(Originally published Nov. 25, 2010)


My sister is here for Thanksgiving with her family. We have eight people in the house, and half of them are kids. They’re staying for a week.

A week is a long time to have house-guests.

Especially if you have been raised in an alcoholic family and one of your deepest habits is making your life feel safe by making it the same every day.

Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

My house was built in 1898. It’s a three-story, foursquare brick house with a staircase up the front hall to the third floor and back stairs from the kitchen to the second floor. With four kids here, there are always pounding feet and weird screeching sound-effects echoing throughout the plaster walls and oak floors.

This old house.

This old house.

It’s a different atmosphere from what I was used to as a child. When we were kids, we used to spend Thanksgiving, every single frigging Thanksgiving, with my mother’s parents at her childhood home. My grandfather, who was a violent drunk when my mother was a child, had built his house from scratch in the early 1940s. It was a big ill-designed brick place with a sort-of-Dutch roof and a screened side-porch.

Houae

My mother’s childhood home, via GoogleMaps.

It stood on half an acre of flat land shaded by enormous oaks, whose leaves we spent two days raking during our Thanksgiving visit. We raked leaves. Played endless gin rummy with my grandmother. Occasionally bought a quarter’s worth of penny candy at the corner store a block away, but we weren’t even allowed to walk down the block by ourselves.

The house was a two-and-a-half story place with a full dry basement, but we weren’t allowed to touch anything in it for fear of breaking something or making a mess. There were a few ancient toys in the attic. Mostly, we sat and read. We weren’t allowed to make a racket, except for music. My sister played the piano; I practiced my flute.

We helped in the kitchen. My grandmother always roasted a turkey with plain Wonder-bread stuffing, and made mashed potatoes, corn pudding, and some canned or frozen green beans. Or maybe, as a huge change of pace!!—lima beans (canned). For dessert we’d have pumpkin pie.

Everything was always the same. We always ate at half-past 3. The reason we ate this early was always beyond me—but it was taken for granted that I would never ask why.

Thanksgiving evening would stretch before us, empty.

“Did we ever go anywhere?” my sister asked me this morning as she worked on the turkey.

This house was in Catonsville, a prosperous suburb about 20 minutes from a major historic Eastern seaboard tourist draw, but we only ever once saw the actual city. Once. We visited twice a year for what—18 years?—and we almost never left the property except to go to church.

I can’t remember any real communication over supper. We kids didn’t talk about what we were doing in school, and my grandparents never showed any interest in our lives. My brother sometimes went down to the basement to watch my grandfather fix a radio at his workbench, but I can’t remember ever speaking to my grandfather, though I was forced to sit at his right hand at every meal, and for every family photo I had to sit on his lap, which creeped me out because aside from this requirement, he never showed any interest in me. He no longer drank—he’d given up booze once he was diagnosed with diabetes—but he was not in the least sober. Meanwhile my gregarious dad was dealing with this fucked-up family by putting away can after can of National Bohemian.

Classic alcoholic family behavior. Isolation. Rigidity. Suppression of feelings. Lack of communication.

Addiction is a difficult cycle to break. It’s an intergenerational dysfunction. Its patterns become deeply ingrained from earliest childhood. The deepest, in my case, is taking care of others at my own expense.


I try to do some things differently today.

We open up the entire house to everyone. There are piles of books, toys, cards, and other kid stuff all over the house. Nobody is afraid to touch anything. “This is like my temporary home,” my 9-year-old nephew casually remarked yesterday as he reached into the fridge for some milk. Openness instead of isolation.

Ever since the kids were small I’ve splurged on art supplies, and I pile them onto the dining room table and show them how to make art. It’s like push-ups for the muscles of the imagination. They’re all interested in drawing and painting, and three of them are particularly creatively inclined—so we pay attention to their interests. Flexibility instead of rigidity.

I try to be sensitive to the kids’ feelings. Since they were small, I’ve always taken them on my lap and given them a great deal of physical affection. I want them to know they can rely on me. … Now they’re too big to sit on my lap. My eldest niece, at 13, is taller than I. When I see clouds or tears pass over their faces, I put my arms around them and try to be present to their feelings—or I try to be aware of times to leave them alone.

Most of all, I’m talking with my sister. We were not given the tools to get along with each other when we were young. Growing up in an alcoholic family makes a person emotionally dependent and denies a child the equipment to accept reality: it’s like we’re always wishing for some other life, trapped in some illusion. We always want things to be different—more perfect; closer to some ideal we have in our heads.

Just sharing our experiences has been such a gift. Even disagreeing with each other and remaining close is a gift.

I sit back and give my sister permission to do whatever she wants in my house. She’s a wonderful cook. If she wants to take over the kitchen, I tell her to go ahead. If she wants to get up at 7 and make a cheesecake, I tell her to go ahead. I’m trying for flexibility instead of rigidity. Freedom instead of imprisonment and dependence. Watching her feel comfortable in my house is awesome.

Our menu:

  • Brined turkey
  • Glazed ham (because the boys don’t like turkey: some flexibility is good)
  • My sister’s special stuffing
  • My husband’s amazing oven-roasted potatoes
  • Fresh carrots, green beans, and brussels sprouts
  • My sister’s cheesecake
  • My cherry pie, which my niece helped make

I remember a couple years ago, just after I detoxed, my sister said, “It’s just not Thanksgiving without Mom here to complain about what a shitty job Dad’s doing carving the turkey.”

This year, there has been some anxiety—but no arguing or fighting, no throwing food or objects across the dining room, the way there was after my grandfather died; no gritting teeth; no days-long resentful silences about who’s making what, who pays for what, or who won’t eat what and how that makes that person uncooperative and stubborn and worthy of criticism for daring to express preferences.

A week is a long time to have family in the house, but I’ll tell you what: it seems way shorter than the two days we spent for Thanksgiving each year with my grandparents.