We can't let our family define us
|“Why did we have to come? I can’t stand our family. Why can’t we just stay home and have Thanksgiving at our house?” Jill rolls her bag through mud and stones, hoisting it up the wooden steps, her lips pursed in a familiar pout.
“Shh! Your Aunt Beth’s car is here.” I was hoping to be the first of my three sisters to arrive at the cabin where we and our families planned to spend a four days celebrating Thanksgiving in the Smokies.
“I don’t care if she hears me.” My fifteen year old daughter is a whiner. I think she gets that from her dad’s side of the family. We Whitlocks are a tough bunch, with Cherokee, French and Irish blood streaming through our veins. Since her dad took off with his secretary last year I’ve let discipline slide a bit, figuring she needs a break. Now I’m thinking it might be time to try another tactic.
At the cabin’s entrance I turn and call her brother. He’s only eight, and easily distracted, a kid who’s apt to run off into the woods before I even notice he’s missing. “Justin! Hurry up!”
“Mom! Look what I found!” Scrambling up to the large wraparound porch he shows me his find: an rough rock threaded with lines of pink and black. “I think it’s granite!”
“That’s a pretty one.” I drop my Samsonite inside, give him a hug and tell him to follow his sister and find Aunt Beth for directions to his room. Then I return to the van for groceries.
Beth finds me in the kitchen a few minutes later, dumping ice into the cooler holding the 26 pound turkey destined to become tomorrow’s family feast. “What’s wrong?” I ask. Her eyes are puffy and swollen, half of her blond hair matted against her skull, while the other half juts out from the side of her head in a shape that reminds me of Snoopy’s nose.
“Come here,” she whispers, pulling me into a small bath room. She closes the door, blinking rapidly. Her gaze darts about the room before settling on the opaque glass blocks set at eye level on the outer wall. “I think I made a mistake.” My sister’s voice is raspy, unfamiliar, and a bit conspiratorial. I hear an undercurrent of something else too. Fear? No, it seems closer to paranoia.
Frowning, I touch her arm and she jerks her head and pulls away, her eyes wild and unfocused. I repeat my question, only louder, and as I do, my heart pounds faster. “What’s wrong?”
Before she can answer, a blood curdling scream erupts from somewhere in the cabin. I immediately recognize it as Jill’s.
Plunging through the door, I slam my hip into the kitchen island. Cursing, I stumble down a hallway and into a large great room with high oak plank ceilings. Broad swaths of sunlight bathe rustic plaid furniture and hard wood floors. Glassy-eyed antlered beasts hang from the knotty pine walls, observing a scene that makes little sense. Jill holds a broom behind her with both hands in the classic ‘batter’s up’ position, while Justin cowers behind her. An obese man in a hideous red sweater kneels before them. He is struggling to hold what appears to be an angry Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. The man’s arms are laced around the pig’s neck and the animal emits periodic hostile grunts as it struggles to free itself.
Skidding to a halt, I almost fall when I trip on a throw rug decorated with pictures of smiling moose and deer. Righting myself, I limp over to stand behind my children. “What the hell’s going on and who are you?” I ask.
“His pig bit me, Mom. Look!” Jill thrusts her arm toward me and I see the row of angry welts. She bares her pretty white teeth. “I’m gonna kill it.”
“Uncle Ronald does not bite unless he is provoked,” says the fat man primly, rising to his feet. He has attached a leash to the pig’s collar. “Your children must have done something to provoke him.”
Beth appears, holding a large butcher knife. She is wheezing as she joins the man in the festive sweater. The sweater is decorated with tiny dancing Santa Clauses and candy canes, and I am struck dumb by the realization that someone spent countless hours creating something so ugly.
“Tonya, this is Martin. Martin—my sister Tonya and her children. Martin and I got married last week.” My sister squeezes her new husband’s pendulous frame as the pig snorts and roots about, its snout marking the stone tiles with pig snot. My stomach heaves--just a little.
Swallowing hard, I grab an arm of each child and stand between them. “Put the broom down, hon. And it’s …uh...nice to meet you Martin, but Uncle Ronald is NOT staying for Thanksgiving dinner,” I use my commander voice—the one honed from years of practice working as lead chef in a busy Nashville restaurant. “He will NOT be allowed in the house at all this weekend since he has demonstrated an inability to behave. Tie him up outside.”
Returning to the kitchen to finish putting away the groceries, I pause and consider the open cooler. Is this bird big enough? Beth’s new guy looks like he can put away a lot of turkey. Jill’s right. It would have been a lot easier to stay home, even if we did have to face an empty chair. Beth seemed to be off her medication and the new husband wasn’t her usual heavily tattooed motorcycle-riding type.
When I turn around Justin is there, holding another rock. This one is black and smooth. His eyes are bright with enthusiasm. “Look Mom! Obsidian!”
“That is a beautiful rock, kiddo. Would you want to go for a hike with me before everyone else gets here?”
Sometimes the best thing you can do in a crazy world is maintain a semblance of normalcy. I think we’ll eventually look back on this family vacation with an air of fondness, one of many that make up the crazy quilt of our lives.
“Give me a minute to get my hiking boots on and we’re gone!”