Sunday in the Park
November 27, 2009
The turkey dinner has become sandwiches and soup. The pie — bye bye. And those fancy plates and polished glasses — back in the cupboards. The family table conversations fraught with the possibility of unpacking old baggage — over now.
Here’s how it worked in my house: One adult married child and his family were out of state with in-laws. The other adult child and her husband and precious six-year-old boy and an elderly family friend came to my house. I was grumbling a bit to myself early in the day. Looking with outsider eyes at everything wrong with my house, my cooking, my life. I didn’t quite understand my agitated response. I usually love all holidays and I certainly love all these people. I tried to remember which family member had hosted Thanksgiving last year. Then I remembered this time last year. The year where so many things changed.
Growing up, holidays usually only consisted of my mother and half sister and my mother’s parents. There were rare occasions my mother invited her outlaws after she and my father divorced. Those grandparents had been separated for most of their marriage. Something to do with my grandfather disappearing for a decade. But Good Catholics, they never divorced, just lived hours and towns apart and with very separate lives. The only Thanksgiving dinner I remember with them all in the same room had my mother’s father (after a wee bit of Scotch and a few choice words) dragging his toe down the center of the living-room rug. Each camp spent the rest of the evening on their own side. Like a lot of families, ours had little holding us together and looked for gatherings as a perfect time to pick each other apart.
As a teenager I often spent Thanksgivings at Lake Tahoe in the company of my future in-laws. After I married into the family, we always hosted the dinners. Big, boisterous, but somehow traditionless meals that always seemed to have somebody unhappy at the table or maybe that was just me.
My children were just three and five when I divorced their father. There were two years I stayed in Tahoe. Then we moved far away from all family and friends in what therapists like to call a geographic fix. And it worked.
Park City in 1979 was the start of creating the table I wanted at Thanksgiving. And the people who started appearing at those first tables were waitresses and policemen and the divorced minister and ski instructors opening a ski shop. It will sound odd to those of you with loving families of origin, but I finally felt at home. My son started making Mud Pie for dessert one year since none of us liked pumpkin. And it became not only something he would be proud of but something that was all our own. His daughter and son helped him make Mud Pie this year at his in-laws in Colorado.
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Last year, in the year that changed everything, I spent Thanksgiving in a hospital room with smuggled-in French dip sandwiches from a pie shop across the street. I had purchased many, many pies to try and mitigate the insults my mother had been hurling at every doctor and nurse who had the great misfortune to be a person of color. Any color. Her dementia was diagnosed officially in this emergency hospitalization and we were there to try and find a suitable place to move to her to after living almost 50 years in the same house in the same town. Geriatric professionals are not shocked by such behavior, they politely told us repeatedly. Repeatedly. But I was.
And in the year that has followed, when I never know what phone call from California will take me back there to try and help medicate and mediate, I have become increasingly reclusive when I can be. Not reclusive in the "think I’ll stay home and read or bake or watch a fun film" kind of way. Reclusive in the comatose stare-out-the-window-and-let-the-monkey-chatter-in-my-head-try-to-quiet-down kind of way. Recently an old friend apologized to me for not completing an assignment he had promised to my work world. He said he had been back east dealing with his mother’s care. I stopped him right there. The assignment was immediately not important. He said he was having a hard time explaining to folks to what it was like to parent your parent. We were both thankful to have an ear for each other.
When I placed the old blue dishes on the clean white tablecloth this week, I know I was anticipating a phone call would derail the evening. But it didn’t come. We had a lovely evening with laughter and a small happy child and a grateful older friend. We were a funny little gathering but we were exactly the kind of family I always wanted. And it makes me thankful to have spent this holiday at home on this Sunday in the Park
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. She is also a former editor of The Park Record.