Thanksgiving! And, as you read this, I’m sitting in an overheated house in Parkersburg, WV wondering how early is too early to have a vodka tonic.
I’m tired, to be honest, of my family. There aren’t many left – my grandfather, a man of bad ideas and snap decisions. My aunt, who has been reduced to a depressive pill-popper. Two cousins – one a useless, violent creature and the other estranged. An uncle, who has stood as the most functional family member, but only thanks to defensive walls that could hold back the Wehrmacht.
I was tired of my family after mom killed herself. Maybe even before that. I’ve spent a lifetime, since childhood, tuning out my family. Avoiding them. Ignoring as much as I can. To become involved is to embrace madness, and also requires the complete surrender of common sense and intellect. In one way or another, everyone in my family is committing suicide. They either drive themselves into a tree at 100mph, or they eat themselves to death, or drown in pills and wine, or put themselves in the poor house through lunatic spending sprees. If it makes sense to say so, nobody in my family seems truly happy unless they’re utterly depressed. Where possible, they will undo every good thing. The prime example, of course, being my father. A man absent even before he took the family fortune and vanished without a trace for 15 years. The man who destroyed a multi-million dollar empire.
Thanksgiving. Christmas. The two holidays I dread each year. It all comes into focus for me during these times where we’re supposed to gather and be a family that, in the end, we have never been a family. We’ve been a collection of similar gene types trapped in an endless cycle of self-abuse, fear, and self-hatred. There are no hugs, nobody ever says they love you. If they do, it’s only in the most extreme cases and, even then, a seemingly difficult admission. All talk reverts to the litany of family horrors – the deaths, the suicides, the thefts, the corruption, the betrayals, the addictions, the estrangements, the lost, and the vanished.
The curtains are always drawn when visiting the family. Two days indoors, and so sealed in that environment that it’s always a surprise to step outside, when the visiting is over and it’s time for the long ride home, to be confronted with the weather and clean air.
I tend to fall into a bit of a seasonal depression around the holidays. It’s been slightly better this year. Finally, I have something to live for. A sense of hope. An idea that things can be better. My own, long healing process has been all about being able to say that, yes, it can be and should be better.
As far as getting to that better point, I’m not particularly worried. I’ve survived disabling chronic pain, a family that has done nothing but try to derail me at every turn, and the treacherous waters of evil acquaintances. People who have stolen from me, lied to me, and taken advantage of my naiveté all under the guise of friendship, and love. In my weak years, I surrounded myself with weak people. So, given that I have some mysterious inner strength, I am confident that I can move on. That I can change things.
The resentments I harbor need not go past these pages, anymore. Certainly they can’t be brought to the family table and, overall, they no longer belong in my life. What was lost is lost, and the lesson has not been ignored: Strength comes from within. Change can only be made by my own hands.
Realizations and awakenings are all fine and good, but don’t really change where I am now as you read this. Thanksgiving in Podunk, West Virginia. My anxiety dream, last Tuesday night, thinking of the next day’s long rainy trip from DC through the mountains and down into the Ohio Valley, took me back to a painful moment. When my father left, I had just turned 12 years old. An only child with no real friends, a latchkey life. My friends took the form of Legos, where I built huge towns and spacescapes and medieval lands, living out my dreams of escapism. For comfort, I had stuffed animals. The only things in my life I could hug.
Dad took everything, and we went from being millionaires to surviving on food stamps over the course of three weeks. Back then, you could cash in the food stamps for cigarettes and beer. Mom had me buy a stick of gum with $100 in food stamps several times a week, funneling the money to her smokes, her booze, and drugs. I escaped with Legoland, she escaped with far worse things. My grandparents bought the groceries.
The family mansion on the hill went up for auction and, for a few weeks, we fled to my grandparent’s house while my grandfather mortgaged and borrowed and stole enough money to keep the mansion afloat and reinstall us into a weird, shadow version of the life we once had.
During those brief weeks of exile and confusion, my stuffed animals were confiscated. I was far too old for such things, and a boy, as well! Only girls had stuffed animals. Nothing terrible happened to them. They weren’t burnt or destroyed theatrically. Instead, I was forced to bring them to the damp basement bedroom where they were stuffed into two big, black garbage bags.
Their importance to me did fade with adolescence. By the time I graduated high school, their location was unknown. Somewhere in the vast undersea clutter of my grandparent’s basement, where their own lives had also piled up. Three generations of American junk, all of it worthless when the end came. Cheap toys and jars of baby teeth, broken lamps and ugly dinnerware, clothes that fell apart when you touched them and journals mildewed shut. An endless assortment of forgotten memories.
But, though no doubt long lost and unrecognizable at the bottom of a landfill, I sometimes pine for those stuffed animals of my youth. And I think of that day my grandfather stuffed them into the garbage bags. I stood there imagining that they were all suffocating. Clawing at the sides of the bags and gasping for breath. Reaching out for me, or just panicked and crying out my name. Dying slowly, knowing that they were being abandoned forever.
That first night, going to bed without anything to hug, was the start of my new life. My life without the comfort of being a millionaire and being free from want. The first night where I really understood what had happened – dad was gone. He’d taken everything. And mom was a ruined woman, imploding into her own insane world. Nothing would be easy ever again.
But listen to me. Poor little rich boy, eh?
I wonder if money does buy love. If it was good to, at one time, be a fortunate son. I wonder if I really lost anything or if all of it was just some sad, pathetic dream. And, now, in my own world, on my own terms, by hook or by crook, I wonder if I am finally entering the waking moments of my life. Free of the hospital bed and emerging into the sun.
Or something. I don’t fucking know. I just want a vodka tonic and some pumpkin pie.
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