Family dysfunction hampers Thanksgiving

Like most everyone, I went home for Thanksgiving. And, like most everyone, I dreaded it. Sure, I looked forward to the California sunshine and the fruit sagging in happy clumps on citrus trees on every corner. I couldn’t wait to see my nieces, still too young and innocent to cause me any kind of mental anguish.

All the same, I knew that as soon as the plane descended into the halo of smog surrounding LAX, I would begin to devolve. I knew that somehow the time change would not only set me back two hours, but fifteen years, morphing my mentality into adolescence, turning me into a defensive teen. And there would be nothing my inner child could do about it.

I knew Thanksgiving would be the same old thing. Mom would insist on non-fat ice cream and some form of sun-dried tomato stuffing. Dad would quote Freud and say how “you can never go home again.” My dad’s wife would tell me I should learn how to wear high heels and eye shadow – that I “can’t be a free spirit for the rest of my life” – if I ever want to get married. My brother and his wife would be all perfect in their suburban life and picket fence, and would ask me what I was going to do with another grad school degree in the liberal arts family.

Plus, Los Angeles itself would haunt me the same way it has since I left – the blonde, beautiful beach people who don’t have to eat, the “art” for art’s sake, and the unemployed actors who get to surf and drink Mountain Dew all day.

And to all of this, I would answer with my chin up, strong and perfect, and say “life is good and, by the way, did you know I am a Vikings fan now? How ’bout them Twins?” I’d go on about my successes, my intelligent friends, my newfound love of polka, my rapport with certain professors, and how in my “spare time” I was going to take up mushing.

I’ve written about going home before. I’ve complained about my parents not being able to see me for who I am and about me never being good enough for their high expectations. I’ve bemoaned how they can’t just accept the fact I will never get a job and they will always have to pay for my therapy. Yes, I’ve even blamed them for my bad hair. I’ve been through all this. And while all this is valid, writing about it never changes a ding-dang thing.

To my surprise, this time it was different. Regress I did, but to my early childhood. I hadn’t been home since Sept. 11. I guess since we’re all supposed to stop and hug each other more and engage in active listening now, it did make for the warm fuzzies.

Instead of returning as the rebellious teenager, I got finally to be the center of attention any 30-year-old, second-born deserves to be. For the most part, it was all about me – all about me being 10 again. When I snuck out for a bike ride, Dad came at me with a helmet that resembled Darth Vader’s. When I told Ma what I was sad about, she rubbed my feet and made me brownies.

This Thanksgiving, contrary to our typical dysfunctional family values, we were pretty darn touchy-feely. We did things slower and just for the heck of it. We let the calories sink in. We sang in the kitchen. We danced to the Survivor theme song in the living room. We played with wind-up toys. We collapsed into laughter in a thunderstorm. We even went to see Harry Potter (“won’t that be fun?”).

Essentially, instead of being annoyed by them, I was moved. For example, my dad and his wife usually irritate me to no end with their compulsivity surrounding meals and mealtime. They’ll ask me what plans I have for that day because “at 6 we have dinner. 7 is too late.” Every ten minutes until chow, Dad will check his watch and announce that pretty soon he thinks he’ll “have a little bit of that leftover turkey. Maybe some of those beige potatoes.” Then he’ll pace or play the piano until say, noon, when he’ll head for the kitchen and say, “OK, shall we have some of that leftover turkey?” as though he hadn’t thought of it before. Then we’ll all sit together and be careful not to overeat or make plans for the night because for dinner, we might just eat something. For them, meals are events. But I let it go.

Over at my mom’s, it’s the same deal. She gets up at the crack of dawn and starts moving around the house, sounding like a punk band during sound check. While I try and catch one more precious hour of sleep, because it’s vacation for God’s sake, she is opening doors and cupboards and telling herself all the stuff she has to get done. But I realized all that racket is on account of her making me breakfast or digging something out of storage like an old salad shooter she thinks I might be able to use.

The trip had a hint of melodrama too – which I suppose never hurt anyone. Instead of dashing out the door first thing in the morning for a run, we sat and looked at the ocean while my dad played Judy Collins songs on the piano. “Remember this one?” he’d say, starting in on another melancholic sob story about long-lost love which sucked us all in so that we resembled one of those obscene infomercials about finding Christ. Afterward, I asked his advice about my love life.

As though that wasn’t enough, my 2-year-old niece, who usually has more to do with the lint on my jeans than with me, showed me how to make Play-Doh turds out of her ice cream maker and insisted “everybody foofs.” Even Ma nearly killed me with sweetness. Every morning she picked grapefruit off the tree and made me fresh juice. She showed me how to shop for men online.

I guess it all has to do with getting older. We get slower and so we are slower to criticize. We eat more, so we haven’t a leg to stand on when telling the other to avoid that second piece of pie; we consider it acceptable to see

a Hollywood movie, tear up at Saturn commercials or yell “charge!” at the Dodger game. Moreover, maybe it has to do with the fact we are facing our own mortality – and with all the trauma going on in the world, we have no choice but really to be with each other.

For me, at least, it’s beginning to seem possible that I really might not write that great American novel about bad hair. True enough, I may not marry Bruce Willis. And, believe it or not, it might so happen I never own a castle in Oaxaca with admirers clamoring to see my snow globe collection.

In the meantime, I have my niece, her little feet propelling her around the corner as she breathlessly proclaims, “Hi Auntie Roc.” In the meantime, I have my parents who really see me for my ability to sing “The Love Boat” theme song in Spanish. In the meantime, I have the little things. And for that, I owe many thanks.


Roxanne Sadovsky’s column regularly appears
alternate Thursdays. She welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]