Another Holiday with Family Ends

26 Nov

It is Thanksgiving yet again, and with it comes so many memories- the wonderful ones when I was just a child and my parents would dress my brother and me in beautiful holiday outfits and load us into the station wagon to go first to my father’s parents’ home for the traditional Southern Thanksgiving fare, complete with homemade pickles and my favorite of all my Aunt Munsey’s pickled pears and peaches. She was my favorite aunt, the spinster aunt who had helped raise my father and uncle and aunt, and was truly another grandmother to me that made no secret of me being her favorite of all the grandchildren. She would hold me on her lap and teach me songs, help my tiny hands hold a needle to quilt my first sampler, show me how to crochet, knit and even the old-fashioned way to make lace with thread called ‘tatting’. Thanksgiving at my paternal grandparents back then involved the entire family, with the exception of my father’s sister and her family because they were a military family and lived in the Philippines, Turkey, and other exotic places we could only imagine.

Visiting and eating there was comfortable and relaxed for me, because I was oblivious to the adults and their various tensions. I never noticed the tense tones in my mother and father’s voices as they carried on polite conversation with my uncle and his wife (who was not only my aunt but my mother’s first cousin as well). I didn’t pay attention to how my Papaw would make comments here and there that made my mother’s mouth go tense and my father’s hands wring with tension and barely contained anger. I didn’t pay attention to my aunt and uncle chain smoking to keep from saying too much or offending the hosts and sometimes acerbic Aunt Munsey and my granny. I wish I could turn back time and go back to those days and do something to change the course of my family’s dynamic so it would be possible once again to have my family in one room without someone storming out in anger or threatening to do damage to one another…but it’s not possible. My parents and my aunts and uncles are too old to change or forget the various insults and events that have made them literally despise one another. My grandmother is still alive, ninety-three years young, my Aunt Munsey and my Papaw long laid to rest, but the manipulations of my Papaw still haunt his offspring so viciously that they cannot and will not even consider the possibility of being in a room together, much less sharing a family meal. My father and mother get along with his sister and her husband, but they have their three children for their own holiday gathering and we are not invited. As a psychology major, I don’t have any more ways or means of trying to mend that part of my family, and I feel helpless.

Stepping back again to my childhood holiday memories, and the second part of every Thanksgiving would mean a trip over Sugar Grove Mountain and to the beautiful home of my mother’s family. I loved being there just as much as being at my father’s parents’, but for different reasons. While my paternal grandparents lived on a working dairy farm, with a home that had been built so long ago that it was constructed with slave labor and thick solid wooden walls in the style of the 1800’s, my mother’s family home was a huge ranch style brick and stone home, complete with a fireplace made of grey slate that had come from the quarry thirty miles away. While my dad’s family home had a warm, but serviceable interior with few knick-knacks and displays, my mother’s family home was the complete opposite. Everywhere you looked, there were beautiful antiques, lavish furniture, and style that bespoke of my Dee Dee’s beautiful taste and wealth. My Grampsie was a hard working man who had come from a large family with barely enough to eat and a home with too many children and not enough heat to keep them warm. He was smart, though, and knew that if he was to make my Dee Dee happy for a lifetime he was going to have to become a successful man in this world, and with her happiness in mind he went to school and became a plumber and electrician. He owned his own business, and by the time I was born he had bought every house on one entire street in their town. He was an alcoholic, but I didn’t even know it until I was a teenager. I only knew that the smell of bourbon and Old Spice made me think of him and he was the most loving man a young girl could ever want for a grandfather. He spoiled the women in his life, I think that gave him his greatest joy. He covered my Dee Dee in furs and beautiful clothing that eclipsed every other woman in that side of the state. My grandmother- my Dee Dee, was a breathtakingly beautiful woman, and wore clothes better than any model of her day. She had even been photographed by a traveling Life photographer when she was 17 and had been put in the magazine as an example of ‘Southern Beauty’. She was not a humble woman, she knew she was smart (she was an accountant for several successful businesses) and she knew exactly how to get what she wanted! She is the only woman I have ever known that could get strangers to do her bidding, whether it was to go get her a drink while she watched her bingo cards or teaching her Sunday school class. She simply was one to obey, and she made you WANT to please her!

I looked up to her and wanted to grow up to be just like her. Both my mother and her sister were in constant competition to be her ‘favorite’, and it is to my mother’s credit that she won that contest hands down! My mother was an RN, and ran the hospital in the county where we lived. She was always introduced as ‘Our daughter, the nurse’, just as I was always introduced as ‘Our only granddaughter’. My aunt had committed the grievous sin of dropping out of college just after marrying my uncle, breaking her promise to my grandparents, and it irked her to no end when my mother would be introduced so grandly and then she was introduced simply by her name. In later years I would hear her bitterly say ‘And this is Anne, the nothing’. She was married to an industrial engineer, and while she may have never had a career, she did manage to give my Grampsie the son he never had, my cousin Brent. My brother could never hold a candle to our cousin, for my brother was fat, only interested in watching television or hanging onto my mother’s leg. He was called a ‘momma’s boy’ by both sets of grandparents, much to my father’s irritation.

I remember how after we ate our second holiday meal, my father and Grampsie would retire to the den to watch sports on television, and my brother was made to sit on the couch and not move. I felt a bit sorry for him sometimes because if he got up to use the bathroom, my Dee Dee would holler at him the entire time telling him he better not mess anything up and to hurry up and get back in the den. He did have a habit of wandering through the many bedrooms and picking up carefully placed glassware, or rearranging pillows while playing roughly with antique dolls out of boredom, but my Dee Dee was harsh with him and very particular about her ‘not-made-for-children’ home. He was completely miserable every time we were there.

I, however, loved spending time in that beautiful home, not only because it was so lavish but because I was ‘special’ there. Unlike at home, where my brother was the very obvious favorite of my mother, at The best Dee Dee and Grampsie’s house I was the favorite, the talented only granddaughter who could do no wrong! I was allowed to play the antique piano, showing off my burgeoning musical talents, I was asked to sing often, and many holidays I was asked to show what I had learned in my many dance classes or other artistic lessons. My Dee Dee constantly told me how pretty I was, and what a smart girl I was, and how completely special I was in this family of amazing women! My grandmother was like a queen and I felt that every time she spoke to me she was handing down her secrets, her woman-power, and I loved it and her!! My Grampsie would hold me on his lap and tell me every visit how much he loved me, and say ‘you’re our only granddaughter’ as if that meant I was next in line to the family throne. If ever a girl was made to feel like a princess, they did that for me! I was bought beautiful clothes, always the best designer dresses to wear, and even a fur coat for my ninth birthday!

The best part of those holiday visits was when the dishes were cleared, the leftovers put away, and the two sisters and their mother gathered around the kitchen table to gossip about family. It was like getting to peek into the world of the grownups, and I sat on a green stool at the bar beside the kitchen table and absorbed their language, their mannerisms and their entitlement through a blue haze of cigarette smoke. I have to laugh now at how today no one would dare to have a child in the middle of their smoking and gossiping sessions, but they did! I remember the few times I complained about the smoke coming directly toward my face, and how almost in unison the three would say ‘Smoke follows beauty!’ and they would tell me that it meant I was gong to grow into a beautiful woman and not complain. I would do my best not to cough, and think about how truly beautiful those three women were sitting at that table in their best attire and praying that one day I would look just like them.

When I say that my Dee Dee and my mother and my aunt were beautiful, it is not in any way an exaggeration. My grandmother had flawless skin, beautifully shaded naturally, and she didn’t have wrinkles even up til her death at age 83! The nurses who attended her when she would be in the hospital near the end of her life were constantly commenting on her skin, and then on mine. She gave that genetic gift to both her daughters as well as me, and even though my mother and aunt tanned themselves lightly during the 70’s and 80’s as was the fashion, to this day they have gorgeous skin and don’t look anywhere near their ages. Yes, I worshiped at the throne of beauty, pride in abundance, and feminine power from the time I was born. Holidays brought those three women together, and I desperately wanted them to be proud of me and include me in their activities.

Now, sadly, my Grampsie and Dee Dee are gone. My mother and her sister allowed their rivalry for their parent’s affection and their competition with one another to eat away at the bond that should have held them together even after their parents were dead and buried. The two split their inheritance with a jealous and angry vengeance, and rarely speak to one another now through random emails forwarding a joke or a quick meeting when my aunt happens to return to the mountains of Virginia to visit other relatives. There will never be another holiday with them sitting at a table telling stories, exchanging memories, and both have given up smoking in their health-conscientious years. There is no  love between them anymore, only random mentions when my mother hears from her sister. I miss the family that could and should have been. I wish the bond of sisterhood could be mended so my cousin would bring his new wife and two sons to meet us all…or at least invite us to visit them sometime. But once again, I have no power within me to fix what is completely severed, and I resign myself to it.

With both sides of my family broken and torn, you would think that my parents and brother and I would take comfort in our own family, his two daughters and my daughter together along with his wife to celebrate at my parents home. But my brother learned the lesson of hate from the transgressions of our ancestors and decided that he wanted nothing to do with me, my husband, and refuses to be in the same house with me for any reason. He refused to attend my wedding, even though his daughters were to be my flower girls and I bought beautiful matching pink dresses for them…custom made so they would look like the little angels they are as they strew petals before me down the aisle. I admit, I am hurt by this, angry because it is unnecessary and evil to separate what is left of my family for no reason. I have written him numerous times, asking him what it is he is so angry about, apologizing for whatever he feels I have done to offend him so, but he only says that he wants nothing to do with me, we are too different, and he wants no contact with me ever. I can accept that he doesn’t want to see me or be a brother to me, but it breaks my heart that I have two adorable nieces that I never get to see, never get to spoil as an aunt should, and that worst of all every holiday celebration is his, his family’s, and my parents and daughter attend but I am forbidden to join. My husband and I have had long discussions about it, and I’ve cried many tears and had many angry rants at his treatment of me, but it does no good. For the life of me I tried to remember what could have possibly made him feel this way toward me, but I can think of nothing. My family tells me to forget about him, quit letting it bother me, but it never stops stinging that he is deliberately doing this not just to me but to my parents and my nieces and my husband.

I was informed today while visiting my parents that he will be coming to their house to celebrate Christmas a few days after the actual date. Along with that, I was told that he made it clear to my parents that if I showed up he would immediately take his family and leave. Both my parents swore they tried to talk to him, to make him soften and allow us to have a complete Christmas, but he adamantly refused.

Have the sins of my parents come to roost in their son? Has their example taught my brother that family means nothing and he has not only the power but complete lack of feeling to tear our family in two? Perhaps. I hear from others that he is an unhappy person, tense and unable to go without smoking pot or using drugs to make it through their holiday gathering last Thursday. I’m certainly not perfect, but I know I’m not a bad person, I’m a good daughter who remembers birthdays and anniversaries, calls to check on my parents when they have a cold or just call to see how they are getting along. I’ve spent untold amounts of money in years past on my nieces, carefully selecting fun toys and always buying each a good, grownup piece of jewelry for them to wear and keep all their lives. I have never done anything to hurt my brother, I have never been deliberately mean or cruel to him since we were perhaps small children, and I’ve apologized a thousand times for those hurts. But no more prostrating myself to a forty-year old man who feels the need to gain attention by insulting and hurting his only sister in every possible way. I’ll not cry another tear over this, and I’ll not try to mend this broken bond any more. He can have his solitude, he can live with himself and see where it gets him in the long run. One day, his children will be old enough to ask about me, and my daughter will be there to tell them the truth if no one else will.

I am lucky that my husband has a wonderful family that treats me not like a daughter-in-law, but as a true daughter. I am more grateful than words can say at the blessing they and my husband are in my life. My daughter loves me, accepts me, and I simply adore her and am proud of the woman she is becoming. This will be enough for me, I will make it be enough. My parents can see me as they choose, whether they want to come to my home or invite me to theirs, I will be happy to go for I love them. But my brother has gotten his wish, he has no sister. Perhaps when he is older and wiser he will realize what he’s lost in behaving as he has, but somehow I doubt it. Some people just need to hurt others to make themselves feel better, and I believe that is what he is doing with all of this. I can choose to let it eat me up with anger or sorrow, but I think I won’t. I think I’ll be happy instead.


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