Despite my family’s extreme closeness, over the past ten years Thanksgiving has tended to become a less celebrated holiday as my grandfather, brother-in-law and one of my nephews have tended to remain at their hunting camp rather than coming in to spend the day with the rest of us. Even so, this year’s holiday felt strange.
Typically, my mother’s side of the family would get together on Thanksgiving proper, through my childhood and early adult years at my grandmother’s house but later, once my grandmother developed Alzheimer’s–in fact, we now recognize some early signs of the disease from a Thanksgiving dinner some years back in which she forgot to turn on the oven to heat some food and then lost some dishes which never were found–at my sister’s.
Before my father’s kidney disease he would go hunting with most of the other men in the family, but he would always come in from the woods for Thanksgiving, at least. So my father had always been there at the table with us, even when my grandfather, brother-in-law and nephew were not. Even so, his absence–at least to me–felt less permanent and more just like he was away in the woods and would be back by the weekend. My mother and I remarked on Sunday, as we visited his gravesite, that it most often feels just like a dream; there still is something unreal about his death and our continued lives without him.
In the past, our Thanksgiving tradition would continue on Friday, as we would get together with Dad’s side of the family. Dad’s nephew and his wife would host both sides of their family and some family friends–as many as 20-25 people. This year, however, his niece had family visiting from the other side of the state for the entire previous week, and obviously wasn’t able to pull together a family dinner of that magnitude in addition. So Mom and I spent most of Friday over at my sister’s again, decorating her house for Christmas.
Thursday evening, after our Thanksgiving dinner, the conversation turned again to family obligations–the same conversation as those I referenced in an earlier post, and in which my lack of filial duty and care–because I don’t call every day, nor visit every weekend–again was noted. I pointed out that I do, at least, provide details of my comings and goings to a degree that I suspect not many 40-somethings do; if I’m going to be out of town, even for an evening, my family expect me to let them know where I’ll be and how to reach me. I’ve explained that I always have my cell phone with me and turned on when I’m traveling, and therefore am often more readily reachable at those times than when I’m around DC, but it’s an important ritual for them and I’ve continued to honor it.
My sister continued to insist, however, and with support from my aunt–and a silence from my mother that seemed to exude pain and implicit support for my sister and aunt (boy, do I have deep-seated issues with this, or what?)–that while I might not feel the need to check in with them on a daily basis, “as I should,” and that I don’t visit often enough (and just what constitutes “often enough,” anyway?), I nonetheless continue to have a responsibility to spend holidays with them, period. She said that in the future I certainly would be welcome to invite not only Jeff but his parents as well, but that my attendance is non-negotiable.
The issue about the frequency of my visits home is an interesting one. Granted, I’d like to see my family more often, and it’s not like a four-hour drive is a terrible burden. Historically, I would tend to get home about once every two to three months, plus most Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. A few years ago when my work schedule increased dramatically, however, I only made it home three to four times a year, including the holidays. Over the past few years, though, I was spending a great deal of time with my parents. I spent a number of weeks with my mother while my father was in the hospital; just before his death this year I again spent a number of days with my mother. Since his death, I was there a full week in September and every weekend that month, three weekends in October, and two weekends in November.
So when my sister pointed out that I also should be joining the family on its vacation every year, and that I should have gone this year–which turned out to have been my father’s last–I lost my cool and curtly pointed out that I hadn’t actually had any leave because I’d used it all visiting Dad in the hospital and being tested as his organ donor. In fact, I haven’t had a week-long vacation of my own in three years, because most of my leave since then had gone to spending time with Dad–time I didn’t begrudge, but that nonetheless hadn’t left me with an opportunity to take a vacation, with or without them. Even now the days I’m taking to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with them depletes my leave as quickly as I earn it.
And even in just the six years that I’ve owned my own condo my parents had been to Arlington to visit me maybe four times (though given Dad’s health, it’s understandable that they couldn’t visit more often); my sister has come up once (in fact, only the one time in the entire 16 years I’ve lived here in the DC area), and my aunt also once. It’s the same four-hour drive, yet the responsibility to make it seems solely mine. When I’ve tried to broach this, and to suggest that there’s an element of inequity, my point is brushed aside as unreasonable: after all, if I make the trip, I can see all of them, but they can’t all make the trip to see me, and besides, they have responsibilities at church, to keep my grandmother, etc. To them, apparently, my life and responsibilities end at 5:00 on Friday (actually, with the exception of my mother, who seems to understand more than the rest that I have a career and life of my own, I’m not even sure that my family fundamentally accept that I have work and other real world responsibilities; every time I’m home they suggest that I should easily be able to stay an extra few days and not go back to work, for example).
Whew! That’s enough whining and self-pity for now. It’s amazing how my family, like nothing else in my life, and even given subjectively my amazingly caring, loving and supportive childhood and my relative success as an adult, can reduce me to feeling so inadequate, uncaring and selfish, and seemingly so frequently disappointing to them.