A Different Kind of Thanksgiving

The night before my maternal grandmother died my mother pushed me so hard I fell to the floor and banged my head. My grandfather and I had just walked in the door after spending the day at a New York hospital where my grandmother lay there unconscious as I moistened her lips, rubbed cream on her arms, wept at the sound of her labored breathing. I felt such guilt, such helplessness… My grandfather who was behind me, shocked by my mother’s violent actions and sneering words muttered “Oh, Jane please,” without conviction. He knew his stepdaughter well. No one ever crossed her. 

Stunned by the unwarranted physical attack and vicious remarks I picked myself off the floor and went into the dining room. The remains of thanksgiving dinner were still on the table. I don’t remember the conversation – just that my grandmother’s sisters were there. My grandfather and I left soon after, exhausted and depressed returning to his house three miles down the road. At 5AM the next morning the phone rang and I knew… my beloved grandmother was dead.

I was reeling – numb. My brother had killed himself the year before and now this. I remember nothing about the memorial service except that my grandmother was lying in a steel coffin. When my grandmother’s ashes arrived, I opened the door to receive them, took the box upstairs and put it in her closet…that was it. I spent the rest of the winter at my grandfather’s house feeling useless, returning home to Maine in the spring.

 My oldest son, still quite young at the time was an explosive arrogant kid who had to get his own way, and he was the one that pushed my grandmother down when she broke her hip. She never walked again. For the next nine months I went to NY every month to care for my grandmother who I knew was dying. The dead years were in full swing – I had no feelings at all except one – I wished I was dead. 

 My children were emotionally neglected while the dead years droned on. But even then I managed to rise to holidays, preparing elaborate thanksgiving meals for family that included my parents and aunts who made the trip to Maine from NY. At Christmas my parents invited the children to NY, and of course I agreed. I was withering away under Survivors guilt wondering why I was alive when Davey was dead. It barely registered that my parents didn’t seem to want me to join them.

 Ten years later I emerged from the underworld and began to mourn my little brother and the loss of my grandmother…My feelings, although painful were returning. I was coming to life again. Now I was able to be emotionally present for my children who had grown into young adolescents with an insensitive dead mother.

I tried to show my children how much I loved and needed them. I was consumed by even more guilt as I owned my inability to be present for them in meaningful ways during the years I spent locked in deep depression. I continued to cook elaborate meals. At thanksgiving I would bake pies and cookies that they would down without even a ‘thank you’ before they left for New York to be with their grandparents…

 The moment I was alone, clearing up the remains of a complicated meal, old memories of thanksgiving would surface, and I was once again overcome with guilt.  Thanksgiving was the last time I saw my grandmother. And she didn’t even know I was there. During that last year of her life she told me that I was all she had. That this was true was patently obvious. My mother wanted no part in her care and my grandfather who worked all the time had professional people come in to care for her. My grandmother was so forlorn and each weekend when I left her, deep loneliness followed me home. She lived less than a year after her fatal fall. I couldn’t seem to leave that sorrow, or the guilt that I carried for not being able to do more for her, behind. 

When my children left home I began the process of reclaiming my Native heritage. When I learned that thanksgiving was a celebration for colonists who massacred/poisoned the Indigenous peoples that had treated them so kindly I was revolted. 

As Nature became more central to my life a childhood circle that had been interrupted by my brother’s death began to close as I was returned to the arms of nature. I began to celebrate the seasonal rounds beginning with the solstices and equinoxes. Soon after I added the cross quarter turnings, discovering in the process that I had finally found my spiritual home.

The year I moved to the mountains my father died just before thanksgiving, the second family loss that occurred in the month of November. I survived the holidays that year by feeding the beavers in my stream and by preparing a place in the forest to receive my dad’s ashes bereft of human companionship.

 I didn’t know it then but I would never again celebrate this miserable holiday with anyone in my immediate family. Thirty years later I look back at that first thanksgiving spent with the beavers (and by extension my dad) as a turning point in my life.

Moving to the mountains funneled me into isolation on a level I had not experienced even after my brother’s death. This was the world of the good ol’ boys who bullied and dominated others leaving a person like me a permanent outsider and a target for abuse. I was also discriminated against for claiming my Native heritage. I longed for family. My youngest son who did visit occasionally, eventually made it clear that doing so was an obligation. A few years ago he stopped making the hour plus drive. Too much trouble.

 One thanksgiving I had an astonishing dream in which I was with my grandmother who was alive and telling me that all the time she was dying she knew I loved her and was with her…  When I awakened from this dream all those years of grandmother guilt dissipated, never to return. My love for her had been enough, after all.

hemlock trees are the longest living trees on the east coast… 400 – 800 years

 Soon after I began to create little traditions that I follow to this day. November is the month I begin to celebrate my love for every evergreen tree on the earth. The leaves of broadleaf trees have become nature’s mulch, yet forest green stays with us until spring, thanks to the conifers. Thanksgiving week is the time I choose to go into the forest to tip balsam boughs thanking the trees for being, always choosing a mild day when I can enjoy being outdoors. Then I weave fragrant wreaths sitting on my living room floor listening to choral music sung in Latin, a language I don’t understand, thankfully (!) This year my indoor Norfolk Island pines are already lit with rice lights for a few hours each evening lending a festive glow to the soothing cloak of darkness. 

 Recently I decided to include a dinner for this week of Wintergreen Tree Celebration and it turned out that the foods I wanted to cook were some of the favorite foods I prepared during those exhausting and meaningless thanksgivings, cooking that I did for others, including my children at my own expense. At first this idea of cooking a feast for myself, (after all the trees couldn’t join me) seemed silly until I recalled how much I loved my own food! I am an excellent cook and I can conjure up just about anything without a recipe.

mama partridge or ruffed grouse

And this is how I came to create the space for a celebration of all evergreen trees that includes food I love from old thanksgiving dinners. I have transformed thanksgiving! Every year I wait for one of my favorite birds, the partridge, to join me outdoors as s/he feasts on old crabapple berries. This year I have added a “Star Baby” to my celebration! 

I am no longer without human relatives! I will be talking to my cousin on thanksgiving, sharing memories and stories as well as whatever pictures/videos of the baby that may come my way…Capri Rose, my beloved little cousin was born just a few months ago on my dad’s side of the family, family that my mother made sure we never got to know. 

My two Cousins…. Billy and Star Baby!

My Star Baby is the youngest of the Pottetti line and I am the oldest. Together we close a circle, just as Billy and I have done.  (I think our two Dads would be very happy about this outcome). My first cousin and I have what is known as Sympatico – he tells me all the time “it’s natural that we should share and do things together because we are family.” He will never know what it’s like to be without loved ones, because his Italian roots privilege family over others – the exact opposite of what my mother did, and my own children continue to do today. 

 It’s easy to see in retrospect that my refusal to abandon my father when he died gave my mother another opportunity for revenge that she couldn’t resist. I set it up by challenging her decision not to have any kind of memorial service for her husband. The worst part was that she made sure her grandchildren wouldn’t attend their grandfather’s service.  This either or attitude of hers – choose her/her money, or me and a memorial service, helped split me away from my children/grandchildren on a permanent basis.  

Thirty years later my father’s nephew folded me back into  family. I have no idea when I shall visit my little cousin but she lives in my heart as a beacon of hope for the future, and oh, I love her so. She’s a girl and she’s family too! Billy doesn’t let a day go by without sending me pictures of her laughing, crowing, working hard to roll over, eating her first food, all the things I missed… This year when I weave my wreaths into the circle we call life I will be thinking of Billy and his family, my Star Baby, and the Pottetti Family Tree – the one with Love and Blessings for all Beings, (human and non human) at its center. 

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