Persevere: Describe something that disappointed you in 2011 and how you persevered.
I am constantly amazed by people who can’t cook; those guys and gals that stock their pantries with ramen noodles and Diet Coke and are on a first name basis with the Domino’s delivery guy. It was one thing in college, when we were all pinching pennies for pitchers, but at this point, it just puzzles me.
I grew up in an Italian-Polish family. Holidays meant food, and lots of it. Aproned ladies bustled from fridge to oven to table to oven circulating a never-ending parade of dishes. We’d walk into my grandmother’s doorway after our 2.5 hour drive into Connecticut from our house in upstate NY and she’d ask if we were hungry. It was usually about 10:30 in the morning, and the answer never mattered, because within five minutes you were sitting at the kitchen table with a fresh sandwich full of Dietz and Watson cold cuts and a paper Dixie cup of orange juice to wash it down. “I’ve got stuff for sandwiches!” she’d whisper in your ear, “And all sorts of juices, orange and tomato (I know you don’t drink that) and grape and OH! there’s pop too….you want some pop? And you know, if you look up there, on the top of the fridge, you’ll see that I made Chex Mix….” And there, up on top of the fridge, underneath two gift boxes full of Italian almond cookies, next to a white paper pastry box full of angel’s wings (“Those are for dessert! Don’t touch them! Well, one, I guess you can have one…”) was the largest Tupperware barrel ever made, full of Chex Mix.
As you sat eating your sandwich, preparations continued. A constant flow of traffic buzzed up into the kitchen from the finished basement downstairs. Both ovens were humming and little kids used as gophers; “The marinated vegetables! Nicholas! Run downstairs and get Grandma the vegetables out of the extra refrigerator. Jennifer, go ask your father and grandfather if they’re hungry. Ern! I need the electric knife!!!!” Pots bubbled under watchful conversations, and a steady string of dishes popped into and out of the sinks for reuse on the next. In between bites of food and supply runs to the basement, you told your story: “How is school? What about a special friend? Do you have a special friend? What is that in your hair? Blonde streaks? It’s all right darlin’, you should have SEEN some of the ridiculous things your mother did to hers, don’t listen to her, it will grow out and you’re beautiful no matter what. OH! Go look on the bottom shelf by the ironing board….I got pizelles!!!!”
Somewhere over those years, I became less a gopher and more a trusted purveyor of feminine duty. I’d spend less and less time sitting with my Dad and grandfather in the den and more and more time performing tasks necessary to the perfect execution of the culminating meal. “Check that roast, Jennifer, is it time? You’re frying the pierogies tonight, right? Here’s the onion. I’ve got to finish the ham glaze, can you do the potatoes? “ In an imperceptible change, I’d become a woman in my family, taking my place in the cycle of things. Unspoken and off-the-record, I was learning how to run a kitchen.
My mother carried on these lessons with me at home. Thanksgiving was traditionally spent at our house in NY with my Dad’s mom. Grandma Lou would bus in from Buffalo and there’d be the odd assortment of “stray cats”, people we knew who, for some reason or another, couldn’t be with their own families on the holiday. Some were friends from college who lived too far away from home, others recently divorced or stuck in town on business. We created our own extended family for this, the family favorite of holidays. For all those years, I played second chair violin to my mother’s first, given only the most cursory of responsibilities. I was her sous chef, chopping squash and celery for sides and stuffing, filling pots with water and once again running to the basement for odds and ends off the pantry shelf. It was smaller, and more intimate, but there was never a question of who was in charge or deserving of full credit for the whole meal.
It wasn’t until the Old Man and I moved to the west coast that I’d be able to try my hand at a holiday meal all my own. I began hosting Thanksgiving myself, in our tiny apartment. I did everything as I’d been taught. A 23-pound turkey, prep work done the night before, linens laid out and standing at the ready…. I was born and molded for it, and as all the dishes hit the table, and everyone picked up their plates to heap them high with food, I stood back and watched, quietly wishing that my mother and grandmother could see what I’d done. This, this first, was a meal. A real meal. No college hodge-podge or novice’s approximation. It was a holiday feast, and Martha Stewart herself could eat crow if she was able to say otherwise.
There have been about five Thanksgivings since that first and only one without a house full of people. Each year, I picked something to improve on and make my own. Homemade cranberry sauce one year, a different kind of sweet potatoes another. It’s grown into a point of pride with me, and something that I look forward to….maybe a little maniacally.
Last year, our first in eastern Washington, there was no one to share the holiday with. The Old Man’s family was off doing other things and there were no friends to speak of, so I couldn’t justify the veritable fortune I spent every year on food for just the two of us. As we sat across the table from each other at Famous Dave’s Barbeque (the only place in town serving a traditional Thanksgiving meal), I cried a little, only just realizing how much I’d come to look forward to the holiday and the opportunity to cook for family and friends.
I called my parents the next day, and asked them to start saving money. I told them that it would mean the world to me, if, the next year, they were able to make it out to spend the holiday with us. They, of course, immediately agreed. Over the next year, we talked about it a number of times. I would mention their visit and they would make the necessary overtones that they had indeed been saving money, and would, for certain be here to share this year’s Thanksgiving meal. While home in October, the answers were still the same, and my excitement grew. The Old Man and I finally had a nice apartment to share with a furnished extra bedroom. I had bookshelves I’d made and a dresser I’d finished on my own that I wanted to show my Dad. But most of all, on the top of the list, I had MY OWN kitchen that I was in charge of. I would be cooking, and not just a meal, but a HOLIDAY meal…showing off for my mother. Letting her see that I am capable and adept; a little gopher-girl no longer.
October ended and November began, and about a week in, the daily phone calls from my parents stopped. My messages to them went unanswered. On the days that someone picked up, stories were told and reasons given for having to hang up “But I’ll give you a call tomorrow, definitely!” Come tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and nothing. Six days before Thanksgiving, I texted my brother asking if any of them were coming. I got the answer I expected: “I don’t think so, no.” A day later, my father called, strain in his voice, telling me that they wouldn’t be making it. A dear family friend was sick, and they couldn’t possibly think of leaving town at that point.
My heart fell. Of course, the reasoning was excellent. Understandable. Forgivable. But I know, in my heart of hearts, that they wouldn’t have come anyway. My parents being who they are, and old habits dying hard, I knew from time I asked a year prior, that there was really no hoping that they’d get their shit together long enough to come and see me on such an important day. (This surely sounds coarse, but trust me when I tell you, Dear Reader, that’s it’s most certainly the truth).
All of that was forgivable to me. I understood. And even further, expected it to happen; so when my mother called me the day before Thanksgiving, I was in a quiet and rational place when I told her that I understood, but that I was disappointed. That I was hurt that they’d waited until a week before Thanksgiving to tell me they weren’t coming. Hurt that they’d avoided me for nearly a month. That I wouldn’t get to have my family represented yet again at a Thanksgiving meal. Wounded that I hadn’t meant enough to them to warrant the truth.
What followed, after I poured my heart out to my mother, was a verbal harangue that hit me like her old backhand. My mother, instead of apologizing, called me selfish and ungrateful, and said that she was shocked that I couldn’t for a moment think of anyone else but myself.
I, of course, as daughters are wont to do, resorted to my preteen self and began screaming unattractively into the phone. I dredged up old hurts and piled them on in a bawling mess of snot and “I can’t fucking believe you!”s. I shocked her into silence and then hung up, my hands shaking in anger and hurt and embarrassment. Then came the guilt. The guilt for letting it get to me, letting HER get to me. I knew this would happen….KNEW that they wouldn’t come, KNEW that somehow she’d find a way to make it my fault and I’d lost control; allowed the rush of disappointment to take over. I was crushed. Broken. Again.
No one called me on Thanksgiving, and I made no calls myself. My phone sat, conspicuously silent as I served dinner to the Old Man’s family. It wasn’t until Sunday that my mother called again, the tone in her voice the one you reserve for a petulant child: “I know you’re upset, but really, this isn’t my fault…” At 7:30 in the morning, I had no qualms about hanging up on her again. When the phone rang a second time, it was my father, also talking down to me, until he heard the things she’d said. I cried silently as he apologized for her as he’d done time and again for the entirety of my life. She never got back on the phone, and I hung up with a hollow feeling in my heart.
There have been many disappointments over the years, lots of them grievous, but this last broke something in me. Made me sad and inconsequential. I learned that while at 32 I still strive to impress my mother, my feelings to her are merely an annoyance.
I still haven’t spoken to her, although it’s high time I did. The truth is that I’m waiting for her to call, to make the first move. I know that over time, I will put this in a little compartment on a shelf in the back—the one labeled Bad Things—and I will move on, and we will act as if nothing of the sort ever happened. But now, right now, the hurt is too raw to box up, and so, instead, I’m writing to you….