This year we used paper plates and plastic silverware for Thanksgiving. Last year we stopped cooking a turkey because all the grandparents have passed on and I realized I was the only one left who actually ate turkey so we became a ham only family for Thanksgiving.
I love everything about the autumn season – especially the colors. I’ve started putting out my fall decorations the weekend of Labor Day because it’s too darn hot in Texas to do anything in September and the decorations make me happy. I come from a small family – just my sister and I. We have cousins but they have always lived in different towns and we rarely got together for the holidays. As I’m writing this I remember a Christmas at my dad’s mother’s house in Shreveport, Louisiana. His mom was a tall thin woman who had a gravel voice from years of smoking and had lived a hard life. What I remember most about her is that I could tell she didn’t like my mom and she never spelled my name correctly. My mom always said it was because Grandma didn’t like her and I was just like my mom so she didn’t like me either. Mom was from upstate New York and my dad was born and raised in Louisiana – not a fun Cajun Louisiana upbringing but a poor lifestyle. My grandmother had 7 children and 2 husbands and barely scraped by.
What I remember most about the last Christmas we spent with that side of the family was that I received only one present and the other cousins, and my sister received more, and I couldn’t understand why Grandma didn’t love me as much as the others. She lived “in the projects” a housing unit with multiple families stacked on top of each other. Her house was 2 story – tall and thin just like she was. I had older cousins and aunts and uncles who were “hippies” as my mom called them – she watched me like a hawk to make sure they didn’t corrupt me with their wild ways. Looking back they were straight out of that 70’s show with the long hair, rock and roll music, cool posters on their walls and they also smoked! I wanted to be cool and free like they were but was scared to death of my mom and God’s wrath – always unsure of which was worse. The house was so small I remember grabbing my paper plate and getting outside as quickly as possible – mostly to get away from all the cigarette smoke. I remember how quiet my usually over talkative mom was when we visited. How she never fit in – nor did they do anything to help her become part of the family. I remember Mom saying “That’s the last time I will go there to be treated that way and now they are treating Valena like they have me for years and I’m not going to tolerate it.” My dad as usual said nothing. No defense for the behavior of his family and no acknowledgement of the hurt caused to either his wife or daughter, but we didn’t go back. The last time I visited that house was for the funeral of my dad's brother – Uncle Shorty. He was an alcoholic -just like his father. I always loved Uncle Shorty – he was always making people laugh and he was good looking in the 1950’s bad boy with the good heart kind of way. You just knew he could smile, wink and get anything he wanted – which was the total opposite of my father who never spoke, never showed emotion. I remember sitting outside with my cousin and talking about growing up and she had great memories of coming to that house and all of my dad’s family and I just didn’t get it.
I’m not sure how I went from paper plates at Thanksgiving of 2023 to Shreveport and family trauma of 1973 but that’s what happens when you write and think and sit with your feelings.
I love setting my Thanksgiving table with chargers, the beautiful China I picked out when Kyle and I got married 23 years ago, cloth napkins, matching silverware, candles, wine glasses and place cards. It just looks so beautiful; it shows I made it out – I am good enough.
Last year was the first Thanksgiving without any of the grandparents being alive. My mom passed away in October, and I was still sad and tired. Last year I did all the normal things and we had a lovely Thanksgiving. This year I’ve been fighting blood pressure issues and was just tired. I bought the pretty Pioneer Women plates at half price in Walmart while gathering everything to make our wonderful feast, then I went to Sam’s and saw the pretty throw away silverware that looks like the real thing and threw those in the basket. My family didn’t care. We had a great meal with too many leftovers, the weather was perfect so we were able to sit outside by a fire enjoying my daughter and her boyfriend singing while he played his guitar. The grandsons made smores and helped grandpa cut wood for the fire. All the things Thanksgiving is supposed to be.
If I compare myself to others – which therapy has helped me realize is never a helpful exercise – I feel I haven’t cried enough that both of my parents are gone. I’ve not felt sad enough that they aren’t here for the holidays. But on Thanksgiving Day I was very the tears flowed several times. It started by watching an ad on Facebook called “A Holiday to Remember” about a grandmother with Alzheimer's onhanksgiving Day. She is in a chair with a crocheted blanket on her lap looking out the window. Everyone comes in and says “Hello grandma!” but received no response. The daughter asks her aging father “How is she really doing?” and he replies, “She has good days and bad days”. The teenage granddaughter looks at Grandma, gets up and says “Let’s make today a good day.” She smiles at her mom and Grandfather as they slowly walk out the door to the barn where she takes the cover off an old blue Chevy pickup truck. Grandma slowly gets in and they drive to town. The granddaughter finds a song on the radio and starts walking her grandmother back through time. “Look here’s the house where you were born! Here’s where you went to school!” The grandmother slowly comes out of her daze and her face lights up as she remembers, and she starts to sing along with the radio - “Sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy!” I’m only halfway through the commercial and the tears are streaming down my face – my husband says “Are you ok? What are you watching?” My son looks over as I try to explain and just shakes his head. I didn’t finish the video. It is so real and heart wrenching. I felt so much sadness for all the families who are walking the path of caregiving for someone with Alzheimer’s, and I felt happy for that family in the commercial who had a brief glimpse of how their precious Grandmother used to be.
I felt guilty because I didn’t take my mom out of assisted living the last couple of years because I was afraid of how she would be. She had the paranoid dementia – everyone was out to harm her, she was angry and confused and I couldn’t handle it. She turned that anger towards me and I choose not to deal with it. I would briefly go visit – I felt so incompetent when there – she always wanted me to take her home – especially after my dad passed away February of 2020. There is so much guilt – I should have done more, maybe if I read those books on caring for someone with Alzheimer’s I would have done better. Most days with the help of therapy I’ve put that guilt away and realized we all do the best we can. But this Thanksgiving – because of that commercial it came flooding back. I just watched the whole commercial – those advertising people certainly know how to pull on your heartstrings. It’s a very well made commercial but like all things on TV or the internet it’s the perfect sanitized version of life. Some folks are lucky enough to have that kind of family, those kinds of memories and that kind of special holiday moment. But for others it simply is not like that. And that’s ok as well. I’ll continue to work on giving myself grace and I hope others do as well.
I am thankful for my family, for our Thanksgiving with paper plates and plastic silverware and next year we’ll play it by ear.