Thankful Toast

My parents are both still alive. And they live next door. My son and I are having Thanksgiving dinner with them later today, along with my only sibling Andrew. Martha will be there too. Martha has known me since before I was born. It was she who taught me how to read music. She is 85 now, and has had a lot of health issues this past year. That we six will all be together around the table again this year is something I don’t take for granted.

However grateful I am that we are all still here together, I gotta be honest. As it is with so many families, the dysfunction is still there, well hidden behind the polite things we say to each other and the correct things we all do. My family members are good at pretending all’s well when it’s not. Maybe it’s not healthy, but I sure am grateful for their skill at this. I’d just as soon get through it all without incident.

While I’m being honest here, I must also say that Thanksgiving has begun to take on a less than joyous feeling these past few years as my family ages. Picking up Martha is rather a chore. While I love her and appreciate the time I have left with her, I must prepare myself mentally for the day ahead, as things will take longer. It can take an hour just to get Martha from her house to ours. It takes a good 20 minutes just getting her into the car. (I hope someone can muster the oomph to do this for me one day.) When I’m finally there, helping her with coat, her walker, her last minute requests before we leave her house, I do it with genuine love. It’s not so bad. But still, it makes for a long day. I fill my lungs with the fresh, cold air and look up at the new winter sky, waiting for Martha to pull her reluctant feet into the car and I think of all the thousands of people out there just like us at this very moment on Thanksgiving day. It’s a day of logistics and old people. A day for slowing down I suppose.

My brother Andrew is a depressed sort of fellow, a hoarding hermit of a man who harbors a lot of repressed anger which usually finds its expression in a surprise blowup at me, triggered by something which none of us can guess. He is two years younger than me. He was blonde, blue-eyed and skinny as a boy. He was quiet. Smart. Serious. Rather the polar opposite of me. I suppose in his eyes I got all the attention. I probably did. This family history plus some as yet undiagnosed physiological condition have combined to make him acutely disdainful of everyone – and pathologically convinced that I personally am responsible for every bad thing that’s happened to him over the past thirty years. In years past I have tried to confront his holiday blowups with sane, measured counters to each accusation. But rather than remain the calm and centered voice of reason I’d intended, my energy and yes, rage, rises to match his and it all ends up a disaster. So I’ll try to keep it simple and polite today. Never sure what it is that sets him off in the first place. It’s a tricky game. But I’ll play it as well as I can.

Mom’s back is killing her. She can no longer stand up straight. While she’ll take pills for her high cholesterol, and a myriad of medicines for other blood-related issues, she refuses to add pain relief to her daily prescriptions, citing ‘liver’ damage. My thought is that should be the last of her worries. Why worry about your liver when it hurts every day just to be here? I’d worry about quality if I were her. But I’m not her. And no, I don’t know the ins and outs of her medications. She’s worked in a lab most of her adult life and knows the medical jargon. We, the rest of the family, do not. So her power lies in her knowledge and our absence of knowledge. She knows, we don’t. She must bear her pain, there are no options. And so she soldiers on, an arthritic finger resting on her lower back all day long as she makes her way from task to task. In the end though, she’s more than an amazing cook. She’s a classy cook. From the copper pots down to the Limoges china. She knows old-time recipes from the generations even before her own mother, and she keeps alive the out-of-fashion foods that might otherwise die quietly in our world.

In the past my father might make his way to the piano in his office and play some Debussy while mom was cooking. Or maybe he’d sit at the harpsichord and play some Bach, some Scarlatti. This was often the way he’d bide his time in the final few moments before it was all on the table, ready to go. After dinner (any dinner) dad always falls asleep at the table. A fine dinner is not complete until his head falls forward over his chest and he sleeps while still seated upright in his chair. Everyone knows that. While it’s been a good year or more since I’ve even heard dad go to an instrument and play, in spite of the oncoming dementia he still knows what’s going on, still has a twinkle in his eye and is still fully present at the party. And it goes without saying that he falls asleep in his chair at the end of dinner.

Elihu, poor kid, he’s odd man out in this aging family. There is a box of wooden blocks at mom and dad’s which used to belong to Andrew and me when we were small. That, and a set of wooden train tracks gives him something to do while we sip our bloody marys, nibble at cocktail shrimp and say virtually nothing new to each other. My folks have five cats. For twenty-five years they’ve had cats in that house. Elihu is very allergic to cats. Although my mother protests any meaningful dander being present as she’s vacuumed the place only just days ago, I know this is far from the truth but have long since given up trying to prove otherwise. Although I dope him up pretty well before we go over, three hours in that environment is about all he can take. He’ll hold out until we’ve made it to the pumpkin pie, then all at once his eyes will be puffy and he’ll be tugging at my sleeve, begging to go home, unaware that my mother’s feelings are hurt and Martha believes I’ve raised a boy without manners.

But that’s all yet ahead. I have it easy today. My mom is 76 and I still have never done so much as cream an onion for Thanksgiving. No wonder her back hurts; she carries the load alone. I offer help, but I admit it’s without much expectation that she’ll delegate a task. I’ll set the table. And I’ll make a skyscraper of blocks. I’ll ask dad and Martha to tell us their stories again. I’ll ask ‘whatever happened to so-and-so’ and sit back as the elders volley anecdotes back and forth. I’ll eat. I’ll clear the table.

We’re not the kind of family that easily says ‘I love you’ nor the kind that says grace before a meal, but rather the kind of family that cloaks its prayers of Thanksgiving in a toast, wine glasses raised like good, secular, left-wing folk. Today, when we raise our glasses I’ll know the real intention behind our toast.

We may not say so, but I know it’s true. We’re all thankful to be here.

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