Thursday, November 24, 2011

800 Words: The One Who Cooks the Turkey

It is 10:30, the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. The aroma of gluttony permeates America, and it is delicious. While we wile away our nation’s free Wednesday evening - at the movies, or at a bar catching up with old friends, or blogging as though you don’t have a friend in the world - our collective mothers slave in our kitchens to prepare a feast. We might help set the table or move some furniture, but we who are too blessed cannot understand how much work it is to prepare a turkey for 15 people, along with stuffing, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, cornbread, collared greens, brussel sprouts, pecan pie, pumpkin pie. We will happily gobble it up, and to a man we shall duly make a cursory acknowledgement to our mothers' blessed task of serving her family. After that acknowledgement, we will swiftly engorge ourselves like a pack of wolves, and then return to our daily ignorance of other people’s sacrifices for our welfare. We might help set the table, or move some furniture. But then we eat, and we leave. But before we do, we inevitably excrete the remains of our mothers’ slave labor of love, and we make our yearly mark upon her house by stinking up her toilets. For the smell of gluttony is invariably followed by the stench of regret.

Frankly, the image of America painted in the first paragraph sounds a bit dated. Maybe it’s true in my family, but in most families it’s no longer the mother who prepares the meal, it’s still your indomitable 87-year-old grandmother to whom you go for your yearly visit in Detroit, Cincinnatti, Buffalo, or Cleveland. She’s the one currently slaving away and surely you remember her story. After school, your grandmother would work at the cash register in her father’s general store from the time she was six years old. Through relentless saving and work, her father managed to keep the store all the way through the Great Depression, but even he couldn’t last through the Depression’s second wave in 1937. So for four years, it was up to her to feed the entire family by working twelve-hour days in the neighborhood factory, which would only hire her because she was 13 and would work for starvation wages. For four years, she was the only girl on the floor. At first, she fended off daily bullying and harassment. But after a year of it, she caught some of the guys breaking into the front office to hijack some cash. Pretty soon afterward, she was one of the guys.

But shortly before the war, she lost herself on the very first date to a polite, lanky young mechanic with high cheekbones and a square jaw. The result was your Uncle Charles, and the Sunday Night after the mechanic stopped calling back, she knocked on his parents’ front door with a Priest and a rifle in tow. It was love at first sight, and a wedding followed exactly a month later.

The early days of the marriage were difficult. Years later your grandfather swore that he thought she’d eventually kill him. When Pearl Harbor happened, your grandfather wasted no time in signing up for his patriotic duty. So while your grandfather was flying in the Pacific, your grandmother raised Uncle James, all the while continuing her twelve-hour days on the factory floor, taking all the new broads under her wing and drinking them under the table at lunch. She would have made Foreman, but when the owner showed her what she needed to do to get the job, she grabbed him by his nuts and squeezed.

Three years later, both her brothers were dead. But your seemingly unharmed grandfather returned a hero. The bigwigs offered him an office job, but war gave no training for peacetime. His way through college was paid, but his mind was warped. Night after night she would do whatever she could to help him get good grades, virtually writing his papers for him. After they went to bed, he’d awaken them both by screaming in cold terror about some guy named Buddy. And every night, she would hold him under the covers and rock him back to sleep just as she soon would your mother.

After your grandfather graduated in 1948, he was offered an office job at the neighborhood factory. And since the owner didn’t want him to find out what your grandmother had to do to if she wanted the Foreman job, your grandfather was groomed for greater things. On the week of the Korean invasion, your grandmother expected finally to make Foreman. But your grandfather gave her a delightful surprise by telling her that he made Vice-President, which meant that she’d never again have to work a day in her life. And it was after that night’s celebration that she became pregnant with your mother.

The day your mother was born was the happiest day of her life. And on that day your grandmother made a promise to God that your Mom would receive all the chances denied to her. Your mother would go to good schools, get her college education, meet the man of her dreams, and have a career every man would envy.

And from the time she was a little girl, your mom was the angel of which her Ma dreamed every night. So bright, so curious, so friendly that she was the joy of the neighborhood. And as she matured, this perfect girl blossomed into the perfect woman. It was a blossoming that took constant care and remonstration: your grandmother watched her grades like a hawk - forcing your mother to submit every piece of homework to a rigorous inspection, never allowing her to socialize for too long, or spend too long on the phone. Any protest as to the unfairness of it all was met with a pep-talk: “It’s unfair that you were given so many more gifts than other people. You have a greater freedom than anybody I’ve ever known: You will be the first woman in our family who is free to become anything you want.” And your mother seemed run a marathon with that freedom every day. She was the star of her private-school class, lead in the school play, president of the Honor Society, a first-class athlete, marvelous on debate team, and a community service volunteer.

And one day when she was sixteen, she came into the kitchen with two pieces of paper. On the first was a list of schools to which she was applying - they were all in California or New England. On the second was a list of reasons why she should go to schools in California or New York. Your grandmother had to admit, the reasons were all extremely sensible. If this perfect creature sensed that the key to a better life was in a place far away from here, how could her mother possibly argue?

Yet when the inevitable occurred, your grandmother’s hair went grey as a mouse. Every week she received a new letter and a phonecall, with all the banal details of the discoveries of living away from home. But every new detail would reveal itself with a new fear of how this beautiful dream could turn wrong.

And to a nightmare it did turn. A horrible one, but very different from the ones she endured as she lie in bed awake as her husband now snored unperturbed. Experience told her to steel herself for the day which a girl this privileged might have to endure a theft, a fire, a rape, or perhaps worse. But no experience prepared her to see her perfect daughter worn down by the very privilege to which she was given as a birthright. In the middle of a group that is the featured story in... Life Magazine? Her local paper? The Huntley-Brinkley Report?: for there she was, her hair nappy and dreaded, her ears weighted down by hoop with a strange triangular sign in the middle, bedecked in tie-dye clothing and beads. ‘The Faces of a New Generation.’ And finally, there was that interview....

...As usual, it was all sense which your mother argued, so how could all these points add up to such complete nonsense? Taken part by part, there was nothing with which your grandmother could argue. By experience, she could come to no other conclusion than that America was a terrible place run by terrible people. But not for your mother. She was given everything to which thousands of ancestors before her had aspired, and worked so that one day some extraordinary offspring could reap the benefits they never could. Yet her sole affirmation of the gift for which so many people who loved her and labored for her benefit had striven was to reject it wholeheartedly.

A few weeks later, Thanksgiving night 1970, your atypically wilting grandmother finally worked up the nerve to talk to your mother about the interview. And then came that famous conversation. Your mother stated, with her invariable matter of fact tone, that freedom was as dear to her as achievement was to her mother. By the way she lived her life, she was in fact honoring her mother. And part of living with freedom was to work tirelessly for the freedom of others - for none of us are truly free until everyone is. She assured her mother that there was no occasion to be worried about violence, and certainly no reason to be worried about the sex she was having. When she needed an abortion, a friend took very good care of her, and she was now very careful to use birth-control - because sexual freedom is the very essence of personal freedom. She said that she could understand if her mother might be appalled by this, but cautioned her not to conflate her feelings of jealousy with moral umbrage. “This was the life which you worked for me to have, and now I’m living it as you always told me I should. I know that you’ll be happy for me.”

Eventually, your mother settled down. She got a law degree, met your father while working at a financial firm and after a seven-year on-again off-again relationship, they finally decided to get married. Eventually they had you and your siblings. There’s always been some bickering in the house about the minor stuff - how much money to decorate the houses, whom to invite to dinner with whom, why we work so much? Occasionally you’ve even wondered if your parents have been totally faithful to each other. But fundamentally, you had quite a happy childhood, even if your parents never seemed to care about whether you achieved anything, or whom your friends were, or how well you treated other people.

But every week since you were four, your mother handed you the phone so you could talk to your Grandmother. Though talk is a charitable word for what transpires - clearly, it’s an interrogation. When you were very young, the questions were innocent enough. But when you were a teen, the questions got quite pointed: Why aren’t you getting better grades? Why are you spending so much time with friends? Do your parents push you to do better? Are you sexually active?

And as always with your grandmother, words are matched with deeds. Four times a year, she comes to visit for a week. Every time you leave the house she demands a full account of where you’re going, what you’re doing, and whom you’re going with. She makes sure to walk by your room, and if she hears any noise besides the rustle of a pencil she opens the door without knocking to ask what you’re doing.

When you got to college, you looked as much forward to being out from under your grandmother’s eye as you did to the inevitable pleasures that await. But the day after you moved in, she called you and wanted to know all about where you were and whom you’ve met. The weekly interviews continued unabated. When you graduated college, she called bi-weekly to inquire about every single place to which you’ve applied for a job. When it was time to introduce your fiancee, she demanded that the two of you fly up together as soon as possible at her expense - and a weight lifted from your shoulders when your grandmother told you in the next phonecall that she approved, even if it was with certain reservations.

Even if her voice will always be heard through every decision you ever make throughout your life, life fundamentally exists apart from your grandmother. She has never been a part of your daily life, and she never will be. But as a tribute to everything she’s done for you, you go up once a year to Pittsburgh, Gary, Milwaukee, and St. Louis to pay tribute to everything which you’re thankful that she has done for you. And once a year, she gets to have the family which she always wished she had - and there’s not a single year when she hasn’t planned all year to make every detail exactly as it should be for that one meal.

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