Thanksgivings: Family Traditions, for Better or Worse

J&K Weddin' 157

Another Thanksgiving is approaching. This Thursday, my husband will get home from work around six o’clock in the morning, and I will finish the cooking while he sleeps. We will have Thanksgiving here together, just the two of us, with our dogs Boone and Coach, and cats Mama Kitty and Kilo.

We decided to stay home this year and have a quiet dinner for two reasons.

For one, after working all night, and especially after the crazy schedule John has had to work since the first week of October, he needs more rest than he usually requires. Getting up after four or five hours of sleep to run and have dinner elsewhere seemed an overwhelming idea. Having been diagnosed with Type I diabetes just about two years ago, my husband has to take more time to rest or his blood sugars are hard to balance and maintain. His job does not afford him the ability to achieve this balance easily because he has to work shift-work and he works nights and days, alternating weeks for each. We have to make sure he gets as much consistent rest and routine as possible, wherever we can make it happen.

Secondly, I wanted to cook for my husband this year. It’s our second Thanksgiving together, our first one as husband and wife, and I like to cook and quite honestly, I miss cooking Thanksgiving dinner—so we’re doing this at home. You never know how many of these holidays you have with those you love, and since I’ve never been able to make a Thanksgiving dinner for him before, and I haven’t been able to cook one for my family for several years, I asked him if we could do it this way this year, and if he felt up to it, we could go visit his brother afterward.

Our decision to have a quiet Thanksgiving here at home is bittersweet. We won’t have anyone over to share this day with us. My kids are scattered, of course. Wesley is in Colorado, and will have just finished coaching a basketball game the night before. If he is able to go anywhere, it will be to his aunt and uncle’s home in Colorado or to Texas to his dad’s, or perhaps to his fiancé’s parents’ home in Minnesota.

My oldest is in Florida and, well, let’s just be honest—he would not come here even if he had the time or the means. I lived within fifteen minutes of him for two years and he didn’t see me on any holidays, birthdays or mother’s days while I was there. The same goes for my other two kids, in Oklahoma and Kansas. They have better things to do, and better places to be. For all three of them, their priorities have been other than spending time with their mom, unless it’s on their terms, for a long time now.

Hopefully, we may be able to see John’s daughter, Kim, and her husband Zach and the grand boys when they finish their rounds with their respective mothers in Chattanooga, one of those stops being with her brother Bryan and his family as well. They may be able to stop to say hello to Paw and Nim on the way back to Knoxville, if they can break away and aren’t too exhausted after all of that. We won’t get to see Bryan and his kids because John’s grand daughter, Katie, is taking chemo for a brain tumor and cannot be around any animals, so she can only have Thanksgiving at their home or her grandmother’s home, which is just two houses down from theirs. For reasons I will not mention here, that is not a place we can go to see them, especially for a holiday.

After we eat and maybe see Kim, we can possibly go visit John’s brother and his wife and hang out, maybe have a drink or two, and visit some others who may be present at their home. We can go see my in-laws and take them some pie, cookies and brownies.

We won’t get to see anyone else. For some, traditions are deeply entrenched, and that’s understandable.

My kids, Wesley and Robin, have gone to Houston nearly every year on this holiday since they were in high school because that’s what their dad and his mother expected them to do. When they were younger, every other year I got to have them with me on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We alternated respectively. However, since they were able to choose as they got older, and after they grew up and left home, they have chosen to go to their dad’s family’s or to visit the families of their in-laws or future in-laws.  That’s just the way it is.

My youngest will be in New Mexico with that side of the family, because that has been the way it’s always been since the divorce.  I didn’t get Thanksgiving in that divorce settlement, only Christmas, and I had to share that with my ex. I haven’t had a Thanksgiving meal with that child for sixteen years now, and she’s eighteen.

I’ve never had a Thanksgiving meal with my oldest child, aside from when he was four months old, so of course he does not remember. He is twenty-eight now.

When Wesley and Robin were little and until they reached puberty and decided to go with their dad or friends for the holidays, I was the one who cooked the family meal. We didn’t have in-laws in town, or even in the same state, to run and visit. Most of the time we didn’t have the ability to go to Texas or Florida to see my ex-husband’s family or my family.

I enjoyed cooking for my family, even on an everyday basis. Thanksgiving and Christmas were special because I could pass down and carry on some of the happier traditions that I learned from my family growing up, that is, until mom and dad divorced when I was thirteen and we quit having our dinners with any of our extended family.

Come to think of it, I passed down that tradition, too.

My mother made a special dressing, a concoction she learned from her mother, made from cornbread and homemade buttermilk biscuits. It was my favorite and the most moist I had ever eaten. She also made the mashed potatoes. Dad made a pecan pie that my uncle in Florida says, “Will knock your socks off.” My great-grandmother, Dorothy Scudgins, made a fruit salad that we in this part of the country call Ambrosia. She made it in a huge bowl and stored it in gigantic pickle jars. It was heavenly—with apples, pears, bananas, orange slices, pineapple, grapes, peaches, maraschino cherries, marshmallows coconut and walnuts all mixed together and left to marinade for a couple of days. My grandmother, Marie Phy, used to make a black walnut cake. Aunt Cindy brought the cranberries and deviled eggs. Daddy and Pa and Granny cooked the turkey and ham.

I would say my favorite Thanksgiving, other than those I spent with my kids, was the last one I shared with my mom and dad and our family, the year before my mom and dad divorced.  It was probably 1978. I was 12 years old and we were at my Granny Marie’s in Ft. Oglethorpe. You can just about throw a rock and hit the Tennessee state line and the city limits of Chattanooga from there.

So many of us were there, we had to use the pool table out in the garage for a second table. Granny laid out plastic table cloths on top, which she taped to the sides of the pool table with masking tape.  I sat there, across from my Uncle Steve, and giggled as he teased me incessantly about eating too much of the stuffing.  I loved that we were eating at the pool table.  The bright green cover was smooth just under the table-cloth.  I kept putting my hand underneath to feel the felt lining with the tips of my fingers. I was positioned between my dad and sister, in the middle at a side pocket, and I kept poking my hand in the pocket, making an indention into it with the plastic table-cloth.

I could hear my Granny yelling, “Don’t git anything on the pool table, ya’ll!”

My Uncle Steve, Uncle Mike, and I exchange sly glances and tried to suppress our laughter.  Daddy cut his eyes at them, and then he gruffly reminded me of my manners and I returned to my plate, happily getting lost in the contents…turkey, gravy, dressing (that’s what we called it back then), deviled eggs, cranberries, mashed potatoes, green beans with ham, and my Granny Scudgin’s Ambrosia.

For desert there was pecan pie, pumpkin pie, cherry pie, coconut cream pie, black walnut cake and fudge.  My whole family was there, including my grand parents, mom, dad, sister, uncles, aunts, cousins and great grandparents.

This was my dad’s side of the family, of course. We never ventured north of the Tennessee River for holidays. To even consider such a thing was blasphemy. My dad and his mother and her mother, Granny Marie and Granny Scudgins, would not hear of anyone entertaining the idea.

Now I realize what it was like for my mother on the holidays.

Laughter echoed throughout the house, along with my dad and his brothers teasing one another and trying to out-eat one another, and my grandmothers chattering incoherently and occasionally yelling at my dad and my uncles.

Then I heard dad say, “I’m full as a tick!  I cain’t eat another bite!”

Similar refrains were uttered around the table.  Mom got up and started clearing the table with my aunts, and Daddy caught my eye. His blue and smoke gray eyes could cut you in two, and he gave me the look, which meant I had to get up and help.

Granny Marie would sometimes get stressed out with the cooking and the kitchen activity, and she would run from the kitchen, fanning herself and saying, “Lord have mercy , I need a cigarette!  I’ll be in the living room.”  She whooshed by, perspiration pouring from her face while she mumbled to herself.  You usually cleared out of her way during those times.

Later, after I helped with the clean up duties and was given permission, I sat on the couch with my dad, with my head on his chest, listening to him talk to the other adults.  All of them smoked, and as it burned my eyes I would rub them.

I could hear his voice muffled through his chest wall as he spoke. I felt his heart beating strongly and steadily. After a little while, I drifted to sleep to the melodic sounds of his heartbeat and voice, while my family talked about nothing and everything.  I awoke to my dad shifting his position and inhaling as he puffed on his Marlboro reds, still in a heated discussion with his mother about one thing or another.

This is why I so cherish those few Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners I was able to share my kids.  Their noisy, raucous laughter in my house, while I was cooking or cleaning or just sitting in their midst was the sweetest of sounds.  I was acutely aware as I stood in the kitchen and cooked or baked amid the whir of kitchen appliances, or above the clatter of dishes as I washed them, that the sounds of their voices and laughter was what I enjoyed most.  This noise was the chaotic evidence of life lived.

It continues to be a sound I miss, and the silence, which has been infinitely louder since those times, sometimes causes my chest to ache.  I’ll remember the kids’ laughter, as if I’m listening to it through a long, dark tunnel. The sound is muffled and I cannot see them. When I become aware of my present surroundings again, of the silence around me, I realize that I have stopped breathing.

None of my ex-husbands really respected the fact that my side of the family and I were just as important to my children as they and their side were. It echoes how my dad and his family treated my mom and her family. Family traditions get passed down, one way or another, even if we go out of our way to try to change them sometimes.

Today I often wonder what it was like at my Pa and Granny Johnson’s house on the holidays. I will never know. After that “Last Thanksgiving” with my dad and his family at the age of twelve, I never had another holiday meal with anyone there besides my mom and sister. There were some hard feelings, resentments, hurts, and feelings of betrayal. Mom and Dad’s divorce broke us all apart.

Before I knew it, my dad was gone. He was the first to pass away in May of 1988, at the age of forty-one, just less than a decade after our last holiday together. Granny Marie and Pa Johnson died two years later in July of 1990, and Papa Scudgins died that year in September. Granny Scudgins left this world two years after he did, in September 1992. My little cousin, Michael, who was two at that last Thanksgiving meal, died in a car wreck at age nineteen, nineteen years ago. My Granny Johnson died from complications of emphysema several years back, and Pa Bill Phy died several years ago from throat cancer. My uncle Mike, Uncle Steve and Daddy’s little brother, died last March after he found that cancer had spread throughout his body and there was nothing else he could do but wait. He was only fifty-nine years old.

We don’t know what tomorrow brings, or if there will be a tomorrow for any of us. Unfortunately, when we are young, we do not realize how fragile and fleeting this life really can be.

If I could go back, I would make a point to see my family more, and be less selfish and prideful. I would practice more forgiveness, and let go of grudges. I would go see what it was like at my Pa and Granny Johnson’s house on Thanksgiving Day instead of dismissing them as if they didn’t really matter. I would have made more of an effort to spread myself out amongst those people who loved me and wanted to see me, and made each day with each person count as much as I could.

Unfortunately, as the old cliché goes, hindsight is 20/20. None of us can know what the future holds for anyone. The only thing we can do is the best we can right now. Sometimes it is beyond our control. I was a child back then, and my parents were in control of who I spent time with on the holidays. Ironically, my ex-husbands took that torch of control later on, and my kids carry it now. This has been a legacy I continue to have to abide by to this day. Now, I look back and wish they had been more democratic about it.

Looking at it now, it would be nice if all of us could be more democratic today. It would be nice if we practiced flexibility, respected the boundaries of others, and were more understanding. If we could do this, maybe we wouldn’t miss out on the short and precious time we are given to spend with one another on this earth.

Since John and I have no power to change the past, nor do we have the ability to change the present–outside of ourselves–we are going to appreciate one another this week and on Thanksgiving Day, just as we do every other day of the year, and spend precious moments sharing old traditions and making new ones together. We don’t know if this will be our last, or if there will be many more years of holidays and traditions to come. All we know is, we can’t make everyone else happy at the expense of ourselves, and we can’t make others want to come here, or at least meet us halfway, and spend these days with us, either. Hopefully, we can spend more time with our kids and their kids, his parents and brothers, and my mom and sister before there is no more time to spend.

For better or worse, spending the day being grateful for one another and what we have right here, right now, is the only choice we have if we want to be happy.

Kim Deal

November 24, 2014

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