When our extended family was seated around my grandparent’s thick, oak dining table—one given to our great-grand-father as debt payment during the Depression and that had been elongated by inserted leaves for the gathering— the discussion would inevitably escalate until one of the men slammed a fist on that table and stomped out of the room. Usually this was Pop, my mother’s father, disgusted over where the political discourse had gone. Incredulous that these people in his house were so damn backward thinking. Not infrequently, it was my own father who’d set him off. My father had a prickly relationship with Pop. On the other hand, Mama, my grandmother, loved everyone, brought out the best in all, including my father (plus he was Catholic!) and that was reciprocated. But she’d get pissed at theatrics. “Oh N.S.!” She’d hiss, always calling my grandfather by his initials. “For god’s sake!” She’d toss her napkin down and go through the swinging kitchen door to retrieve the desserts for the rest of us.
My father got into it with my uncles too. Later, my sisters, who are a decade older than me, battled it out with Pop, a white, upper class, college-educated man who’d lost his fortune in the second big market drop of the Depression in ‘34. Throughout adulthood, he’d had a rough ride with substances but finally committed to sobriety on the day his first grandchild, my sister, was born. Those drunken years deeply affected his family and were especially ugly for Mama, whose wifely duties were primarily to cover for him. My sisters, however, brazenly challenged Pop’s views on charged topics like civil rights and Middle East politics. They were living and attending nearby colleges and had fresh, compassionate, vibrant minds with perspectives my grandfather couldn’t possibly fathom. But despite fundamental differences in their belief systems, he relished their verbal sparring and witnessing his granddaughters passionately debate. He always believed that as they matured, they’d come around to see the world as he did. On that point, he was wrong about my sisters.
I was too young to get in the fray and, frankly, too interested in getting to the dessert course. Mama had a special technique for swirling cinnamon into her pumpkin pie. But the gentle, old-married- couple bickering, sometimes all-out barking, between my grandparents remains in my memory, as does the way Mama plied my father, her son-in-law, with the fig preserves he loved to eat for breakfast while patting his shoulder lovingly, even on those mornings after a blow-up with Pop. Food has always been currency in our family culture.
I’ve been thinking a lot about sitting around that big table with my uncle who knew it irked my disciplined, raised-on-nothing father when he ate an entire roast beef in one sitting, or made us hysterical with the jokes thirteen-year-olds tell that no polite person would repeat. Especially at the dinner table. Mama’s children, my mother and two uncles, often joked about the horrific events that had happened in that house with a raging alcoholic. Or when there was no money. And it was hilarious. These were flawed and scarred adults who, along with the kids, shared a love for one another despite the chaos and ancient familial grievances; we also shared in our love for Mama and her pound cake, apple pie and the chocolate sauce she taught all her granddaughters how to make (for the record, and contrary to my cousin Janet’s assertion, mine’s the best rendition). I can still hear the din from the television console and smell the sweet pipe smoke wafting from that tiny den, where my grandfather would plant himself in that squeaky leather recliner whether after storming out of a room or just because it was that time of the day. Or because Jeopardy! was on and we’d all compete to show him who was the most clever.
Of course, Mama and Pop are now gone. Many heated discussions amongst family members outlived them. Raised voices. Storming out of rooms. And likely there are more to come. At more recent family gatherings, cousins laugh about the differences; we roll our eyes, grateful we’ve even stayed connected (thank you Facebook). It goes unsaid that we share a deep love for our flawed grandparents who we are sure would love us as much today as ever, even though we casted votes for candidates they would certainly consider ghastly.
Mama had a way of cutting through it all with a sense of humor. I wish I had her talent. On this Thanksgiving, I am grateful my grandfather lived his later years sober, and that I now understand how difficult this was for him. I am grateful we have recipes. And most of all, loved ones to feed.
Here’s wishing that you too find that which surpasses the ugly discussions in life on this day of gratitude.
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Parents we interviewed for Behind the Wall often spoke about difficulties during the holidays. Regular life is disrupted. There’s pressure to be happy, c’mon, it’s the holidays! For some, there is unresolved family conflict. Whatever the reasons, there is added stress, a key ingredient in disrupting anyone’s mental health.
Personally, my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving. It’s the day we cook, eat, and hang with loved ones and close friends. It’s sharing in sustenance rather than materialism. Thanksgiving is about being genuinely thankful and also pulling up a chair to your own personal pumpkin pie. Keeping it simple and local is how our nuclear family does it. But not everyone has someone with whom to share the holiday or is fortunate (or selfish enough) to keep it simple.
And there’s the rub. Knowing many families have a loved one fighting on foreign soil, or fighting serious illness, or just plain fighting internally, can make it difficult to celebrate. Feeling grateful can feel like gloating when one considers day-to-day challenges in others lives.
And yet, those who’ve had the most difficult challenges are those who can teach a thing or two about gratitude. One of our Behind the Wall parents tells us that beginning November every year, she becomes more vigilant than she is normally (which is more than most), watching for signs that her son is stressed, or beginning a cycle of psychosis. She fears his psychosis could lead again to jail and weeks of horrific treatment. This fear is justified. When her son is well and safe, she is truly grateful. I believe her because she understands life’s difficulties.
Another Behind the Wall parent, Esme, has a daughter whose illness is the underlying cause for dangerous behaviors that among other events, lead to a near-lethal cutting incident and an overdose. Esme says the experience with her daughter has given her great empathy. For which she is grateful. She doesn’t expect those who don’t have mental illness in their family to understand, and says, “Good for them they don’t understand.” Though, it would be great if our society could learn to accept those who live with mental illness, Esme rightly focuses on how lucky she is that her daughter is kind and loving.
Then there’s Behind the Wall’s Bianca, who reminds us to find the moment of “normal” in all the chaos of parenting an adult child with persistent mental illness. Even if it’s a small moment. Maybe it’s thirty-minutes she and her son share making dinner. Maybe it’s laughing at a joke. You can find the moment of normal if you try, she says.
What these generous, inspiring parents express is the true meaning of gratitude. For these parents, gratitude comes from accepting that life is not a string of good moments with a few hiccups along the way. To paraphrase my dear friend, a practicing Buddhist, life is struggle, work, and hope, with wondrous glimmers of grace (I loathe to use the vaguely defined term, “happiness”). There’s no question that some are born with more talent, or into families with more resources. We can feel grateful that some of these gifted folks do help others, and feel empathy for those who choose not to do so, for their lives are not rich in what life has to offer. Maybe what defines a lucky or blessed person is one’s ability to appreciate that precise moment when good does comes along, to recognize the appearance of grace. No matter one’s circumstances, perhaps the greatest gift of all is the ability to see and experience genuine gratitude.
‘Tis the season to see grace and find gratitude, even if within the smallest moment.
Happy Thanksgiving to our readers. We are genuinely grateful for your support.
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