My six children—age 16 to 27—are no longer fragile. Their eyes are clear, their limbs strong; they parade through the world like young mustangs, their young in tow. It is Thanksgiving and I glory, for some reason, in it being on a Thursday. The world closes down shop, rolls down the steel cage over the shop windows, and everyone goes back to the kitchen, at the back of the store, where the women are cooking and you can open a bottle of champagne at 11 in the morning.
I ask Lizzy, “who is going to peel the cranberries?”
Lizzy, like her mother, is intense when she cooks, but this stops her.
“You don’t peel cranberries.”
I laugh and told her I got the joke off Facebook.
I’m semi-proud of this earning a laugh from Lizzy and Mary, because on Thanksgiving, in particular, I just don’t have much to offer the tribe. I would peel something if they gave it to me, or stir something, but I get the sense this would just make them more nervous.
My grandson, Peter, climbs aggressively into a high chair and slams a green gourd onto an empty plate with a ferocity that makes me laugh. Clearly, he wants to break something. I only have one word that is sure-fire to get his attention. “Chocolate.” I chide myself for my lack of originality in this. It seems to be inviting him into a world of indulgence and sloth and it brings out both his best and his worst. He can be incredibly courteous in his quest for chocolate and a fall-down, screaming beast if he doesn’t get it. His father, my son Nicholas, is an admirable school master. Peter admits his errors. He apologizes to me with an earnestness that is as touching as it is immediate. Anger, earnestness, hunger, love, affection, and defiance bloom out of this kid in firecracker-flashes of intensity, without warning. He’s bright, and he makes distinctions. When I point to my chest, asking, “this is?” he responds with, “a shirt.”
Andy Williams is singing. The turkey has been brined and buttered. I don’t think I’m lacking in any material or emotional wealth. I could buy a lot of stuff on B&H Photo Video’s site, but I pretty much have everything I need. My wife loves me, and puts up with me. We have several trips planned. There are celebrations, God willing, in the future. My kids are beautiful, but, even better than that, I don’t see any real heart-scars. They are playful with the grand kids, open, generous in a way I wasn’t at their age. Life is good.
But I found myself aching for so much of it that is now gone by. I remember my dad, in Sacramento, with my cousins, watching USC play Notre Dame. This might have been 1967 or it might have been 1972–somewhere in there. My Aunt Helen teaches piano. Uncle O’Ryan has a Clark Gable mustache. Unlike some of my extended family, they are utterly gracious hosts. We are all well fed. My cousins are all older, and far more cool, and beautiful than I am. I wouldn’t have known the term then, but there is a Buddha like calm about Aunt Helen. She announces the blessings of the coming holiday, “we’re going to have turkey, Jimmy, and potatoes, and afterwards we’re going to have chocolate and root beer floats. You wait and see.” It feels like music, hearing the gentleness and the tranquility in her voice. Uncle O’Ryan flew B17s in World War II. I didn’t know this at the time, but it accounts for the sense of safety and heroism I felt there. We were sheltered, in the den of a lion, with his queen, and his beautiful pride.
At our home, in Arcadia, we played football in the backyard, as a family. My older brother, Mike, had girlfriends who looked as though they had just walked off the set of Beach Blanket Bingo. I know this, though, mostly from pictures, because when I was a kid, he had married one of them. My sister, Colleen, let me tag along with her when she played tennis with her friends. The gossip of teenage girls—that sounded like music too. My mother painted china, and was more the artist than a cook, but she made roast beef that fell apart when you touched it, shattering over the carrots that simmered in butter all morning. I am loving that, and the perfect muffins my older sister in law brought to the table, but I am floating in the praise my father gives me. He brags about me in a way—I found out later—annoyed my older siblings. Honestly, for me at least, there was no sibling rivalry in this. My father, late in life, had just learned a little more patience, and praise, in his parenting. There was a loquat tree to the side of the house, and figs, and cumquat, and avocados, and a mandarin orange tree in the front yard that always seemed to have fruit on it. I didn’t know that I lived in Arcadia, but I did.
At Thanksgiving, I felt like the hinge between this new world of strong young colts, and the old one, the one that is now getting blemished by death and age. I wanted to make everyone young again, compress the party into one place, introduce everyone to each other, and then sit back and watch, which is what I do, and which is what I feel guilty about. I wanted it all to stop — or just go rest somewhere, so that everyone who has ever been in my life would have time to get there, find a parking place, grab a bottle of wine, and then settle into a conversation that no one would miss.
But that’s far more “tidy” than I can make life. It rolls on. It plunders down canyons you can’t see, and broadens out over plains too wide to cross. It’s being written by God. Someone is dancing right now, somewhere, and you’re not there, and you just have to let that happen. Someone is crying and you can’t console them. Someone is telling a funny story in a far away room, and you can’t hear it. Maybe someday we will have time to stretch out and learn it all, but, for now, there’s just a little boy in front of you, with big eyes, asking you to show him Zebras on your computer.
Do that, then. It’s enough.