So there’s this uncertainty in my life since becoming engaged to be married. Neither of us was really sure where to spend the Thanksgiving holiday this year. We considered sharing it with my family, his family, or simply with each other (and maybe a few friends) at home.
We had decided to have a low-key, nontraditional meal at home — with a simple sushi menu and none of the stresses inherent in roasting a 20-pound turkey with all the fixins. But somewhere along the way, miscommunication was sparked with the tossing around of possibilities, and my mother was convinced that we were spending the holiday with her and my dad.
Dad don’t eat no sushi. So out went the let’s-start-our-own-nontraditional-tradition. No big. Until my mom got on the phone with my aunt and asked her to join us with my grandma. Aunt C’s got plans of her own for her and grandma — plans that don’t budge or bend to meet a future nephew / grandson-in-law. I could hear the usual barking back and forth between the two sibs on the phone as I sat at my mom’s kitchen table copying holiday recipes from cooking mags, and I knew that this was nothing new — this was simply an ongoing part of my mom’s family holiday tradition.
As soon as mom got off the phone with Aunt C, she called up her brother, my Uncle F. And round 2 began.
“She’d rather have a Costco Thanksgiving than a real homemade meal!” my mother complained. “But don’t tell her I told you that. She’ll get mad if she knew I said anything like that!”
My uncle agreed with her, and even added to her comments that a pre-made and simply reheat Costco meal was not what my grandma deserved or wanted from her live-in daughter/caregiver.
Mom got off the phone saying to me, “He agrees with me. We need to convince my sister that it would be better if she brings mom over here for a real homecooked meal.”
Then my Uncle J came over for a visit from the central valley. Unbeknownst to us, while he was visiting my Uncle F had taken it upon himself to call up Aunt C and rat my mom out about her “Costco Thanksgiving” comments (despite the fact that he shared in and added to mom’s sentiments on the matter).
As soon as Uncle J left, Aunt C called up and screamed in my mother’s ear: “She thinks we’re having a goddamn Costco Thanksgiving!!!” Then she hung up, perhaps not realizing that my mom had answered the phone yet.
So I called her back, and listened to her fake syrupy calm voice asking to talk to my mother. I told her that my mother was very upset to have been yelled at, to which she dropped her feigned coolness and began shouting at me that she was the only one who had any right to be upset.
I tried to answer simply and calmly that she seemed to be responding to trivial comments made during a private conversation between her brother and sister and that there was no reason to get so upset over something so freaking small. But before I could get all of that out there was this torrent of words bellowing through the phone line. I couldn’t make any of it out until she wailed: “SHUT UP!!!” It was an insane, horrible cry from someone who had lost all grip on kindness and decorum.
I kept my cool and replied, “No, I won’t shut up. I want to be heard for what I have to say.”
But she had hung up somewhere in the middle of my plea for an actual conversation. So I called her back. And was hung up on. Repeatedly. The phone would ring and she would pick it up and simply shut it off — shut me off — from the possibility to resume communicating as adults.
So I called her cellphone. Surprise, surprise, it went straight to voicemail. I left a visceral message about how much I needed to be able to communicate with her without being yelled at or told to shut up or simply hung up on, that I wanted to have a real dialog with her. I ended with: “If this is the way you’re going to be, I don’t want you in my life!”
It was so easy to say, and so hard to swallow once I put down the phone. I didn’t want to lose her in my life, but I didn’t want to keep her either if she couldn’t even listen to reason.
I want a real aunt, not a whining child, as a model of adulthood. But we rarely say such truths in life, really. The family tradition (on my mom’s side) has always included a lot of blaming, bickering, yelling and downright ugly smarminess around the holidays. Maybe she can’t help it. She’s used to tradition, and seems to carry that torch like it’s her mothertrucking birthright. I’m ready to break with this tradition of selfish, hollow, trifling communication. It’s time to forge new traditions, family!
The following day, I arrived at grandma’s with my parents to move some furniture (a plan that had been set in motion before my aunt’s uncalled-for tantrum). I hoped that I would get a chance to speak her, to try and explain where I was coming from, even to say that I was sorry for trying to wage my mom’s battles in her honor. I didn’t mean to step on your toes, I rehearsed in my head. I just need better, stronger communication in my life! We can both work on this together.
The whole time we were there, my aunt hid in the bathroom with the door locked tight. I went from wanting to apologize sincerely to feeling like screaming at the door: Come out, come on out. Whenever you’re ready to grow up and talk!
Instead I just stared at the unwelcoming door, imagining a woman licking imaginary wounds on the other side that I was helpless to heal.