Tuesday, November 20, 2012

While growing up, Thanksgiving at my house was always stressful. My parents snarled and fought with one another, my brother J. and I snarled and fought with one another, and my brother and I snarled and fought with my parents. My father was a brutal, vicious, physically abusive person. His selfishness knew no boundaries. If he wanted quiet and you made the slightest noise, here came the fist. If he wanted dinner at 4 PM, it better be done right on time -- or out came the screams, the punching, the verbal abuse. My mother was like a wet cat around him: Hissing, arching, angry, spitting, howling. He didn't dare approach her, so he turned on anyone he could. She was the same: Interfere with her in any way, and the claws slashed. Her way was far more emotionally and verbally abusive, but it was not less damaging.

My mother did not cook often, and when she did her cooking was bland and mediocre. She had a Betty Crocker cookbook, but I don't think she used it except as a prop. So although we got a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and the like on Thanksgiving, it was a mediocre meal made by someone who never practiced as a cook.

I, frankly, don't remember Thanksgiving Days much. They were never memorable. They all seem just one huge mash of anger, fear, and hatred. I seem to have always slept in very late on Thanksgiving, as a way of avoiding the day as long as possible. Usually, my father would break down my bedroom down, screaming, pulling the covers off, slapping at me to get out of bed. The question "Why?" always elicited more slaps, more anger.

Thanksgiving was a day of avoidance. Avoid the family by making the shower last as long as possible. Avoid the family by taking as long as possible to get dressed. Avoid the family by taking as long as possible to eat a bowl of cereal. Avoid the family by taking as long as possible to do whatever chores needed to be done (shoveling the walk, or raking leaves, or cleaning dog shit out of the back yard, or chopping wood, or whatever). Avoid the family by watching TV in the basement (or, if they were in the basement, in the living room). Avoid the family by spending as much time in the bathroom as possible. (Yeah, sure, mostly masturbating. I was a teenager, for chrissake!)

The most blessedly quiet, content times on Thanksgiving were during the grocery store runs. My mother or father would invariably discover that they had forgotten to buy butter, or buy evaporated milk for the pumpkin pie (or that they'd bought condensed milk!), or something. I'd always volunteer to go to the store to get it. Alone, in the car, was peace. An over-crowded grocery store with only one clerk meant peace. I always delayed my return home as long as possible, and it didn't matter if I was ruining dinner or not. (If you don't want it ruined, you should have bought the right ingredients, dipwads.) I'd peruse the magazines, I'd chat with people I'd only barely know, I'd scour the parking lot for "just the perfect parking space" (even if it were empty, or full). I'd drive slowly, letting every stop-light turn red. Anything -- anything to prevent going back home.

The hour or so before eating was the least stressful at home, mostly because it meant my mother was super-busy with food. My dad was the official turkey-carver and gravy-maker, so he was busy too. I always breathed a sigh of relief, because it meant the day was almost over.

Dinner itself was a rushed affair. No conversation, no laughing, no noise. You stayed quiet at the dinner table, and rushed through things. You said, "It's great mom", even if it tasted like shit, because if you didn't there'd be hell to pay. If my dad snarled about eating like hungry pigs, you mumbled that it was because it was so good. (A compliment to mom meant that he couldn't call you a fucking liar and start striking you, because then it meant her food sucked. And the angry, wet cat would come out -- claws extended, all four limbs aimed at his face.)

The danger was that my brother J. couldn't handle any chewing noises or he'd start screaming and punching, so dinner was a tightrope: Chew as fast as you could, mouth purposefully clenched shut, and hope he wouldn't throw a fit. If he did start screaming (and I do mean screaming -- at the top of his lungs), then you knew war was coming. You had to scream back, push back. Then the fight would begin. And within seconds, my father (who sat to my right) would begin pulling, punching, screaming. My mother (who sat to J.'s left) would lunge across the table to try to stop things. ("Can't we have a nice dinner just for once?!?!")

The fight might last only five or ten minutes, but it was always traumatic to me. I don't know why. Dinner would end with food strewn everyone (at least the dog had a good meal), everyone bruised and clawed and scratched and hot and angry. J. liked to not only punch, and punch as hard as he could, but also claw with his fingernails. I'd usually have some ragged cuts on my face or left arm. My dad punched, too, which meant bad bruises on my right side. (Even in his 20s, my brother J. would attempt to start fights with me at holiday meals. The last time he did so, we were at a great-uncle's home in Tacoma, Washington. My youngest brother was in the National Guard, and about to head off to Iraq during the Gulf War. In front of a room full of kids aged five to 12, J. began screaming, hissing, howling, and punching at me because he could hear me chew. I said, "What're you gonna do? Start a fight in front of these little kids?" He whipped around. Little children were open-mouthed, horrified at him. Quivering with rage, he controlled himself. I chewed with my mouth open, making the most disgusting noises, for another half-hour. He's never done that since.)

After dinner, my brother would skulk in his room, door closed. My parents would sit in the living room, arguing, drinking bad wine (mom) and bad beer (dad), blaming one another for their pig-children. My youngest brother would watch TV in silence.

When I was not yet able to drive, Thanksgiving meant usually going to a neighbor's house to hang out or to drive with my dad to the store. Once I could drive, I'd light out in the car afterward -- just driving around town. Needing to be anywhere but there. Needing to be away from the constant hatred, constant attacks, constant trauma, constant drama. Maybe I'd come home after a few hours and stay, but usually I went out again. "I'm going to a friend's house" was the best excuse (ignoring the demand that I provide this friend's name).

* * * * *

College in Seattle was too far away to return home for Thanksgiving. It meant hanging around school, ordering pizza, hanging out near Pike Place, and wondering what the Japanese students were talking about as groups of 20 made noodles and soup and fried rice in the tiny dorm kitchen. Seattle is cold and went in November, and a lonely town when it's wet like that. Everyone is inside, and the city is grey and silent. You can hear your own footsteps, no matter how much it rains.

One Thanksgiving in college, I felt so alone that I drove down to Tacoma and walked around for four or five hours near the Tacoma Dome, Pacific Avenue, and the pedestrian mall. I stumbled into the Pink Elephant Car Wash, and the nearby Almond Roca factory down there. I got a huge can of the stuff, then came back to my dorm room. I took a hot shower in my clothes, got back to my dorm room (with agog Asian students looking at me as if I had grown antennae), stripped, turned the heat up high, and chowed down on noodles, almond roca, and vegetables while watching Hello, Dolly! on KCPQ-TV.

It was one of the most peaceful, contented Thanksgivings I have ever had.

* * *

I've since learned to be a good (if not great) cook. I have made full-fledged, massive-meal, every-dish-but-mashed-turnips Thanksgiving meals. I've spent the day with the family of a boyfriend, or spent it entertaining friends, or spent it alone. But looking back, I find that many of these Thanksgivings have been difficult in one way or another. I have friends who say, "Every Thanksgiving I have is terrific. Friends, family, cooking, football, shopping, movies." I marvel at that.

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