Written Wednesday, November 29, 2006, “Sour grapes and the theory of impermanence” was about a Thanksgiving celebrated in Pennsylvania, and recovered from in New Jersey. This is raw, Myspace material here, folks. Perfect accompaniment to Ma’s green bean casserole!
Sandwiched between Halloween (my dad’s favorite holiday) and Christmas (my mom’s), Thanksgiving always came in third or possibly eighteenth in my family. To me a fun Thanksgiving required a ton of people in the house to eat all this dumb Pilgrim food with. We often didn’t live in the same region as our relatives, and the last time we did spend it with them, the evening had the ominous feel of the last act of King Lear.
So last year my family unhesitatingly spent “Turkey Day” painting the living room. But, hey, we took an hour off in the afternoon to sit on the covered furniture shoved into the middle of the room and eat turkey ‘n gravy on toast.
We all agreed it was okay if, this year, I didn’t dash across the country for the holiday dedicated to thanking our white man’s god for providing gullible natives who were willing to feed us, hand over their land, and inspire Cher songs.
Anyway. My friend M has this thing about Thanksgiving so we decided several months ago that, even if we were single, unloved, far from family and totally broke on that particular Thursday in November, we’d at least do something together. So when she decided she’d spend it with her brother and sister in law in Pennsylvania, I went too.
Driving past old stone barns turned into antique stores, M warned me that the town where her brother lived was Something Else. Waiting for something else, I watched twee tea shops and bookstores fritter into lovely straight streets of family-sized pre-war houses. The lavendar-grey sky melted into the naked mauve branches of the trees. As we parked in the driveway of her brother’s house, his wife opened the back door, holding up her adorable one year old to watch us lift dishes of sweet potatoes and turnips from the back seat. It was just like the neighborhood my family lived in before we moved to Oregon… perfect.
Digression: Many people would call the neighborhood where I currently live and work “more than perfect.” The Queen Anne and Tudor mansions on sloping green lawns grace the curving streets with a gracious distance between them. Expensive cars fill the garages, happy children run to and fro, pedigreed dogs bark from maintained fences. But no one actually lives in these homes. They commute to the city every day or spend four hours in the gym so they’ll be fit enough to pick their children up from Catholic school. Hired help cares for the lawns, children, meals, cars and windows of these “homes.” Like most of this town, they’re holograms of perfection, but you can walk right through them. End digression.
We’ll call M’s brother Dan and his wife Carrie. Their adorable baby, by the way, is truly adorable, unlike all the babies in this world whom you’re required to describe with that word. She accompanied Carrie and I around the house as I oohed and ahhed at the redecorated bathrooms, the new mullioned windows, the baby’s mint-green attic room with the two-inch thick wood door.
I asked her how she felt living out here after she said she’d lived in cities all her life. She told me with what seemed genuine contentment- I recognized it from hearing it in my own voice when my family lived in the aforementioned Perfect Town- that between the baby, her work, and the pleasure of having favorite “local spots” in the town, she felt fulfilled right now visiting the city only once every couple weeks.
They’re both writers, working from home… a home with mullioned windows.
We ate too much good food, played a couple games, marveled at the baby’s genius, met the three cats. Then M took me home and returned to hers.
The next morning I discovered the house full of cake, brownies, cookies and turkey leftover from this family’s Thanksgiving celebration. I had a slice of everything. I spent a good hour talking to my boss’s father, who was visiting with her mother for the holiday. I went to Barnes & Noble to buy a gift, glaring a bit resentfully at the shelves of books everyone else in the universe had managed to get published. Then I drove to M’s.
All this, having eaten cake for breakfast.
For some reason, as I drove, my thoughts strayed to that idyllic period (in the aforementioned Perfect Town) when I was living with my family in a sweet old Craftsman and teaching myself how to write. Those couple years were marred by my own frustration, isolation, and boredom, topped with a few ugly revelations before we moved about the town itself. But I also learned, during those years, as I had learned years before writing on a used word processor in the tiny living room of our tiny two-bedroom apartment, that a little classical music, loved ones nearby, and something to write on are sometimes all I need to feel… content.
I’ll let the word rest in its purest form.
I thought about contentment as I’d experienced it in the past. I thought about the books on the bookstore shelves, and the burbling ideas I’ve had lately for novels, screenplays, comic scripts, memoirs… hundreds of things I wanted to write. But because I don’t want to let my parents support me anymore, because I’m too high-maintenence to keep this job that gives me all the free time in the world, and because you can’t ask Santa for a husband/sugar daddy, I’m not sitting in a peaceful place writing stories all day.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t have cake this morning for breakfast. Today, I know, as I know nineteen days out of twenty, that I wouldn’t trade anything for the fun I’m having right now. But “for some reason” that day after Thanksgiving, I felt bereft.
You can puke any time. This particular story probably won’t get any less sentimental. I cried driving to Hoboken. Cried later that afternoon. Wasn’t until about three-thirty that I realized, gee. I just visited the Happy Suburban Family and must admit I have no means of attaining said happiness. I wonder why I feel blue?
Who knows how long they’ll have it- as M’s boyfriend pointed out when she described her brother’s situation to him, he’d had two kids, a house and wife a while back, too. Now he’s separated, his school-age daughters are in therapy, and his wife makes Norma Desmond look calm and open-minded.
In other words, even if you experience marital, familial, and workial bliss, it may not last. But that doesn’t make it any easier to live without it. I may don a Buddhist perspective sometimes and say “life is impermanence, so enjoy whatcha got,” but I have to admit that I want those few moments of shared happiness a young family hopefully experiences. Anyone who says they don’t just hasn’t been to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving lately.
So, once I’d realized that the combination of a hypoglemic-nightmare breakfast and a heartbreakingly nice peek into suburban life had given me an understandable post-ecstasy slump, I felt more pragmatic. Sure, I didn’t have a husband, child, cat, house, or the ability to support myself writing, yet. But… someday?
Pragmatism got me off the couch and to the liquor store with the hope that beer would finish the job.
I didn’t get drunk that night, however, or hit on any boys, or wander around the city looking for a distraction. I went to M’s boyfriend’s apartment with her. The three of us had a few beers, ate sushi, and listened to music. We assured ourselves that even if none of us ever experience that “Leave It To Beaver” stuff again, (and since all three of us lack the Calm Gene that makes such things possible, we may not) we can always adopt babies from the Congo and find some sort of compromised crazy substitute for Perfect Family Life.
And one of us may. Or they may get married and I’ll wind up the spinster with a hundred cats that M worries she’ll become. We might each end up on a different continent, we might not be talking this time next year, we might be drafted to fight in Iraq, we might find ourselves still drinking decades from now, wondering how to hold on to love.
Aware of all this, we just talked about David Bowie and how M’s boyfriend needed a haircut.
It wasn’t the most relaxed of evenings, but now that my blood sugar is stable, I have just one thing to say: I’m damn grateful I was there, with them, that night. I don’t know what’ll happen to them, or me, or anyone else I care about, tomorrow or ten years from now. I’m just glad to have friends who are willing, at least right now, to do what so few people besides my family have ever been able to do: to peek with me, almost blindly, through the curtain of night into the next day.