Over the River and Then Again!

Though my dad preferred a scalpel to an electric knife, on Thanksgiving the electric knife would do just fine. And fine was what everything had to be. Not just fine — but refined. My father insisted on orange zest in the cranberry sauce, oysters in the stuffing, and lemon peel in his espresso. My mother somehow managed to oblige and laid the table with all the fancy stuff that came out only on family holidays — the Lenox china and the Waterford crystal.

And on that fourth Thursday of November, each of us little Peacocks did our best to be pitch perfect — family portrait perfect. My brothers, all in suits and ties. My sisters and I in smocked dresses and patent leather shoes. Hair curled and tied back with a bow. All of us beaming in black and white and frozen in a silver frame. Perfectly pretending that we were perfectly fine.

Well, that really was not quite so.

There was always yelling before and after and even during the meal. The turkey was overdone. The stuffing was dry. The relish was runny. The sweet potatoes bland. The pumpkin pies burnt. The kids misbehaving. The relatives rude. Everything half baked and nothing quite up to snuff.

A story book “Over the river, and through the woods” kind of Thanksgiving was just a dream I had. Sigh. We really did try.

I swore that when I grew up, Thanksgiving would be calm, cool, and collected. I got married quite young into such a calm, cool, and collected family – par excellence — the Clark family. Their lives seemed so blessedly routine – so blissfully quiet. I literally married the boy next door – yes, the boy next door. No more chaos. No more dysfunction. No more crazy Thanksgivings.  At least so I naively hoped.

Thanksgiving at the Clarks was a much smaller affair – my ex-husband having been an only child. Coming from the chaos of a household of nine, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It definitely was quiet — but in that sort of “don’t speak unless you are spoken to” kind of way. Whenever I got up to move for any reason, they would follow me — which felt a little claustrophobic to this middle child. My father-in–law also tended to have one too many at dinner — just like my mom. The arguments at my house were at least out loud so you knew what was going on. In the Clark house they were all on mute.

And still year after year, over the river, and through the woods to their house we would go. We would go with all three of our kids in tow. Until one blessed year — when Jacob threw up.

Rolling down George Washington Parkway, our Subaru Station Wagon was packed to the gills. All three kids were bundled up and buckled up in the back seat: Zach with his comic book; Colleen with her Barbie; Jacob with his pacifier. All was right with the world until Jacob erupted all over his brother and sister. Projectile vomited everywhere.

Thanks be to God.

It was just about the best Thanksgiving we ever had.

We turned around and went back home. After hosing down the car and the kids, we made dinner from whatever food we found in the refrigerator and some random canned goods from our cabinets. We ate dinner in our pajamas while we watched “Ernest Saves Christmas” (a classic!) on TV.

The kids dozed off in their sleeping bags on the living room floor. And William and I had a little glass of wine before turning into bed.

Over the river, and through the woods, to sanity’s house we went.

Now one of my favorite movies is “Home for the Holidays” – with Holly Hunter, Robert Downey, Jr. and some other really good actors whose names I don’t remember. The characters — all grown — return to their childhood home for Thanksgiving and some dysfunctional living: The neurotic sister. The gay brother. The rebellious teenager. The single mom. The uptight in-laws. The alcoholic dad. The codependent mom. They all get together for a hellacious holiday.

It’s not exactly “A Wonderful Life” but it is wonderful and quite a few Thanksgivings ago, I recommended it to a parishioner. Appalled after seeing it, she asked me how I could possibly like this movie. The family was so terrible, she said. Just terrible people, she said. These people are my people, I said.

And these may be your people too: a bipolar brother; a schizophrenic sister; an obsessive compulsive cousin; grandiose grandchildren; traumatized spouses; paranoid partners; manic relations.

And some of your people may be hard to break bread with. It’s a blessing if you do. It’s okay if you can’t. And it may be a blessing if you don’t. Being crazy (a word I use affectionately about myself) – I understand there is only so much crazy any one of us can handle — especially at Thanksgiving or Christmas, or Easter, etc. etc.

So, for sanity’s sake, it’s time to celebrate the ties that bind and not just those possibly crazy making rituals of yesteryear.

So “thank we all, our God” for the people at and not at our Thanksgiving tables this November 24th. Thank God, that God loves those present and those absent — even when we cannot bring ourselves to do the same. And lest we not forget that we ourselves may be the crazy makers! And God loves us too!

Over the river, and through the woods, to sanity’s house we go.


Mental Health Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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