It’s early in the morning, and already the house is fluttering with activity. There’s always so much to do and with everyone coming over, while many hands make light work, much food also makes much work! The counter is covered with every sweet you can imagine. It’s hard to believe that somehow it will all go, either through eating it today or sending it along. I look out the window and there’s electricity in the air, like the entire world is holding its breath, waiting to see that first snowflake fall. I snack on something for breakfast, because on a day like today there’s really only one meal, and it’ll be around 3:00. I go in what is, for all intents and purposes, my room and get dressed up. Even though we aren’t going anywhere, it somehow feels “right” to be dressed up. I stop for a minute and close my eyes… for some reason I feel this need to take it all in, the smells in the house, the clinking of the good plates as they are being pulled out of the cabinet, the sound of grandma moving around the kitchen, and grandpa walking up the eight creaky stairs from the garage. For some reason the creaks seem to get higher pitched the higher you climb, but I figure that’s just my mind playing tricks on me.
There’s really nothing for me to do yet, so I grab my sketch pad and pencils, and wander into the living room. I plop down in front of the large floor model cabinet television, and turn on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, idly sketching some of the scenes that are on TV. I love the parade. I’m not really a big fan of the marching bands but I love the huge balloons, the musicians who sing and ride on the floats, and Santa making an appearance at the end. I think to myself that someday I’m going to go to New York and see the parade live.
I hear a car in the driveway and I don’t even have to look to know who it is. My favourite Aunt and Uncle have just gotten here, Shirley and Lynn, and my cousins Michael and Pam. They always get here first, so Shirley can help grandma with things in the kitchen early. I jump up to go to the door, excited to see them. Shirley always greets me the same “Well hi Holly how are you, don’t you look pretty today.” and Lynn, it’s always a joke. Even now I can still hear his laugh in my head. And then my cousins… who I always felt closer to than cousins… more like siblings really. I put my drawings away and we head downstairs to hang out and shoot pool.
I can hear the adults above us moving around… Shirley and grandma in the kitchen now, grandpa and Lynn getting the tables set up. I know that shortly we will see them down here, setting up the kids table. With many people and limited space it’s easier to use both floors (not always the smartest idea… considering I remember mashed potatoes being stuck on the ceiling one year… but that’s another story.) I hear another car in the driveway, and again I don’t have to look. It will be my Aunt Linda and Uncle Ronnie, and my cousins Brian and Reas. Reas is only five months younger than me, and Brian is the oldest of us all. He fit in more with the adults and never really hung out with all of us. As they enter the landing of the house, Brian heads up the eight creaky stairs with Ronnie and Linda, and Reas heads down the three non-creaky steps to the basement. Now that there’s four of us, we can pair off to play pool which is always good. Of course, half the time we make up different games using the pool table, but regardless, it’s entertaining. Through the ceiling overhead, I can hear the deeper voices of the men, and lots of laughter. One thing I know I will always take with me is how much fun everyone seemed to have when they were together.
I hear another car and know that will be my Uncle Vernie and Aunt Sheila and my cousins Courtney and Roxanne. The four of us look at each other, and without saying anything make the decision to head upstairs. One pool table and four kids works just fine. Six, not so much. As I pass my uncle Vernie, like Lynn he cracks jokes. My cousins and I head into the living room, to make one last claim on the TV before we lose it to the football game. The window behind the TV faces across the street, and I look over to Mrs. Dills’ place and see cars gathering there too. She’s a very nice grandmother too, with the funniest looking dog I’ve ever seen. A dachshund, but growing up we always called it a wiener dog. I know that her grandkids will probably be outside after they eat too, and we will all get a chance to hang out.
I look into the dining room and see tables being set, our dishes set on the counter since we will be heading downstairs to eat, and things about ready to go. And then I hear one final car pulling up, which would be my Mother. Once she arrives, it’s like everyone breaks into this perfectly synchronized performance. The guys all move to the living room, and we all head to the kitchen. We all have a job that we do. I make the mashed potatoes. Because of my scrawny little arms they give me a blender. Those piles and piles of mashed potatoes are still the largest amounts I’ve ever seen. Once everything is ready to go, the turkey is set on the table and we all squeeze into the dining room to pray before we eat, giving thanks for everything. Then grandpa carves the turkey and everyone dives in to the food. My cousins and I, the ones who are at the “kids table” make our plates up and head downstairs. I glance over my shoulder one last time and secretly wonder when I will get to sit at the grownups table too. Those thoughts are quickly brushed aside once we are all downstairs and having a great time. The first order of business… to turn on the record player and throw on a polka or country record. You know, to set the mood. At which point we all kill ourselves laughing at how hideous the music sounds. To this day I still cannot hear “There’s a tear in my beer” without cracking up. There was another one too… about nails in a coffin or something… you know, really uplifting family songs…
Now the competition begins. The “who can make milk shoot out of who’s nose first” contest. I was never organized enough to keep track of who won each year, but I’m pretty sure Michael lost the most. Some years we would also have a food fight. It was those years that I was never more grateful for those creaky steps, which would warn us someone was coming and give all of us a chance to stop whatever it was we were doing. Through all of this, and the laughing and joking around, we manage to get through our food without anyone choking. Which in itself was a miracle.
Once we brought all our dishes upstairs, my grandpa and uncles would head to the living room to watch the football game, and my grandma, mom and aunts would all go to the kitchen to start washing dishes and loading the dishwasher. Some years I would follow grandpa into the living room to watch football too (usually the years when the creaky stairs would fail us and we would get caught doing something wrong downstairs… at which point I would want to make sure that grandpa wasn’t mad at me so I would stay close), and other years my cousins and I would head outside for stick ball.
We had a softball we had made out of masking tape, and an old piece of wood from a project grandpa had worked on which we taped the end of one side for hand grips. What I always found funny was that I was the only one who lived out of town… it would have been very easy for Michael or Reas to bring some gear with them from their place… but for some reason it just wouldn’t have been the same. As we walk outside, I stop briefly and look across the street, grateful I no longer see the German Shepherd over there which attacked me when I was 7 (again, that’s another story… and the reason why I still don’t like German Shepherds!). We split up into teams of three and start playing. Some years it was just us, other years the kids from Mrs. Dills’ place would come over. We would stay outside until we were called in for dessert. Grandma’s rule: there is always room for dessert.
Even as a kid I was never big on sweets, but there was one thing she would always make for me and it was the first thing I would look for when I got upstairs: chocolate cake with no frosting. The second exception to the “not a fan of sweets” thing was her chocolate chip cookies. The myriad of sweets would all be put out on the dining room table, and by some miracle all of us would all eat again. And then the process would start all over: cleaning dishes, watching football, going back outside. Eventually families would leave one by one, everyone taking with them containers wrapped in aluminum foil as I’d hear my grandma say “no, no you take that. Please, we couldn’t possibly eat all that. Here now, you take this too.”
And the house would go quiet again. And grandma would still be in the kitchen doing last minute things, and grandpa would be in the living room, in his recliner, taking a nap. I would look at both of them, and feel happy. And safe. And loved.
Cancer took my grandpa when I was 14, and my grandma when I was 25. What it didn’t, and never can, take away are my memories. When I think of them, I don’t think of when they got sick and I don’t focus on the loss. I recall every good memory I have that I cherish, such as my memories of Thanksgiving. And I know if I keep doing that, if I don’t allow myself to become bitter or resentful at this disease that has taken so many, in the end it doesn’t win.
For those of you who have experienced loss, this is my wish for all of you this Thanksgiving… that you take with you every positive and happy thought you have and hold it close, and let the sadness and negativity float away. For those of you in the middle of your battle I hope you hold onto all the good people in your life, take strength from their love and support and stay positive with your head held high. And for those of you who are just finding out you have a battle ahead of you… know that it will get better and there are thousands of people pulling for you that you don’t even know. Darkness can only exist in the absence of light.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.