Their hold on me had long since loosened, but every Thanksgiving the same anxieties resurface, and I knew we would slide back into those same uncomfortable family patterns. Strangely, even at thirty-three, it was possible to become thirteen again upon entering my parents’ home.
My husband gripped the steering wheel as he pondered what to say next. I knew this was uncomfortable for him. He is a peacemaker.
“They’re your parents,” he finally said, then added, “I wish I could spend time with my parents.” As if this should make up for the hurts and injustices that were years in the making, but I knew what he was trying to say. He had recently lost his mom, a sweet woman who never stooped to threats or manipulation, and his dad had been gone for years now. I felt guilt ridden. I should just hold my head high and let the small things just roll off me, but are there really any small things in a family?
“Just don’t make your mom mad,” he continued.
As if I have any control over that. I might as well influence the rising of the sun or the barometric pressure.
“You don’t understand,” I said quietly, though he must. We’d been doing this for ten years now. He just sits and listens. What else can he do? My mom and I know that the buttons are there and it’s inevitable that they will start getting pushed. Some days it’s a minefield.
For all I knew my parents may have been having the same conversation. Let it go. Make the relationship more important. Don’t get your feelings hurt. All good advice until you are around the people who rub salt in those old wounds with harsh words and looks fraught with meaning.
“Mommy, are we almost there?” piped a small voice from the backseat. I looked back at the kids and wondered if this scene had played out for my own parents. I couldn’t remember. My daughter was still sleeping. My son was gazing out his window at the snow, beautiful but cold. My husband looked at me and shrugged.
“Yes, honey,” I replied, “We’re almost there.”
I began my mental preparations for the weekend with my family. It always starts on a positive note. My parents would greet us at the door with open arms and hugs all around. We would put our bags in the spare room and gravitate to the living room, where it always seemed that everyone was talking over one another, a chaotic moment of familial bliss. As time went on, however, the comments would come, little resentments starting to poke and prod. My mom’s polite facade was no retaining wall.
“It’s the expectations,” I said. He gave me a quizzical glance. “My mom has these expectations that we are going to be like an ideal TV family, everyone following some crazy happiness script.”
“I can see that,” he said.
“If anyone disagrees, that messes up the script and she starts to feel unbalanced, like her perfect holiday is unraveling,” I continued.
“Keep the conversation neutral,” he added.
“That’s fine, until they start going on about politics,” I said.
“Just don’t say anything this time.”
“That’s easy for you to say. It’s not you they’re attacking.”
He got quiet. I knew we were both thinking about last year, when my family had used the Thanksgiving table to talk on and on about their political views to their captive audience. I had kept silent, through most of it, but when I had questioned them, they had then turned the force of their political passion on me. How could I not see their viewpoint? I had been brainwashed by the media. My mom didn’t speak through the rest of dinner, which was hastily finished. For the next two days of our visit, we had all stepped carefully around the landmines, measuring our words, flinching at the slightest inclination toward argument. The car ride home had become an intense therapy session, my therapist an unlicensed but very good listener.
“You always have me,” he said as we turned into the driveway. I smiled at him. That was what made this all possible.
My parents were standing in their doorway, smiling and waving. I felt a catch in my heart as I watched my children run to them. I loved these flawed people.