksgiving of my childhood with her head on the kitchen table sobbing after she sent my brother and sister and me to our rooms. I don't literally remember witnessing this every year, but every year I would have been able to witness the whole scene, I did. And she certainly bellowed us into our rooms every year well before the end of dinner.

At the time, I had very little idea why. I didn't really feel sorry for her (I know that's awful); I thought her crying was horrifying, but that's about it. Of course, this has its roots in how much we hated my mother, which, in turn, is rooted in both my parents' use of their divorce (when I was six) as an opportunity to use their three children for rhetorical points: my mother's theme was that divorce is evil (I don't disagree, but that was not the forum in which to make that point), and my father's theme was that my mother was crazy and he had no choice (true and false, respectively).

As I've mentioned before, my mother is mentally ill. As near as I can figure, the great annual Thanksgiving disaster worked a little something like this. She grew up in a big Irish family, the second-youngest of seven. Her mother was the matriarch's matriarch - neurotic housekeeper, prolific cook, demonic disciplinarian, mistress of her domain. (Her children were not allowed to enter the kitchen without express permission - on any day, ever.) Of course they had a huge traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. My father's family thought Thanksgiving was stupid, but after my father left (and maybe before? I don't remember) my mother tried to institute the tradition.

We often didn't have enough money for basic food (I remember her trying to economize by buying powdered milk, which we wouldn't drink), but she'd really work hard to do special occasions right. The turkey was never even moderately sized - it was always huge, even just for one adult and three little kids. She didn't do sweet potato casserole or anything distressingly modern, but there were mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce - all made from scratch (though I think she eventually switched to canned cranberry sauce). Hours and hours of work, all while trying to keep us from burning the house down. All by herself.

Because, apparently, Thanksgiving dinner had to be picture-perfect, for her totally imperfect family. The problem was, none of the three of us gave a hoot about Thanksgiving. We didn't have warm memories of Thanksgivings past (see above), had no other family visiting in whom we were interested, and were rebellious and difficult every day of the year. After just a few comments about how dark meat was gross or we hated gravy (we all hated gravy. I guess she liked gravy, but it seemed like a waste of effort), and a few instances of us playing with our food and yelling at each other and chewing with our mouths open and talking back, we were all sent upstairs, forbidden to have the made-from-scratch pies she had also slaved over. Another miscalculation: only one of us even liked pumpkin pie, and nobody was passionate about it. So, eager to withstand a punishment bravely, we told her that we didn't care. We marched upstairs and commenced hooting and hollering at each other, and she looked around at eight hours of wasted work (just like last year), and four hours of cleaning still to be done (without help, and without even a dishwasher), and broke down.


Obviously, the woman should have gotten a bunch of turkey subs at Subway and called it a holiday. But she never did; she trotted out the pointless, doomed melodrama with the turkey every year. By the way, her turkey was always perfect. Perfect. Like on the commercials. I can't roast a turkey (or even a chicken) correctly, and I'm a decent cook, in general. But she never missed.

She did the same thing with Christmas, except that for Christmas, the focus wasn't the meal. The drama there was ramped up by the fact that my father's family tradition is to celebrate on Christmas Eve. So we'd do the Polish vigil dinner with him on the 24th, and then presents, and then midnight Mass (which ends well after 2AM), and sometimes he'd be too tired to drive us to her house from the city (and get home at 4AM). So often we'd get there the next morning, and kids never get underway efficiently, so it would never be early, and she'd already be furious.

He also always (somehow) had more money to spend on presents. Of course, she spent untold hours making whatever gifts she could afford look absolutely magnificent. No one can wrap a package like my mother. She bought all her paper (in her signature Swiss dot print) for about nine cents on sale in January, but it looked like a Tiffany's window every year. She might have used computer-aided drafting to get the stacks of gifts perfect. And then there was the heirloom creche that we broke several pieces of (never on purpose, but they were ceramic, and we were kids). I doubt we ever said a nice word to her about how incredible a job she did - but then, we never saw it with joy and wonderment. We saw it after 45 minutes' anticipation in the car of how angry she was going to be (and my father never calmed her down so that we and she would have a more peaceful morning - heavens, no), and then her screaming and my father leaving, and her threatening not to let us have our presents at all (so we would typically say, "we don't care"). Then when we opened the presents, we knew they were going to be underpants, and strange aspirational gifts intended to mold us into different people (cookbooks for my brother, for example). Of course she had to buy what was on sale, but she never had any idea what any of us wanted for Christmas, or even what we liked, and she never inquired. So the presents were always weird.

In other words: my mother obviously did not get the life she wanted, or even a remotely fair one. Being poor was one thing, but being poor and mentally ill and having your husband walk out on you and take up with one of his students and turn your three kids against you - well, that's a bit much for anyone to take, and she wasn't all that resilient to start with. But she never adjusted to the circumstances she had. In later years, she made concessions (she decided we would celebrate Epiphany with her instead of Christmas, for example). She never stopped expecting that the holidays would look like an L.L.Bean catalog, though. And it was absolutely out of the question that that would happen. She was setting herself up for failure before she bought the first potato or spool of ribbon.

Presently my goal for my holidays is to have enough family around to feel like there's a point making food, and for the members of my insane family not to be so insane that they really offend or hurt one another or anybody else. (Frankly, I need to have perfect strangers at the table to act as a buffer.)

But the holiday picture I try not to think about, the one always there in the back of my mind that's breaking my heart, is of a big house (not too expensive) with a giant fire in the fireplace, pine garland everywhere, stockings hung on the mantle, a ridiculously tall tree hung in hand-me-down ornaments, snow on the ground outside, a table full of food, the whole family gathered around (an act of Congress would not make this possible - but some year, I want not to have to make apologies to anyone for missing them. I have been angering someone with my absence at Christmas since I was seven years old, maybe six, and I am tired of it). And, of course, on Christmas morning (or maybe after Wigilia dinner), a parade of small children in red pyjamas with messy hair running to open their presents, labeled, as my mother's always were, "from Santa Claus."

It won't happen, and the cynicism has settled down deep enough that I really don't expect it any more. But I still know that it's supposed to; I still know that my in-laws wish they could be nearer their grandchildren (my SIL's five beautiful children), and would be very happy with a set here on the East Coast to visit for when they can't get to the Southwest to see the others. I still know that we could credibly invite everyone to visit us, if we had little ones here, instead of being the best situated to buy plane tickets. I still know that the animosity and division created by my parents (and others in my family) over the holidays are supposed to be healed in my generation, and that's exactly what we would be doing, if we had a next generation to structure this around. But we don't.

But I don't get to dwell on that. Unless I want to join my mother in the "mentally ill" club, I'm going to have to work with the family I have. I just wish I knew how.


  1. This was like reading a chapter out of a book... your future memoirs, perhaps?

    While none of it is identical to my family situation, there were certainly things I could relate to from your upbringing, and realizations that I, too, have come to about my present and future. I'm not sure if anyone really has the picture-perfect Norman Rockwell family Christmas... and if they do, I don't think it lasts forever. But the fact remains that just like the perfect wedding we dream about as little girls, we dream about that perfect family and family occasions. It's human nature to strive for perfection.

    I guess I have no advice to offer here, only "I get it." When things turn out so much differently than we had planned (and worse, to boot), it is hard to accept.

  2. One day at a time -- I think that is the only way to deal with any number of difficult situations. Praying that all will work out for you in the long run.

  3. I think there are many people that place too much pressure on themselves on the holidays, and your mother definitely falls into this category. I'm so sorry that you don't have positive family memories of Thanksgiving. And I hope that you can create your own positive family memories for lots of holidays!

  4. The only thing I am left with after reading this very sad remembrance is that I think you have a beautiful soul.

  5. Yes, that read like a novel. So heartbreaking. And I thought my Christmases were sad.

  6. Hi there I am one of many single moms and I find your site very interesting. I hope I have much time each day to drop by and check your site for recent post. By the way thank you for sharing this.

  7. IF is truly the gift that keeps on giving - it is not just that loss; it is the death by a thousand addition attendent cuts - and that's when your heart's not already covered in bandages.
    It's humbling to read your writing - to see what people can accomplish with their lives despite the kinds of difficulties that most of us will never have to face - your memoirs would definitely be worth reading
    Will be thinking of you tonight in church

  8. After a mighty lackluster thanksgiving with Mr. A's family this year, I am trying to process/get over the fact that I think if we were pregnant, it would have been so much more of a celebration. I guess this is how I'm also trying to deal with having holidays with the family I *have*, not the one I dreamt of having.

  9. I have one too. To this day, all holiday events still end with mom crying for some reason no one can understand, especially DH. It is hard to discuss the understated "dysfunction" that went on, so I give you credit. But no doubt, this has made you the strong person you are!

  10. After reading this, I am in awe with your strength. You will one day have that dreamed of will:) You have to have hope!

  11. Thank you for posting this - as much as it wrenches the heart to read, for your mom and for you children. It is inspiring in a way, because it speaks to your strength and determination in becoming the person you are today. My mom also had much unhappiness in her childhood due to her mother's mental condition, yet despite this has become one of the best, most loving people I know.

    It also makes me realize how much I have to be grateful for, in a time where I am struggling in my career and (lately) often overwhelmed by feelings of failure and despair.

    And, I hope and pray that you will find happiness and healing in the holiday traditions that you create going forward. You have already come so far.


  12. Have I told you before what an excellent writer you are?
    I don't know how to comment on this post, but I can identify with a lot of it. Not so much on the mental illness part, but with the unmet expectations year after year. Why is it people tend to set unrealistic expectations that can never possibly be lived up to?
    I don't think it's unrealistic to dream of the patter of little feet and shining faces opening their presents underneath a lit Christmas tree, though. I think that's what we're all dreaming of.