Thanksgiving is another of the litany of culturally-mandated American holidays I’ve grown to loathe. I am thankful every single day when I have food in my belly, clothes on my back and a cozy bed/cot/couch/whatever in which to sleep. I don’t need any special day set aside for giving thanks. Besides, how can stuffing an already full belly with an orgy of turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole and cranberry sauce (ugh!) make one thankful?
I quit doing Thanksgiving with my natal family about fifteen years ago. It took what amounted to a slap in the face, but I finally gave up on trying to share the holiday with them. My parents purchased forty acres in the woods of Northwest Jefferson County just as I was getting out of college. By the time I had a family of my own, they had built a most absurd McMansion, replete with countless roof gables and twenty foot ceilings and a massive, everywhere-wrapping porch in the middle of their heavily-wooded spread. It looked about as out of place as a Taj Mahal in a swamp, but they succeeded, sort of, in bringing high tone surbuban style to the country. After literally going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for a few years, each of which solidified in my mind that though blood may be thicker than water, it’s not viscous enough to excuse repeated and vicious assaults on my character, I finally resolved to quit.
I should back up a bit further. I am the product of a liaison between my mother and some guy whom I’ll never know, as the truth of my origins were buried with my mother a bit over a year ago. She subsequently (after my birth, when I was about four and a half) married a rising medical student, who, apparently as the price of getting her quite beautiful female form (at the time) into the sack, agreed to adopt her two kids (me and an older sister by a man to whom she was briefly married). I was, and always have been, the prototypical red-headed step child (the state and my mother can pretend an adoptive relationship is just the same as a biological one, but they both know better), which maybe explains why I’m so irascible and churlish (or maybe, I just come by irascibility and churlishness naturally). The guy she married, who became my “dad”, always did just the minimum required to avoid my mother’s wrath where I was concerned. And he fomented dispute and dissension between me and her in a manner sufficiently devious that I don’t think either of us really understood at the time how cravenly we’d been manipulated. Or, at least by the time my mother died, she didn’t know how ruthlessly he had destroyed our relationship, or didn’t care, preferring to accept his manipulations as the price of the cushy lifestyle he provided her. I began figuring things out sometime around the Last Thanksgiving I had with them.
There were a progressive series of petty insult leading up to the Last Thanksgiving. The process was subtle, but relentless. There was the time dad had corrected me correcting his grandson by his natural daughter. The kid, only about five or six at the time, had made some outlandish, self-aggrandizing comment. I had gently corrected him on his facts. Dad corrected me, not on the facts, but on my having corrected my nephew. It was my first exposure to the reality that a natural grandchild will always trump a step-child (presumably, particularly when the step-child is redheaded). The fantasia of a six-year-old natural grandchild’s mind counted for more in my natal family than the observations of a thirty-five year old step-child with six years of military service and even more as a lawyer under his belt, who had his own family and small children, and thereby could be expected to understand a wee bit about the whole parenting/provider gig. Then there was the earlier time Dad had invited the whole family out to dinner. I was a young lieutenant in the Army, home on leave for the holidays. When the bill came, he made a big show of paying for everyone’s dinner, except mine, making a scene about how his tax dollars were paying my salary so he ought to be getting something out of it. Really. And these are only a couple of the more egregious of a whole host of similarly petty and insulting interactions leading up to something of an epiphany on the Last Thanksgiving.
It took a while, really a long while, which should probably be attributed in equal parts to my stupidity and to dad’s cleverness at hiding his true agenda, but I finally figured out, conclusively on that Last Thanksgiving, that the little man who had married my mother, no matter his holier than thou protestations to the contrary, had been behaving something like a male lion having just taken over a pride, intent on eliminating any threats, particularly male threats, to his hegemony, and he’d been doing it since he had arrived. I just didn’t get what was going on—at first because I was too young and stupid and he was too subtle, and later, mostly because I tried to ignore whatever the lunacy was going on in my family, leaving them alone so long as they left me alone. His behavior was so predictable and routine that the culture even had a cliché about it, “beaten like a redheaded step-child”, but I was so utterly stupid, so desperately wishing to believe that innate impulses could be overcome through reason flying on the wings of our better angels, that I couldn’t see it.
I got into this Thanksgiving mess with my family because, though I had mostly just ignored my natal family until I had kids of my own, when I had kids, I wanted to do better by them. I wanted them to know from whence they came. And to be truthful, I also wanted to show my mother that she could not simply create familial reality out of the whole cloth of her mind like she had tried to do with me. Achieving my ends (admittedly selfish) of proving my mother wrong required submitting to the petty insults and insanities of my natal family, so, I really brought all this bullshit on myself. I think I believed so fastidiously in my ability to overcome the pettiness that I would be able to bulldoze my way through it all. While the saying that pride goeth before the fall does not quite capture the situation, as I had nowhere to fall, being as low on the family totem as any red-headed step child could be, it was a matter of misplaced pride that caused me to initiate an adult relationship with my family which ultimately ended with the Last Thanksgiving.
The day started innocently enough. Turkey and dressing, blah, blah, blah. Then, when it was time to kill time, and to keep my young children (ages 4 and 6 at the time), from driving me and everyone else crazy in the new, if still stuffy, McMansion my mother and step-dad had carved into the forest on their forty acres, I took the kids outside, to play on the driveway and in the front yard. They were going along okay when out of the blue, from the end of the driveway came a blast like a howitzer going off. My father and my uncle and two nephews were at the end of the driveway with high-powered hunting rifles—30.06 and 7mm magnums—firing away at a target about a hundred yards away they had set up on the edge of the woods. If you’ve ever heard a 30.06 or 7mm go off in close vicinity, and without wearing hearing protection, you know that it sounds like an artillery cannon firing. My kids were justifiably terrified, and I scurried them into the house. The “men” of the family kept blasting away. I could not believe the gall. There was a confrontation, where I told them how utterly rude and selfish I thought they were, blasting away without even warning young children. Then I gathered the family into our vehicle, which was parked next to their improvised firing range, and simply left. I was so pissed off, I simply backed down the driveway, the whole quarter of a mile or so to the road. Thus was the Last Thanksgiving. I swore I would never return. And didn’t.
Not celebrating Thanksgiving with my natal family does not, alas, ensure a happy one. In fact, in something of an ironic twist, some fifteen years after the Last Thanksgiving, I found myself down on the Northwest Florida beach for Thanksgiving.
I hate the beach almost as much as Thanksgiving. I have not yet figured out the fascination post-industrial humans have with laying in the sun like a lizard, on gritty sand next to roaring, tumbling surf. Sure, I love seeing nubile young women walking by in bathing suits, but really, at my age (50), how many more variations on the near-naked theme might I see? But my wife loves the beach. And since I/we don’t have anywhere else to be on Thanksgiving, and she didn’t get her summer beach trip in this year, it was Thanksgiving on the beach for the Curmudgeon.
But this is my third trip to the beach in 2012. The first was a weekend trip during March. The kids were gone on a church trip for spring break, and we just drove down, on something of a lark, to enjoy the already-warm sunshine. It actually took quite a bit of finagling to convince the wife to go. And she’s the one who loves the beach. But she just can’t handle unstructured events. Even after our son’s two bone marrow transplants, she still thinks that the only thing preventing her from total dominion and control of the universe is her inability to get her days properly organized.
The beach that weekend was absolutely glorious. The brilliant sunshine warmed each day to the mid-80’s, but the polar origins of the air (a cold front had just passed) meant that there was no humidity. I have never seen the beach quite that nice. I actually did not mind just sitting on the beach (under an umbrella, but still), taking in the view and a few beers.
Then we went over the Memorial Day weekend with another family—the two wives are friends. Never, but never, go to the beach (or on any vacation) with a friend and try to drag along the rest of the families, unless you wish for the families to become enemies. It was a miserable disaster, and not just because of the weather, which was awful, along with the crowds. The beach was packed and putrid and blast furnace hot (by May, the heat and humidity levels are for me the determining factors as to whether the weather at the beach is tolerable. On Memorial Day this year, both were off the charts miserable). We stayed in a high rise condominium, like all the other lemmings who had driven countless hours for a few days away from their miserable jobs in quite similar high-rise, post-industrial architecture so that they could look out the window over the ocean instead of over the stinking cities they call home. I stayed mostly in the room and read, just whiling away the time until we might be able to go home.
The other dad and I discovered we had almost nothing in common, and didn’t agree on much of anything on matters of common interest. I told him a story about me and my dog stumbling upon a rattlesnake on a hike I had taken a couple of weeks earlier, and how the dog had almost gotten bit. He told me that dogs are immune to rattlesnake bites—that all that happened when a dog was bitten by a rattlesnake is that their heads swelled up, and then after a while they got better. That little diversion into rural (?) mythology was about all I needed to hear in order to know that I shouldn’t much engage him in conversation. I couldn’t see how, without making him look ridiculous, I could rationally discuss anything with him. He was quite sure, to the point of throw-down argumentative, that dogs are immune to snakebites. They aren’t, of course, and neither was much of anything else he said true, but I didn’t care to spend my weekend pointing out all the logical and empirical fallacies he was propounding.
The other family’s teenagers were even more neurotic and selfish than ours (especially their daughter, which was a difficult feat to pull off as against our daughter, but she managed it somehow). I think I mumbled something to the wife to the effect that if she ever dragged me down to suffer such misery again, that would be the end—of her, of our marriage–everything. It was all the misery of the beach, but with a family of assholes to compound the fun. It was like a special level of hell had been added to Dante’s Inferno. But thankfully, it only lasted a weekend.
Then the holiday season rolled around. In the fifteen years since the Last Thanksgiving, there was no question as to whether we would attend any more Thanksgiving celebrations with that side (my side) of the family. We wouldn’t. But there was always Christmas, which we continued to celebrate with them, at least until my mother died last year, and I finally said “No mas”, sort of like Roberto Duran said it in the eighth round of his 1980 bout with Sugar Ray Leonard, and for much the same reason. I was just tired of getting beat up all the time. Since we weren’t seeing my family, there was no real reason to stick around for the holidays, so I suggested (indeed, I suggested) that a beach trip might be fun over Christmas—that we could take her mother and husband with us. My wife took that to mean a beach trip might be fun, maybe over Christmas, maybe over Thanksgiving, who knows, maybe over one of the weeks in between. Instead of a Christmas beach trip (which would have broken up the long, utterly dull stretch of holiday with idle teenagers lounging around), we got a Thanksgiving beach trip. We arrived on Tuesday, and stayed until Sunday. Five glorious days with nothing for me to do but interact with two surly teenagers whom I don’t much care to know very well, and a woman with whom I am contemptibly familiar. We did skip all the other family activities, sort of, except we had to go to dinner with the wife’s mother and step-father before we left. And we did have to eat turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce (yuck!) on Thanksgiving Day because the wife and kids think you can’t be thankful if you have, say, spaghetti and meatballs for Thanksgiving dinner, so sufficiently immersed and acculturated are they in this rather peculiar American way of life, where we show thanks by gorging on food far beyond our daily caloric needs, only to rush out and buy trinkets and baubles in a vain bid to embrace overindulgence in every realm as the greatest and highest purpose that might be attained in life, that anything other than turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce (ugh!) would not do.
The only saving grace to the week was that instead of going shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day (I refuse to call it by the name the chroniclers of American materialism have dubbed it), we went fishing. Or, at least, we went on a really long boat ride, about two hours out into the Gulf of Mexico, so far that even the high-rise condos vanished from the horizon. Upon arrival in the middle of the tabletop sea, we splashed bait-smothered hooks into the water and allowed them to descend for about a hundred feet; whereupon we let them dangle a while until the captain told us to pull them up; whereupon we did more boat-riding while the captain trolled for fish electronically; whereupon we stopped and fished some more, until finally, after about two hours of fishing which was mostly spent looking for fish electronically, we headed back home. The whole family caught three fish that were legal to keep and edible (about ten fish total, of which, maybe four were red snapper, which are out of season). It was a nice boat ride, though. And it beat shopping. But then, pretty much anything beats shopping.
Everyone went shopping the next day, except me. I watched college football games. Particularly Alabama’s annihilation of Auburn. What a sad thing when one’s hated rival is no longer good enough to qualify as a rival. Eventually the hatred begins slipping away, and things just aren’t that interesting anymore.
But now it occurs to me that perhaps there should be a moral to this tale, some sort of profound insight animating the irony of escaping one particular piece of familial holiday hell only to have it replaced, eventually, by another. But I can’t fathom what in the world it might be, except perhaps, that whatever this family member gig is about, it ain’t about me. It seems, from my point of view of things, that the transaction is all cost and no benefit. Perhaps that’s the point. That men have to justify their existence, but women have wombs. But it’s hard to see where the familial relationship is a benefit to anyone except the children.
It was last year, after another miserable week at the beach, that I pronounced to the wife that I was through with family beach vacations. So I’ve only been to the beach three times this year (there’s maybe more, the year ain’t up). All I know for sure is that I’m through with making pronouncements. If you ever let a woman know how much you hate something, that’s all you’ll ever do or get, which sort of sounds profound, but really is too much just common sense and practical to make into a moral. So the story has no moral. In that regard, it’s more or less just like life.