When I asked for help on what to post yesterday, Alexandra suggested that I share my very first Thanksgiving memory. Hers is making stuffing with her grandmother.
The thought stuck with me today. For the longest time, the holiday memories that I care to recall are those after my dad married my step mom. She always makes the holidays something special: a beautifully set table, classical music as the backdrop, lit candles, dinner together. Before her, it was chaos in a trailer: pheasants and quail cooked at my mom’s parents’ home, the double wide just south of town.
I remember my mom’s sisters and my cousins, all of us crammed into that tiny, dingy space, and how we spilled from the kitchen table, past the over sized fish tank, where we sprawled out on the living room floor, in front of the TV. If I extended my arm I could touch the couch; the far corner was where my grandma always sat, cigarette smoldering on the table at her feet, plastic tumbler filled with “tea” that was really whiskey or something like it. Truth is I didn’t know her drink of choice, only that it was hard liquor disguised as tea.
One year I was told to peel the potatoes. I sat on the couch just next to my grandma, with the 10 pound bag of spuds on the couch to my right, the trash can clenched between my knees, an empty pot waiting to be filled to my left. I was mad that I had to do that; everyone else was playing, and I was tired of being the oldest, the one responsible for whatever the adults didn’t want to do.
I took out my frustrations on those potatoes. I whacked away, not caring that the peels were flying past the trash can and on to the dirty shag carpeting. I focused on my work: peel after peel, like the staccato notes we practiced in orchestra class, the potato in my left hand and the peeler in my right. I fell into a rhythm, each hack at the potato more violent than the last as I watched my sisters and my cousins, running from the bedroom in the corner to the kitchen and back again, and my mother and her sisters, sitting around the Formica topped kitchen table, smoking their cigarettes and sharing words I wasn’t supposed to hear but had already memorized from their talks at Easter and the previous Christmas and Friday nights in our living room.
The blood pulled me out of my haze. As I’d hacked away at the potato I also took a chunk out of my thumb. I sat there stunned, with smoke swirling around me and kids running back and forth and voices drifting in and out, everyone oblivious to whether or not I was completing my assigned task.
I don’t remember if I screamed or not. I might have walked over and showed my mom, but it’s more likely that I walked to the bathroom instead, ran water over my hand, slapped a band aid on and went back to hacking. I was accustomed to not being comforted; if anything, she’d have laughed as she held my hand out for her sisters to see, announcing with clear conviction that even the simplest tasks were too much for her daughter.
I still have the scar on the knuckle of my thumb. I find myself rubbing it at times; not because it’s the only scar I have, but because even after I’ve sat through beautiful dinners at a welcoming table, it’s that afternoon I remember most vividly when I think of holidays and family gatherings and mashed potatoes.
I’m reading Dani Shapiro’s “Still Writing” and she quotes Anne Sexton, who said: “Pain engraves a deeper memory.” I don’t know if pain is the right word for why I still see that tiny scar on my thumb. Accumulated pain, maybe; the reminder that I didn’t matter, at least not in the way I wish I had. The confusion that comes with not understanding her, perhaps. The void of never knowing, for sure.
I’m participating in NaBloPoMo, and posting everyday in November.