A Thanksgiving Story
How a Narcissistic parent gives permission for the infliction of pain.
Thanksgiving as it never was
I loved my mother. I have to say that from the beginning because before I am finished it is going to seem as if I don’t. As a matter of fact, one of the last things she said to me, in a written note after I’d struggled not to see her for several months, more on that later, was that she knew I ‘hated her’. I never hated her. I was frustrated with her, angry with her, dismayed by her and incredibly hurt by her but I didn’t hate her. She was un-hateable. It would be like hating a baby, and only sick individuals hate cute little, helpless babies. That was her superpower; to appear pleasantly helpless when she was busy manipulating people and matters to suit her standing in the world. This is what people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder do.
My mother was sick and dying when she wrote the note asking me to forget the terrible assault that happened that Thanksgiving, perpetrated by my brothers and newest step-father; an assault in which she and one of my sisters-in-law had colluded. I wasn’t in a forgiving mood, especially since no one asked for my forgiveness. Asking my forgiveness would have been admitting that they treated me badly, did something wrong and found it in themselves to accept responsibility. None of these people were able to do that. They weren’t even able to speak to me about the event, bar one brother who spoke up to indicate that he felt that it was I who made too much of a fuss and should therefore make myself available for additional abuse. But I’d had enough. Admittedly the timing was not wonderful given that she was leaving us but something rebels when your bucket has been filled up over and over again with other people’s vomit.
I haven’t been able to celebrate Thanksgiving with anything other than a cursory nod in its direction since that Thanksgiving. Still seems like yesterday. The clench in my gut is still just as real and still prevents the consumption of turkey and pumpkin pie in the company of celebrants from being anything other than torture. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a lovely family day. It often isn’t. I certainly am not the only one that finds anticipation of the holiday to be ambiguous or torturous at best. But this isn’t their story. This is my story.
That Thanksgiving my mother, married to Jack then for two years or so, was finally succumbing to the breast cancer that first attacked her when she was just 38. She was only 64 then, oddly happy that she’d never be old, which demarcation she put at over 65. But she was made old and infirm anyway by a permanently damaged lymph system that left her arm ballooned to immense proportions. She also had metastases to her brain and liver and then finally her bones, leading eventually to a painful and undignified death. Nine months after this Thanksgiving she would be gone, leaving us all devastated in our different ways.
It was decided that Mother and Jack would take their Fifth Wheeler down to my brother’s house and park it in the drive. The sister-in-law she favoured would be caring for her there. They had lots of things in common, this sister-in-law and my mother. They were both exceedingly thin, interested in ‘love intrigues’, frivolous, conspiring and unable to keep secrets, superficial and careful of their dignity. They were also ‘youthful’ in their outlook and in ‘service’ to their men. They acted as if they needed a man to tell them what to do and then giggled behind their hands that this helpless act was in reality a manipulation.
They treated me with thinly disguised (or not at all disguised in my sister-in-law’s case) contempt. My mother would never have considered coming to her only daughter’s home and being cared for there. She ‘didn’t trust me’ because I had opinions contrary to hers. They thought I was ‘too smart’, I was too fat, I was married and divorced too many times. I had three children by three different fathers. I was unlovable and could not ever deserve approval.
My sister-in-law, I’ll call her ‘Carrie’, hadn’t been married to her first child’s father so she was only married once, to my hapless brother. She’d almost had three children by three different fathers but she prevailed upon my mother to pay for an abortion to cover up an affair she labelled rape to try and keep her secrets. She confessed later to my mother (who couldn’t resist telling me) who thought it was all so star-crossed romantic, simply sliding by the adultery, the abortion and the utter betrayal of my brother, her son. You see, she understood the behavior.
My mother had been ‘given’ four marriages by my grandmother, convenient since she was on number four at the time. I was newly separted that Thanksgiving after 13 years of dubious togetherness with my husband number four. Number one was my teenage first love who was given to constant philandering, number two was to a man I married to help him get a house for himself and his children, number three was the man I then ran off with, not being able to stand number two, number four was the utterly stodgy, boring man I married as an antidote to addict, violent number three. So they were right, I was much married and divorced by then.
My other sister-in-law, ‘Suzy’, was by contrast, sweet, quiet, easily alarmed but filled with soft strength. I liked her but I didn’t really feel I had anything much in common with either of the sisters-in-law. To be honest I also harboured a smidgen of jealousy, not directly of these women, but of the attention and approval they received from my mother. She told me with open self-congratulations of how she worked hard to be a ‘good Mother-in-law because it was important to be able to keep her sons close’. When each grandchild was born to Carrie or Suzy, she gifted the mothers with a lovely, lacy, ‘sexy’ nightie so they would feel good about themselves. “Everybody always pays so much attention to the babies and gives them all kinds of things,” she’d say. “Mothers are always forgotten in the ‘ooh-ing and ah-ing’.”
Never, though I had three daughters, did my mother ever gift me with a ‘sexy’ nightie. I asked her about that once and she briefly looked at me with some surprise. “Well, you didn’t want a sexy nightie anyway,” she declared and the discussion was done, over.
I didn’t much like Thanksgiving even before this one. I girded myself for the holiday. It was a time calculated to declare me unacceptable, to make me the brunt of jokes, to assault my dignity and beliefs. I had the joy of being the only philosophically minded, somewhat irreligious Democrat in a family of Evangelical Republicans. At that time we weren’t as polarized as things are today but it was still a position calculated for discomfort even if people ‘didn’t go there’. I was tolerant and respectful, it didn’t benefit me to be otherwise. Any attempt to deflect, defend or confront led to the inevitable — ‘It’s a joke! Can’t you take a joke?’- hands up defence that roused my mother to immediately shield her ‘preyed upon’ son and declare “You are always so difficult!”.
If I complained about the injustice of that stance she’d figuratively pat my hand, (she didn’t touch me if she could help it) and declare “Boys will be boys. If they pick on you it means they like you. You just have to learn to let it roll off your back. ‘Sticks and stones’, you know!”
But one brother especially, the husband of Carrie, always seemed to feel that my very presence was an affront and an invitation to escalating verbal attacks. I did my best to ignore him most times. I’d only see him once or at most twice a year. But his constant hostility stuck in my chest and grew a bruised lump there. Still, I gritted my teeth and made preparations to go because that Thanksgiving was likely the last one my mother would see.
I didn’t have a car. My ex had taken it. I was left with my feet and two plucky girls who rode the bus across town eleven miles every day to school and then eleven miles back. I was also out of work, expecting to start a job in the New Year but wholly broke and completely unsupported. I was depressed, emotions a-roil and hoping against hope that family togetherness would somehow, miraculously bolster me in this difficult time. So, against my better judgement I accepted an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner and a ride to and from my brother’s house, nearly twenty-one miles away. I was dependent on others for transportation. I still find that condition of dependency a particularly vulnerable and scary place to be. Even just hearing about others in the same predicament shoots my anxiety to the moon.
My brother, Carrie’s husband, kindly informed me that he would pick us up for dinner by about 2:00. His conversation in the van as he came to collect us was terse and I gave up talking long before we reached his house. There were no jokes or jibes for which I was inordinately grateful. I had a brief thought that he was being ‘sensitive’. I was born under an optimistic star.
The house was a bit chaotic when I got there. Carrie was in the kitchen boiling corn out of a can and I couldn’t see anything else in prep for dinner. There was no table setting and I asked if there was anything I could do but Carrie didn’t meet my eyes. She dismissed my offers to help and handed me a paper plate. There was turkey meat that seemed to appear out of nowhere and mashed potatoes from a box and the corn. I remember being struck by what a poor ‘feast’ it was.
I called my girls over and they each also took a paper plate. Carrie’s boys were handed their filled plates by their mother and they immediately returned to a big room where the pool table was and proceeded to eat in there. I sat down at the table with my paper plate and the girls. I heard my brother kind of mutter that ‘we’ll leave as soon as brother number two arrives’. I didn’t know what he meant. It all seemed very confusing and nothing like what Thanksgiving Dinner, even in our dysfunctional house, ever looked like.
Brother number two and Suzy arrived with their children and more paper plates were passed around. “Hurry up!” said Brother number one to Brother number two. “As soon as you finish we’ll leave.”
I looked up and saw something in the faces of my brothers and Carrie. I glanced over at my mother who wasn’t looking at me and I knew.
By the time I was five years old I’d been walking up to Alberta Street and Manny Boitano’s Shoe Shop with my Granddad for several years. I loved his hard, strong hand gently holding my little soft one. I told him stories as we walked along and he listened seriously.
I loved the smell of Manny Boitano’s shop with its scent of shoe leather overlain with the sweet-sharp smell of the dye. Mr Boitano applied the oxblood color with a rounded ball of fluffed cotton woven and tied to a twisted stick of metal wire that was attached to the lid. The dye applicator lived in the little brown bottle with the ruby liquid that swirled and tried to coat the insides. I loved watching the dye dip out and glide on wet and then sink into the leather, bonding with it so that, forever, the shoe would no longer be tan but a rich red brown. I loved the slap and dash of the shoe polish rag permeated with honey smelling bee’s wax. I loved Manny Boitano’s gentle Italian accent and the sweet quiet way he spoke to me. I loved leaning against my Grandpa while he and Manny Boitano spoke softly to one another. But most of all I loved Manny Boitano’s little pot-bellied stove that hissed and crackled and gave out a merry warmth from the wood glowing in its tummy. I loved the guard around the fat middle placed there to protect the unwary from accidentally burning themselves and I loved that it was worked in a ring of iron hearts.
In the summer when the stove wasn’t putting out heat I’d look closely at the letters and numbers that were stamped into it. That jolly little stove would sit in its peaceful darkened corner where the chinks in the wall let in floating moats of light and I would also trace those heart shapes, like love made solid, with my fingers. “Look,” Granddad leaned down to me and said “the stove was made in San Francisco. See the letters? And see, there are the numbers 1876. It will be a hundred years old when you are a grown up girl.”
1876 seemed a long time ago but 1976 seemed even further away then. It seems like yesterday now. I leaned against the stove and put my arms around it.
“I brought that stove with me from San Francisco when I came here to make shoes with my wife,” said Manny Boitano. “She would have loved you,” he whispered to me. I smiled at him. I saw the sadness in his crinkled eyes but also warmth at the memory of his beloved wife. I also saw Grandpa nodding and making a little closed mouth smile. They were both sad for a moment. “I give you that stove,” decided Manny Boitano.
“No”, murmured Grandpa, he held up his hand and smiling, shook his head.
“Yes!” argued Manny Boitano. “She loves that stove. So did my Marie. It’s kept us warm all these many years. It is filled with love. Marie would want it.”
They sat there nodding and looking at me. I looked at this wonderful stove. Manny Boitano leaned down to me. “I give it to your Momma. She will keep it safe for you and when you go to your own house you will have it to keep you warm.”
So, when Mr Boitano packed up the last of his things and moved back to San Francisco to live out the last of his life with his oldest son, he gave the stove into my mother’s keeping. ‘Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it’, she said. ‘But I’ll think of something.’
The stove became a decorative element in her house; an art object stripped of its meaning and history.
Mother had a checkered love life. Jack was a returned love out of the mists of time, idealized and fantasized about. He was roughhewn and uneducated. My mother convinced herself this was evidence of a romantic Heathcliff-like soul. Sadly she was more right, in terms of the original intent of the Wuthering Heights author, than she knew. But in the early days of his return she fell back in head-over-heels love and married him.
Jack didn’t like that my mother still lived in the condo she and my deceased step-father had purchased and lived in for many years. He refused to move in with her and demanded that she sell the house and stay in a 35 foot Fifth- Wheel trailer with him. When my Mother decided to acquiesce to Jack’s demands she had to sell or give away nearly everything she owned.
Carrie was down at Mother’s collecting stuff and carting it away. I went down with her on one of her trips and nearly choked on the very apparent acquisitiveness of the fast disappearing family heirlooms. Carrie’s argument was that despite the fact that she had sons she should still be allowed to keep all of my mother’s stuff — for her boys and the strangers they would eventually marry. I had daughters. The idea that daughters should be the keeper of family things was far more natural to me but to keep the peace I gave up most of my claims. Mother felt obliged to give Carrie whatever she wanted. But then, Carrie made it clear she wanted my stove.
The little pot belly stove had stayed with Mother since Manny Boitano gave it into her keeping for me. I was happy for it to live with Mother and the years passed but eventually I made certain that it had a paper taped to the underside of the lid that said it belonged to me. As I began to ‘wake’ through the years, it occurred to me that trusting my mother to ever ‘do the right thing’ was a bit foolish. Carrie wanted the stove badly. She cried and had a temper tantrum more fitting for a two year old than a grown woman when I said no. ‘Can’t you just share the stove?’ my mother begged me.
So to keep the peace I said to Carrie. “Well, maybe when you and my brother get a house I’ll let you have it then.”
I had no intention of giving it to her. I just wanted her to stop upsetting everybody. That was my big mistake, wanting to appease, not wanting a confrontation, prevaricating and postponing the inevitable.
Now, here we were, traveling in the beat up van, my two brothers and Jack sitting together in the front seat talking about their guns. One brother was a policeman, the other an army officer and Jack was a sometime security guard. “I’d be happy to live in a police state”, guffawed one of them, “As long as I could be a state policeman!”
I felt sick. Silenced, made invisible and sick.
When we got to my house I roused somewhat from the dissociative state I’d fallen into to protect myself. I sprinted ahead to the front door and through it to my stove. I stood in front of it protectively and stammered to the brother that bore down on me, “I-I don’t want you to take the stove”.
He didn’t hesitate. He grasped my shoulders, picked me up and shoved me aside. “Think of it this way”, he growled. “You’ll be making Carrie happy.”
I stood there traumatized and virtually catatonic while they dismantled the stove.
We drove back in utter silence, the three men in the front and the one woman in the back. No one spoke and no one even glanced around at me.
When we got back to the house I couldn’t go in. I found a curb and accidentally draped my skirt into a puddle while I sat there and cried until I couldn’t cry any more. I was mourning the death of trust, the death of the dream of familial love that I had held onto. It was a final realization of how little I was valued. It was the glaring clarity that no one in the house oposite me knew me, understood me, loved me or cared the slightest bit whether I was happy or not. This was the ‘family’ I was born into.
Thinking back it was pretty clear early on that I was the odd one out in my family. The uncared for sister. The oldest and so the reason my mother lost her place in the world and became tied to a vastly too young husband. I was also so obviously not like her that I didn’t and couldn’t matter. She could only relate to me as an extension of herself. When I couldn’t be like her and/or made it clear I had no desire to be like her she dismissed me in that blithe way that made it so difficult to hate her and so very, very necessary to try and please her. Oh yes, I blamed her for that Thanksgiving theft because I knew that she’d okayed it simply because she liked my sister in law better.
I went back in the house. No one had come out to me to check if I was still in the neighbourhood. No one cared if I was alright. I ached with the realization that I mattered to no one.
Mother made a gesture toward Carrie when I came in the door, who then brought a paper bag with cheap costume jewellery to her. It had been combed through and everything of any value, sentimental or otherwise, was gone. It was clearly a bribe. I refused to take it. “Give it to Carrie” I said, nodding toward her. “Perhaps it will make her happy.”
Then I called my girls who obligingly flew outside and into the van, and then I asked to be taken home.
Brother B chose to come along. I think he sensed that there might be a problem. Again, no one spoke for 21 miles.
My girls whisked into the house and after reaching the open porch I turned on my thieving brother. “What you did was a ‘rape’. “ I said, my throat struggling to get the words out. “You stole my stove, something I greatly value. You didn’t ask, you shoved me aside and you just took it.”
“It was Mom’s stove and she gave it to Carrie.”
“No! It was always my stove and you know it! She didn’t have the right to give it to anyone!” I was shaking with emotional agony. It was beginning to dawn on me that it was much less about the stove itself than it was about the meaning of the stove.
Brother B tried to intervene. “I’ll buy you a new stove,” he offered, proving he was aware of nothing.
I turned to them both and explained how I never felt a part of this family, that I didn’t understand people who could behave the way they did, that I didn’t know them and didn’t want to any longer.
The gap where the stove had been was empty and cold. I sat there looking at it for a long time while the night wheeled above me.
The next morning I received a phone call saying that Brother A was bringing back the stove. He dumped it in pieces on my porch, stomped past me and went into the kitchen. He had a book I’d brought him thinking he’d find something interesting in it and dumped that on my kitchen counter. It seemed a very final gesture. Regardless, I still tried to be ‘pleasant’, like you are to the stormy face of an implacable and dangerous enemy.
I waited for the phone call from my mother. I waited for her to show me some concern. I waited for the understanding and for the desire for forgiveness for both her and the others. I waited for the blame and the anger if need be. I waited, though I ached with the need to speak with her. I waited, though I had to physically stop myself from phoning… and then the note. “I’m dying” it read “and I want you to mend the broken fences between you, your brother and his wife.”
I immediately made arrangements to go see her. Remember, I loved her. But what happened next is another chapter.