Thanksgiving Tables

Thanksgiving is my favorite.

Not every year has been Martha Stewart perfect, of course. I can barely remember that first Thanksgiving after Sam’s death, which is probably for the best.

I grew up in a close-knit family with my parents and one sister. We lived in Southern California with our nearest set of grandparents on the east coast; the farther set was in Europe. More years than not, our Thanksgiving table featured place settings for four, and even though I loved our intimate, yet abundant, gathering, I also set my heart on having a big family.

The configuration of our Thanksgiving table has varied widely over the years, because that’s how it goes with families. Somebody comes home for Thanksgiving, but somebody else doesn’t because there are exams and expenses and LAX. Some years, distant family members are in town, and most years include “orphans” whose biological family lives too far away to break bread with. Some years are elegant, displaying antique linens and heirloom silver, and some are casual, featuring jeans, paper plates, plastic forks. Some years we have had double days, feasting early at one house and later at another. I have served as host, guest and orphan, and there are aspects I love about each, but at the end of the day the togetherness is what I adore. And the gratitude. Even on our darkest days, we have something to be grateful for. Usually several somethings.

Eight years ago, Sam’s family and mine limped to an aunt’s house to be together in both our sadness and our celebration of Thanksgiving. With heavy hearts, Tim and the boys brought a plate from Thanksgiving dinner to Debbie in her hospital room.

This year, our family will gather, as we have done now for several years, at one grandparents’ house. And by “our family” I mean mine, Tim’s, Sam’s and Debbie’s. Everybody. Unbelievable. I never imagined that there would be so much joy in this next chapter of our lives. But here we are.

We will have all eight of the boys’ grandparents together at one proverbial table. Not only do they bring their signature dishes and quirky behaviors, but more significantly they bring all their best qualities – their faithfulness and humor, patience, perspective and insight. They bring their tenacity and strength. And their gentleness and understanding. They bring their love and acceptance in that arms-open-wide grandparental way. A veritable feast.

I have my big family: my doting husband Tim and our four sons, my parents plus three sets of in-laws, an abundance of aunts and uncles, plenty of sisters-and-brothers-in-law and a plethora of cousins, nieces, nephews and goddaughters. I love it even more than I thought. It’s chaotic and messy and inclusive. It’s crazy loud. There are way more loved ones in attendance than we have silverware or crystal. Needless to say, the logistics require more than simply adding a leaf to extend the table. It’s exhausting. I’m so grateful.

A family football game, friends and food. Full hearts. Full plates. Full house. Gratitude. Thanksgiving is my favorite.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a Happy Thanksgiving.

Dog, Agnostic, and Other Measures of Grace

The car ride to school is sometimes the most quality time I get with my busy teenager on a given day and not nearly enough time to connect and check in. But every now and again the mile drive is entirely long enough to create some serious mother-son angst. I was attempting to encourage my son to rely on me as he navigates the challenges of high school. What I meant was that I will do whatever I can for him. What I actually said was that I would throw myself in front of a bus if I thought it would help.

Yup. To the child whose father threw himself off a building.

In my defense, I will just say, Oh nevermind. There’s no excusing this one. It’s true that the suicide-related idioms run rampant in our culture. But his own mother should have behaved better.

Note to my mom friends: You might still be in the race for runner-up in the Mother of the Year contest, but I’ve just clinched the title.

I confess my maternal transgression to an agnostic, my dear and amazing friend Helen. She continues to love me and support me no matter what stupid shit comes out of my mouth, which – obviously – is no small measure of forgiveness. She is more accepting and open-hearted than many a church-goer, and I thank God for her daily.

Helen reminds me that holidays are on the horizon, including her own extended family’s particular brand of dysfunction and various Christmas-related anxieties, and that she might yet have a chance at the title. She’s right. This competition is going to be a sprint to the finish line.

With a little grace and some real fortitude, there’s still time to redeem myself. I lace up my running shoes, and I leash up the dog. The so-called hunting dog has placed himself strategically in front of the heating vents this morning. His sister is hunting quail in the Dakotas. Meanwhile he sits shivering in Southern California. We all have our strengths. Or not.

And it is precisely this weakness that opens a space for me to breathe. The dog is almost everything his breed is reputed to be, except for his aversion to cold, wet feet, and we adore him. So it is with all of us, our vulnerabilities and glitches do not preclude us from being loved.

I’m going to run. I’m going to breathe. I’m going to forgive myself. I’m going to apologize to my son and try again to say what I mean: That I will do whatever I can to support him, and that I will love him no matter what.

On our run, the defective hunting dog and I turn up a little street that we don’t usually traverse. As we come around a curve along the route, we slow to a stop, for in the middle of the road there are four deer, a mother with her three young ones. They appear to be adolescents, still immature, even though they are almost the size of the mother, who stands tall and alert, almost regal, while the three skitter to the shrubs along the sides. She stays still, not taking her eyes off me and my coyote-size dog, as though assessing the risk, even though a car approaches and slows from the opposite direction. She does not budge until she is confident that her young ones have found cover, and only then does she shift – intentionally, gracefully, powerfully – out of harm’s way herself.

That’s the image I meant to convey to my son.

As the dog and I continue, we pass an open field where the deer now race, hurtle and spring, exuberant and unaware of threat or danger, and again I stop to look. They are breathtaking in their youth, energy and innocence. The young bucks (which almost rhymes with something I called my own kids the other day) are fast and strong and will soon overtake their mother. Yet she guides and protects them in whatever ways she can. I imagine she stops – as I do – admiring her young with pride and delight.

I pause, grateful for the reminder that I am not alone on the path that is motherhood, full as it is with both dignity and remorse, success and disappointment, hurting feelings where I intended to console, but coming back to each other still. I know he needs me less as he takes his faltering steps toward independence, despite my own parenting mis-calcs and his occasionally unfortunate, juvenile behavior. We re-create our relationship as the child achieves a milestone, and I step back to watch. I smile, continue on my way, and look forward to telling my son about the deer.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And small graces.

Recovery

Our days have been full to burst, as my grandfather used to say, with family, work, church, school, the usual suspects – and all good (mostly good, anyway) – but there’s just so many of them. The color-coded calendar is working overtime, as is our Mr. Coffee, by which I mean the actual pot and not my darling husband, although he, too, is putting in some long hours, starting early by bringing coffee to his sleepy wife. I find myself squeezing in projects between appointments, in the name of productivity, trading writing time for the sake of volunteer demands and devoting precious little time to my self.

Years ago, shortly after Sam’s death, I claimed Tuesday as my day just for me, which as a practical matter was not the whole of the day, but from about 9:00am – 2:00pm, the few, valuable hours that both kids were in school simultaneously. I protected this time from external demands, appointments and certain professionals with letters following their names. I strictly avoided forms, the DMV and anyone related to health insurance. I rarely scheduled coffee, or lunch, or even a walk with a friend on Tuesdays, because I needed the time free from restraints. It was the one day I put myself at the top of my own priority list, subject only to critical needs of the children.

Over time I’ve begun to share my day more liberally. I’m healthy and happy, as are my husband and all our children, and I’ve let my guard down. It starts with the plumber who can only fit my sewage leak issue into his Tuesday schedule, and by the end of the day I’m still standing and mostly sane, so I loosen my protective grip on the day. Maybe I don’t need to devote the time to my own health as I once did. I begin to use the time for some extra work or one more project, a meeting or a conference call. I still get to yoga most Tuesdays, but during the final meditation, I find the wheels beginning to spin and I’m already planning breakfast and a wardrobe change.

I think I need to reclaim my Tuesday.

My inner perfectionist control freak bristles at this idea. She thinks I need to do more, accomplish something tangible, and make some measurable progress, but I suspect what I really need right now is to do less. Not just because it’s an incredibly beautiful, cool (finally!) day out there, but I confess that particular detail may have factored into my epiphany. Not just because some friends lost their child to suicide last week, although that might have played a role. More because I noticed I was holding my breath this morning, and that’s not a good sign. And there’s this lingering low-grade headache, which could be attributed to allergies or the change in the weather, but I suspect it’s something different.

I’m going to stop and breathe and be for a while.

I’m going to send a text message to a friend just to say I love you and feel incredibly grateful to have such a friend. I’m going to read something life-affirming and uplifting – a story, a poem, or just a verse – something that doesn’t contain the words “compliance,” “code” or “deadline.” I’m going to be patient with myself.

I need a moment to pray, to trust in a God who does not disinherit Her children. I need to listen to Natalie Merchant’s Life Is Sweet on repeat, to cry and smile and inhale. And then I will take the dog for a long walk, which is the most healing practice I know.

I am going to sit still and listen to my heart beat for as long as it takes to feel my whole body pulse in rhythm with my soul. I will stay put until I reach the place where I feel in my lungs the simple truth that Life is breathing me.

I’m going to put on my favorite jeans, my favorite boots and a favorite sweater (fall weather – my favorite!), and that will pretty much be my achievement for the day.

My therapist calls this self-care. Some call it procrastination, a waste of time, inefficiency. I’m going to call it my Charlotte-Shabbat and preserve this day to come home to myself. Somehow I sense that that’s also what today needs from me.

Tomorrow, I will tackle errands, to-do lists and projects. I might even work up the wherewithal to talk to a lawyer I’ve been meaning to call, but not today. It’s Tuesday, and I need some sacred time.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your daily path. And time for your sacred self.