Holidays were always interesting at our house, largely because of my mother’s proclivity for picking up strays (yeah, yeah, I know: pot, kettle; apple, tree). She ran a halfway house for alcoholics, and often we’d host these broken, middle-aged men, who had once been successful doctors and lawyers with beautiful families, but had lost it all by the time they got to my mother. They were newly awash in The Program, exuding the humility and gratitude of a new recruit. But one Thanksgiving stands out from the other holiday gatherings, and luckily there were no alcoholics at this one, because I’m pretty sure their fragile sobriety would have been mightily tested.
First a disclaimer: This is a true story, insofar as I believe that everything within happened. It’s conceivable that I have blended family holidays. This sort of thing happens to me. I often remember parts of several movies, putting them together to make a whole new movie, thinking that what I am remembering is the movie I remember. It’s also possible that I have left out parts of the story, or that aspects of the day have become embellished over the years. As I grow older, my memory grows general, with bursts of specificity that either advance my personal agenda or contain facts so trivial and irrelevant that I don’t know what makes me think of them.
Second, some background: My father died in 1967, when I was four, my brother was three, and my sister was 18 months. This left my mother a widow at 34, with three babies, very little money, less job experience and a high school diploma. My mother felt that she was abandoned by my father’s family after his death, and she became estranged from his parents and siblings. My father’s youngest sister had lived with my mother and father for a time after they were married, and so my mother felt particularly hurt by that desertion. Now, my mother was a good Christian woman, who could be selfless and forgiving at times, but she was a bit controlling. She could hold a grudge with unrivaled tenacity, and demanded loyalty above all else (pot, kettle; apple, tree). But, while she perceived herself to be forsaken by her in-laws, and told us often that they weren’t the best people, she managed to forge a career, and raise three children who mostly went to college and grew up to be reasonably well adjusted. We had a fine working-class upbringing, and all was more or less well.
Third, more background: In the early 80’s, my brother got a scholarship to an Ivy League school, and began to live the life of an Ivy League student – you know, spending semesters abroad, dating heiresses - that sort of thing. While my sister and I seldom ventured farther away than the subway would take us, he was globetrotting, and unbeknownst to our mother, had established contact with my father’s youngest sister, who had moved back to Ireland years earlier. My brother visited her and her family there. I don’t remember what actually happened – I must have been really stoned or away from the homestead at this point, but I understood that my mother was furious with him. I can so clearly imagine her feeling betrayed that I can almost hear her screaming. But somehow my brother convinced her that she had to let go, and she did. She visited the Irish relatives herself, and my oldest cousin even came to live with us for a while. (I don’t know why he stayed though, because my mother, who had become a substance abuse counselor, so harassed the poor kid every time he had a beer, she might have driven him to drink the next one.) But in general, relations between my mother and one small village in Ireland had become cordial, if somewhat fragile, even though she told us she wanted nothing to do with the rest of our father’s family.
Flash forward a few years, and the aforementioned paternal aunt, her husband, and my cousin, are going to be with us for Thanksgiving. My brother, in his first year of medical school, is also coming, along with three or four of his fellow students who aren’t going home. He has also invited the mother of one of these friends, a very nice woman who sells real estate in one of the tony western Boston suburbs, and probably doesn’t often visit our gritty urban neighborhood. Also in attendance will be my maternal grandfather, maternal great aunt, and my sister, who has just had her gallbladder removed. (This being the mid-80’s, she’s had an actual operation, with a big incision and stitches, not like today’s wussy procedure, where you can go out dancing that night.) What my mother doesn’t know until about two days before Thanksgiving, is that my aunt has invited her brother, my paternal uncle, and his new wife. We have not seen this uncle since my father’s funeral, and my mother is not happy. However, she is trying to deal with it, moving back and forth between forgiveness and planning something guilt-inducing designed to elicit a full apology.
When my uncle and his new wife arrive, it is disconcerting, even for my normally unflappable self. There is a ghost sitting in my mother’s living room: His physical resemblance to the father I only know through photographs and secondhand accounts is uncanny. This elderly man is who my father would have been, and he doesn’t quite live up to the hype that occurs when someone dies young. He is not superhuman, and yet he is alien. He is also divorced, and has married a much younger woman, with my first name, -- and having married into the family, my last name as well. Since it is uncommon, I am not accustomed to another Joyce, let alone someone with my full name.
My grandfather arrives. He is a little old man with a sixth grade education, who has never had a nice thing to say about anyone. An immigrant, he has a thick French Canadian accent, and as he has grown older, his nastiness has become rather funny, because his inhibitions died with his wife ten years earlier. His insults aren’t as hard to take when they’ve skipped a generation. When he asks me, “What did you use to cut your hair, the lawn mower?” or “Where did you buy your clothes, the circus?” I can laugh it off, but my mother wouldn’t be human if she didn’t carry some baggage. Papa, as we called him, had grown too feeble to climb the stairs, and the bathroom is on the second floor. A coffee can is procured for him, in the event that he needs to pee.
Arriving with Papa, is my great aunt, Katie, sister to my maternal grandmother, who has been widowed years earlier, by a man with whom I don’t remember ever having a conversation. He had been present at all the family functions, but I don’t recall him ever getting a word in. Aunt Katie is also French Canadian, with a thick accent and thicker cat-frame glasses. She is a woman of modest means, but she makes her own glamorous clothes and hats and always wears gloves. She is very active in her church, making “bandages for the leopards” and such. I think she means lepers, and I also think that by this time the lepers aren’t using homemade church lady bandages, but I admit I don’t know this for a fact. In reality, the church is trying to keep her busy, because she has a penchant for befriending wrong number callers, and for excessive bingo. My great aunt is also responsible, I am convinced, for the fall of Communism in Russia, which happens as a result of her prayers and those of her church ladies, though she wouldn’t actually live to see it. Above all, she is a pragmatist: I remember once telling her that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and she said, “Well, good. Someone has to write the words on the toothpaste tubes, so there will always be work.”
Papa spots my father’s brother, and because Papa is starting to lose his hearing, screams at my mother, loud enough that everyone on our street can hear, “Who is that man?” My mother explains that he is my father’s older brother, who Papa met many times, many years ago. He screams, again to the neighbors, “Who is that girl with him? Is that his daughter?” My mother tells him the “girl” is my uncle’s new wife. He then screams for my brother to take him to the back porch so he can piss into the coffee can. At this point, my sister has to excuse herself, because she can’t allow herself to laugh, for fear of popping the stitches in her gallbladder incision.
The afternoon wears on, getting weirder and more uncomfortable. My grandfather keeps asking – “who is that man?” and “who is that girl?” at 15 minute intervals, and we give up answering him after the first few times. Aunt Katie screams at him, because she is also hard of hearing, telling him that the “girl” is my father’s sister, which of course she isn’t, but no one argues with her. My sister comes back downstairs, but by this point, my uncle – not the ghost-of-my-father uncle, but the husband of my father’s sister – has finished a few drinks and turns into the stereotypical jolly Irish drunk, determined to make my sister laugh, because apparently the Papa and Aunt Katie show isn’t funny enough for him. Meanwhile, when my sister is not warding off the tickling from Uncle Johnny, she is being chased around the house by my brother and his med student friends. After all, she is a live surgical specimen, and they want to see her incision, check her temperature and generally annoy her. I think they want her to pop a stitch, so they can get some practice. She moves in and out of the public space, as the hilarity and its effect on her stitches allow.
The “girl,” or aunt by marriage with the same name as mine, now also known as The Other Joyce, is obviously nervous. Who wouldn’t be, given the screaming? I don’t remember much of the conversation beyond the screaming, though I do remember her asking me what I did, which was always dangerous territory, as I had dropped out of college and was working for an outspoken lesbian who managed punk rock bands.
We sit down for dinner, and it is actually good. This is a bit of a surprise, as my mother, a talented woman in many regards, was no cook (pot, kettle; apple, tree), and often spoke of inventing a “turkey scent spray” that you could use in the house when you wanted people to think you actually made the turkey. There was a lot of polite conversation, and Papa was quiet, having procured a giant turkey leg, which was his favorite.
We are all nearly finished our first helpings, when The Other Joyce begins to shake, her eyes rolling back in her head. Before the army of med students can get to her, she spasms and throws up all over the table. Aunt Katie quickly grabs the turkey and moves it out of harm’s way. Papa doesn’t look up from his turkey leg. The med students get her to a bedroom to lie down. My uncle won’t let anyone call an ambulance, which makes the med students positively giddy. He claims that nothing like this has ever happened to her before. I go to Aunt Katie, who, in addition to being hard of hearing is also more or less blind, and was directly in the line of fire, and ask if she’s okay. She says that she’s fine and asks for a Kleenex. The table is cleared faster than you can say “second wife,” and my sister has to go lock herself in her room, because she can’t take it anymore. I settle Papa and Aunt Katie in the living room, and he screams, “What’s wrong with that girl? Is that girl’s father going to take her home?” and “Boy! Could that girl puke!” The real estate woman from the western suburbs who had come with her med student daughter makes a gracious exit, but later sends a lovely thank you note, mentioning nothing of what happened. Her manners were impeccable.
My uncle and The Other Joyce leave after she has rested for a couple of hours, and I never see them again. Papa and Aunt Katie both died not long after, though I don’t think their deaths were related to the festivities. Mom also died around Thanksgiving in 1999, but I think she taught us an important lesson – that NOT letting go of grudges might actually make for more relaxing family holidays.