Let me paint you a picture of Thanksgiving Day with my family:
I enter the house to a cacophony of chirps, barks, and shouted conversation. Groups of relatives of varying degrees of genetic connectedness mill around plates of cheese and oversized crackers, asking varying versions of the question, what have you been doing [in three sentences or less] since the last family holiday? I sometimes have trouble keeping track of who everyone is. Each gathering includes a new list of recently acquired children and girl/boyfriends, or that second cousin only recently emerged from some unknown hiding place. No fan of small talk, I turn to the dog and give him a friendly belly-rub. It's not easy navigating a world in which one family member (my grandfather) may mistake you as a threatening object due for a kicking, and another family member (my grandmother) who cannot control the dangerous wheels of her powerchair and has a tendency barrel around the kitchen, doggy paws be damned. The poor animal is in serious need of a massage.
This year, a toddler is introduced to the event. She blunders around the ankles of unwary cocktail conversants, staggering dangerously close to sharp corners and the boiling contents of our imminent feast. Eventually, her dad scoops her up to investigate great-grandma's collection of birds, snakes, and insects of varying degrees of disturbing form. Only a baby and an eccentric octogenarian could enjoy those multi-legged creatures, not to mention the cornsnake in the struggles of molting.
My grandfather, dressed smartly in pressed slacks, button down shirt partially obscured by a fleece vest, and a browning baseball cap, spends the holiday imprisoned in his kitchen chair. At times he looks at the commotion around him with the wide, confused eyes of a child, but often he simply hangs his head and dozes. Attempting to make conversation, I ask him about one of the only topics for which he still finds interest: food. In August, when I last visited, he only wanted to eat chocolate cake. Today he likes cherry pie. Grampy's head has a tendency to droop as he speaks, as he shields himself from light too bright for his sensitive eyes. Occasionally he looks up, and the eyes widen in surprise as if he is suddenly reminded I am there. You're a pretty girl, he says. Such a pretty girl. Food and pretty girls still pique his interest long after most other cognitive functions have dissolved within wasted synapses. Feeling guilty as well as slightly nauseated, I turn away from him and his prison of a body, and escape to younger family in another room.
My uncle, master chef, navigates around partygoers, dog, and wheelchair as he attempts to present heaps of food upon rapidly shrinking table space. The green beans I meticulously chopped yesterday need to be cooked in shifts, as they overflow even the largest of pots. Turkey, ham, two kinds of potatoes (sweet and mashed) add calorize the room to near diabetic heaviness.
It takes about twenty minutes for everyone to receive his or her meal. First the immobile elders are served and scooched close to their forks, glasses, and napkins. I'm starving and unembarrased to take my place as next in line, momentarily forgetting my vegetarianism in the face of steaming honey-baked ham. (I've never been a fan of turkey, so that flesh poses no temptation.) Conversation at each of the two long tables is sparse, as each guest chooses to focus on eating instead of forced chit-chat. We are family, but we don't really know each other that well.
At some point during the meal, I become aware of several absences. It appears that my uncle has called an emergency meeting with his sisters, including my mother. Any dregs of holiday spirit immediately curdle and I resign myself to a weekend of hurt feelings and talk of death and poverty. In addition to assuming the role of master chef, my uncle has for the past two years volunteered his sanity for the role of primary caretaker in this raucous household. It is not working out, with his obsessive-compulsive personality clashing with my grandmother's fiercely stubborn one. According to my uncle, he works himself to the mental and physical breaking point with no recognition or gratitude. He fills in for the night staff when they cancel last-minute, and frets over his parents' draining resources as they are consumed by ineffectual day staff. According to my grandmother, my uncle bullies her and disrespects the autonomy she is due. It's her money to spend as she sees fit, even if the day staff has become more like friends than their assigned roles of cooks/cleaners/bathroom tenders. The dinner ends in tears for some, especially my uncle and grandmother, but also my mother in the car. Those farther removed from this family conflict eventually filter out in either uncomfortable silence or loud, false holiday cheer. My grandfather sleeps off his turkey in the corner.