I have two conflicting childhood memories of Thanksgiving. I remember turkey prep in our little suburban kitchen, with my Dad buttering a brown paper bag, placing the turkey in the buttered bag, and then putting the big, bagged turkey into the oven. It sounds like a weird method to cook a turkey, but I tell ya, it results in a moist 'n' delicious bird and a tasty holiday meal.
But I also remember going to my Aunt Mary's house on Park Street in Syracuse for Thanksgiving dinner. I don't know if I've confused different Thanksgivings in my mind, or if my Mom baked the turkey in North Syracuse and we transported it to Aunt Mary's house for the family dinner. Or maybe I'm confusing Thanksgivings with the Christmas Eves we spent at Aunt Mary's. I don't know.
But I think we did go to Aunt Mary's house for most of our Thanksgivings. And my memories of holiday dinners there remain full and vibrant, and plentiful: turkey and stuffing, roasted potatoes, macaroni and meatballs (We're Italian, fercryinoutloud!), and sweet, sumptuous desserts. As far and away the youngest kid at these dinners, I was usually relegated to a meal at the kitchen table rather than the dining room. And I vividly recall loud conversations after the meal was done, as my Uncle Art and Uncle Mike argued politics, and my Dad--ever the peacemaker--tried to referee. It is an indelible, happy memory, no matter how much fuzz my aging brain tries to gather around it.
Uncle Mike passed away in the mid-70s, when I was in high school. Uncle Art died in 1995, when my lovely wife Brenda was pregnant with Meghan, our only child. I lost my Dad in 2012. Aunt Mary, now 93 years old, resides in an assisted living facility; the family house on Park Street, which had belonged to my grandfather, was sold long ago. At 91, my Mom still lives in our old house in North Syracuse, and I check in with her every day.
For Thanksgiving this year, my brother Rob and sister-in-law Barb invited us to join them in Albany for a family meal. Rob and Barb have a new grandson, whom my Mom had not yet had the opportunity to meet. With that added incentive of allowing Mom to meet her newest great-grandchild, we agreed to make the trip. On Thanksgiving morning, Brenda, Meghan, and I picked up Mom, and set off down the New York State Thruway for Thanksgiving dinner in Albany. (Aunt Mary and my cousin Mary Ann had planned to meet us in Albany, but a morning phone call from Mary Ann informed us that her Mom didn't feel up for the trip. It was the only disappointing aspect of an otherwise-lovely day.)
Travel can be intimidating, even precarious around here at this time of year. Earlier this week, Syracuse had been the unhappy recipient of almost two feet of snow dumped upon our sorry souls; it took my ol' Cub Cadet and me an hour to clear the driveway Monday morning, and I don't want to imagine how long it would have taken (and how much I would be achin') if I'd been armed with just a freakin' snow shovel.
But fortune favors the cold! Or the bold. Whatever. By Thanksgiving, temps had risen, excess snow had melted, and driving conditions were conducive for a road trip.
My wife's car has satellite radio, so Little Steven's Underground Garage channel accompanied and propelled our ride: Moby Grape, James Brown, The Dave Clark Five, The Ramones, and Lesley Gore were among the sounds keeping this intrepid driver on the straight and narrow. We were ahead of schedule, so I added two pit stops near journey's end, just so we wouldn't arrive at my brother's house before they were ready for this Syracuse invasion. We got there just as the other guests started to filter in.
A word about my brother's in-laws: like Tony the Tiger once said of a specific sugary cereal, they're great. I often joke with Brenda that both she and I lucked out when it came to in-laws, and that goes for the extended family, too. I love my family, and Brenda's family, and my sister-in-law Barb's family, and so on through all the attendant family tree branches you could name. I hear so much about people who can't get along with their own family, or with some element of their family, and it saddens me. Even during our holiday dinner this year, Meghan heard from a friend suffering through Thanksgiving with her aunt, in a setting where she didn't feel welcome. I realize it's a common situation, and it's alien to my own experience. I appreciate how lucky I've been to never know that kind of life.
For me, family--even extended family--has always been about love, and delight, and camaraderie. It's not that we all agree about everything--we don't--but we agree on what's basic and important. And we enjoy spending time together, laughing together, remembering what was and hoping for what may be. I wish more of my family could have been there--I wish my brother Art and his family could have come in from Ohio, and I wish my sister Denise and her family could have flown in from England, and I wish Mary Ann could have come with Aunt Mary--but I'm grateful for the opportunity to gather with those who could be there. And I'm aglow with the contented feeling of seeing my daughter grow into the incredible young adult that now stands where my cherished little girl used to be; I look back in awe, and I look on in wonder, and marvel at the grace life has granted me.
I wish we had more time together. I wish we had more time. Meghan joked that we need another wedding, just to gather the family together. I agreed, while thinking to myself, Please, not your wedding next. Not now. Not yet. We last gathered en masse for my Mom's 90th birthday celebration in August of 2015. That was a blast. We need more happy get-togethers like that. We need a chance to toast, and dance, and tell stories, and reminisce.
As a family, like all families, we have suffered loss. We have endured the trials of time and distance, and done what we could to sustain our fragile hearts. Time is cruel, and we are mortal. But we live, we love, and we understand the bounty that we have been given. On Thanksgiving, members of our family gathered once again to enjoy a fabulous meal, and to enjoy our all-too-brief time together. That's sufficient cause for gratitude right there. That's reason enough to just say Thanks.
Much has changed in the past two years. Mom is now in a nursing home. Last December, a fall at home made it clear that she could no longer live on her own. I was with her for the ambulance ride to the emergency room, as EMS workers lifted her out of the house that had been her home for more than 65 years. She knew, in her heart, that she would not be returning there. She never had an opportunity for closure, to say goodbye to the house in which I grew up. She does not want to visit that house now. The memory of what was, and which only lives on in memory, is too painful to reconcile.
My daughter Meghan and her boyfriend Austin live there now, as guests of my sister Denise (who bought the house from Mom when Dad died in 2012). It was time for Meghan to start building an independent life, and that's a good thing. But the house's current state is less than ideal, as a persistent leak in the ceiling near their bed has proven difficult to remedy. Attempts to patch the roof have been as effective as BBs shot at Superman. I haven't even been able to get an estimate on replacing the roof, because, y'know, winter in November. I'm trying to come up with at least some kind of temporary solution, and I'm beside myself with worry that the leak will grow larger and that Meghan and Austin will not be able to stay there. I feel helpless.
Last Friday, Meghan, my wife Brenda, and I attended a memorial service for my sister-in-law Patty. Patty married my brother Art in 1972; her family had lived kitty-corner across the street from our house in North Syracuse until the early '60s. When Art started dating Patty around 1970 or so, Mom asked him, Isn't she a little young for you? But together, Art and Patty were just right, and so much in love. Fuck cancer. She was only 67. Brenda thought of Patty as a sister, and she's devastated, as we all are. We all wanted to get to Columbus for the service, so we dodged threatening weather conditions for the drive to Ohio. My other brother Rob and his wife Barbara drove in from Albany as well, and we surprised Art and his family with our presence. We felt that we needed to be there for him, for my nephews and their wives and kids, and for Patty's siblings. They used to live across the street from the house where Mom no longer lives, the house where a ceiling drips ominously upon Meghan and Austin. Family needed to be there for family.
My sister Denise lives in England with her husband Tony. Tony's mom passed away earlier this year. Last week, Denise and Tony's own home was devastated by fire. No one was hurt. They will not be able to move back into their house for up to a year. They are too far away for us to hug and offer comfort.
Aunt Mary, who could not make the car trip to Albany in my previous Thanksgiving story, also passed away this year. She was the last of my father's siblings. That generation of Cafarelli is now gone.
Today, Brenda, Meghan, Austin, and I will go to Mom's nursing home for a Thanksgiving meal. The nursing home staff allows guests to join residents for holiday celebrations, requiring only notice and a $5 fee. Rob invited us to Albany, as he always does, but we need to stay closer to home this year. We presume that institutionally-prepared turkey will not match Barb's cooking (a pretty safe presumption), but Brenda is making some corn casserole, noodle kugel, and sweet potato pie to supplement the fare provided. More importantly, we will be there. We will try, not so much to preserve the elusive illusion of normalcy, but to be together in whatever circumstances fate allows. We all wish we could be together, all of us in Syracuse, Rob and Barb and their extended family in Albany, Art and his boys (and their girls, and progeny) in Ohio. Denise and Tony, their son Tim, their daughter Mallory and her newlywed husband Alvaro. Patty. Aunt Mary. Tony's Mom. Dad. My niece Stephanie, taken from us a decade ago. We wish things were different. We're grateful for the grace we've had.
I'm not as strong as I need to be. But I'm trying. I succeed some days. I keep trying. And I write all of this, not to bring anyone down, but to acknowledge our common frailty, our shared vulnerability, our mutual mortality. My tale is only unique in the sense that each person's tale is unique. I know others suffer, many far, far worse than I can even imagine. A high school friend wrote recently of how Thanksgiving has always been a time of struggle for her, a holiday she simply can not embrace or celebrate. I wish there were a way I could help to lift her heart. I wish I could lift a lot of hearts, my own included. But still, I give thanks. I give thanks for family, and friends, and love, and life. We will struggle. We will fall. And we will keep on trying. We will be as strong as our spirits allow us to be.
Happy Thanksgiving Day. Happy Black Friday. Happy Cyber Monday. Happy December 17th, January 23rd, February 11th, whatever. Happy any day you can. We can't be happy on all of the days. Here's hoping we can each find a few happy days here and there.
This year, it can be difficult to feel thankful. We can't wish away the troubles, can't pretend things are as they should be. They are not. For now, we have each other, and we have our music. Thank you for that.
The quarantine scene means there will be no family gathering for Thanksgiving this year. We'll have an international Zoom call this afternoon, and later my daughter Meghan will come over for a socially-distanced meal. She'll sit at the opposite end of our dining room's more-than-six-feet long table, we'll enjoy some wonderful food and conversation, and remain masked when we're not at the table. In the evening, her boyfriend Austin will join us--masked--to decorate the Christmas tree. It's not the holiday we want. It's the holiday we have. And we're grateful for that.
I won't see my Mom at all. Her nursing home is on a state-mandated lockdown, closed to visitors until the All-Clear sounds. She has tested negative for...you know, as have all of the other residents of her building. But the lockdown remains in force, and for good reason. There have been positive test results in other buildings within the nursing home's complex. Visits would present a foolish and unnecessary risk. She understands. We understand. It's not what we want. It is what we have. And we're grateful for that.
Things will get better. They may still get worse before they get better, but they will get better. Not soon enough, but as soon as they can. It's not the timetable we want. But it's...yeah, you get it.
We have what we have. And we're grateful. Thank you.
Time is the enemy. Yet it's an enemy we're grateful to have for as long as we have it.
Last Thanksgiving, we knew full well what was coming; Mom passed two weeks later. I have absolutely no memory of Thanksgiving Day in 2021.
But today, Brenda is cooking a turkey. It may seem an obvious choice, but we usually don't have turkey on Thanksgiving. We feel like having turkey this year. Meghan and Austin will come over. We will enjoy time together as a family.
And we will be thankful.