Just about every year for Thanksgiving we take in a person, or two, or three or four who either doesn’t want to be with their own family for Thanksgiving or doesn’t wanna, and we host them for the big dinner. So yesterday morning my mom asked about this tradition of ours – if we were going to invite any “orphans” over. I realized today – picking up the naval orange for one of my two cranberry sauces – that I don’t like the phrase “orphan” because it implies a sort of forlornness or wretchedness on the part of those who aren’t going to be with their relatives, and thus makes normative a certain type of family over other types – the latter chosen by will and intent, say, rather than just biology (to be fair, it was one of our “family-less” – as in, someone who had a family but didn’t want to be with them – guests who initially came up with the phrase “orphan”).
The holidays can be pretty damn painful for people. Even when they’re mostly okay and things go pretty well, I know people sometimes feel deep pockets of sadness or lonesomeness or a descent into nightmarish familial patterns or a sense of wrongness. Even if it is only an urban legend that suicide and depression rates are higher during holidays, it can sure feel the case (just today I received a message online looking for a man who’d driven away on Friday and who had friends were worried about him).
See, I know my mother pretty well, and I think her Thanksgiving isn’t turning out too awesome – yet. Two of her three children aren’t coming up for it. And although my mom is awesome in that she would never hint or guilt-trip them or even in the smallest corner of her heart think that her children “should” come up to see her (and neither do I), I also know that nothing pleases her more than when everyone does. A thing to remember about my mother, sadly, is that even when she wants something it is very unlikely she would actually ask for it. It’s taken me many, many years to really listen to what my mom really wants. And to be honest, I don’t always listen, because sometimes I’m busy being directly asked for shit by my kids and husband, who are less likely to play the coquette.
Back to Thursday: my mother is not going to have dinner with her boyfriend in attendance, either. They are still very much a couple (and are playing annoying hippie folk music upstairs as I write). But he’s going to a place and she’s not going with him. So, OK.
And all of this is okay, and no great tragedy. And in the way of the suffering of many, many women I know, my mom’s little sadnesses generally don’t inconvenience anyone (ladies are good that way!) or even make themselves known to others. In my mom’s coping and rarely-if-ever-asking-for-things-she-wants and always being so “laid back” (or at least, wanting to convey this appearance) one could forget she’s only been a widow for a little over a year. You know, after being with my father for over 35 years.
I don’t really know the heart of my mother – although I suspect now that my dad is gone I’m the closest person who does. For my part I plan to do my own, deliberate little bit to help her keep from a case of the Holiday Sadkins. This morning I told her I’d like to cook all the food, if she would only buy the turkey. She agreed to this with such alacrity I was immediately glad I suggested it. (Let me tell you, this offer of mine did not come from an obligatory sense of rescue or my role as the matriarch to the family here at 6th and M. It’s about 85% caring deeply for her emotional well-being and 15% because every goddamned year she annoys the ass off of me by saying, “And this year let’s make it a simple kind of thing, you know, not so arduous for us both.” This makes me angry like a poo-flinging monkey because in no way do I find cooking a big meal arduous, I completely enjoy it! In fact no one has any evidence, anywhere, that I don’t really, really like to cook)*.
“Family” is a funny thing; we choose to be with those who comfort us, or feed us, or those we genuinely love. And before I was an actual mother to my biological children I thought a lot about myself and what I wanted. And now I think a lot about what other people want (even if I miss the mark a lot too – and I do). I am not at all saying this post-natal experience of other-care is Natural or Universal (in fact, I think neither). It’s just my experience.
Today at the store I stood in line behind a handsome man about my age dressed in fancy-looking tennis shoes, new jeans, and a North Face jacket. He was well-groomed and quiet – his voice so low that when he turned and smiled and said something to my daughter I didn’t hear what he said. I noticed we were fixing to have the same meal – spaghetti – for dinner tonight. He was having a simple version – a small parcel of pasta, canned pasta sauce, and a loaf of bakery bread – while I had a basket full of parsley, baguette for toasting the bread crumbs in the meatballs, organic beef and pork, Parmesan cheese, crushed tomatoes, romaine lettuce, and butter. In noticing his groceries I noticed he didn’t have a wedding band. And I almost – almost – asked if he had a Thanksgiving plan, and if he’d like to come to our place to join us.
But I didn’t.
Who knows. Maybe the guy isn’t single, just not wearing a wedding ring, and neither he nor his partner care to cook. Maybe he’s happily single and that’s his favorite meal. Maybe (likely!) he has somewhere totally awesome to be on Thursday. Maybe he doesn’t give a fiddler’s fuck about the holiday.
Or maybe like so many other strangers I’ve offered a meal or a kindness to, it would have made his night just a little more pleasant to be asked, let alone attend in two days. I will never know because didn’t get the ovaries up to check.
I hope at least he felt my friendliness behind him in the checkout line.
* No, really. This is insane. Every year she talks like we’ll have a SMALL meal (we never do), and that whew-won’t-that-be-a-relief, when in actuality I look forward to cooking the meal. Something I hate: when someone tells me how I feel – instead of listening to how I’m telling them I feel. Especially when they get it completely wrong. Especically when they’ve known me since I was born!