Friday, June 24, 2011

the PILGRAMage that never was.

It's worth noting - in the interest of context - that my father's family could never be mistaken for The Waltons or any more relevant, equally stable nuclear unit. In the fall of '73 my paternal grandfather went out for a pack of cigarettes and never seemed to find his way home. My grandmother, an otherwise sane woman, still hangs their wedding picture in her bedroom as though she believes he'll stumble in one night complaining about thirty some odd years of traffic. For this reason, or perhaps a thousand others, my father has never truly understood the depth of family ties.

His emotionally distant Irish kin were the perfect foil to my mother's close knit Italian clan. What served as conversation at one dinner table would be thought of as banal small talk at the other. This distinction was never clearer than at the holidays. If I thought I was missing out on family fun on the weekends, I knew it for sure on Holy Days and other annual celebrations. But it was a Thanksgiving in the early 90's (I couldn't have been more than nine) that has stayed with me far past its welcome. Now I will be the first to admit that my memory is not infallible - I can not provide evidence for each and every story that lines it but I know what I felt and what I feared - and that alone has been all the fact required.

Thanksgiving with my mother's family was an epic event - the anticipation of which made getting through Wednesday's school day a task every year. I knew for sure that once the holiday was underway I'd be surrounded by numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. My grandmother was one of six sisters - each of whom had married and had their own children and for the most part those children had gone on to have children of their own -- and no one missed Thanksgiving. A typical year found sixty or seventy people gathered under one roof to give thanks for good food and each other. If I had a time machine, these are the days for which I would travel.

It had been decided that on this particular Thanksgiving my father would come and whisk me away just after dinner for a weekend to be spent at a hotel in the mountains with him, his girlfriend and a few of their friends. I can still remember the sinking feeling I had in my stomach as I watched the clock count down the hours. To a child a year might as well be a decade - how could I miss out on those last precious hours of Thanksgiving when the next one was so far away? Still I had already learned that court documents and he said, she said (mostly he said) carried more weight than my high hopes for an un-shared holiday. So I sat upstairs, suitcase packed, coat on, waiting while the sounds of my cousins still playing and laughing drifted up from the basement. My mother made several attempts to cheer me up. She offered promises that I'd have fun once I got there and reminded me over and over again that I'd see everyone soon enough. In retrospect, I realize now that those holiday separations were just as hard on her as they were on me - but at the time, she was equally the villain - pushing me out the door and insisting that I off I went.

My father and I made it a few miles up the highway, maybe a half hour or so, before my stiff upper lip began to quiver and soon enough I was crying. I had tried to put on a brave face - I had tried not to make my father feel bad but I desperately wanted to turn around. I wanted something familiar. I wanted my family. I did not want to be in a car with a man who barely knew me, racing away from home to see people I didn't know do things I didn't care about. Unfortunately, at that time my father was not a man with a lot of empathy. He yelled at me. I'd never seen him that angry. He spat his words at me saying it was his time now and he wouldn't give me back to my mother, he called me selfish and inconsiderate. I had never in my life been talked to like that. Like I was just a possession to be owned - that I was something that could be divied up. I sobbed. He became so frustrated with me that he spun the car around in the middle of the highway, driving in the opposite direction of traffic for a moment, as if that were the way to take me home, before spinning it back around and reminding me that this was his weekend. I was terrified. The man who was supposed to be protecting me was growing manic before my eyes. Finally he pulled the car over on the shoulder of the road beside a pay phone. He called my mother, demanding that she come get me, then opened the car door to tell me that he was so furious that he couldn't even stand to be in the car with me, that I made him sick - he slammed the door shut and then stood ahead of the car by a few feet while we waited for my mother to rescue me.

To this day my father and I have never spoken of that night -- a night that I imagine was, at the most, a bruise on his precious ego.

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