Gratitude by Cherie O'connor

12/01/16 03:13:05AM
112 posts

When I was growing up my life felt like a movie. Sometimes it was a horror movie, but most often it was a comedy. At least we chose to see it that way. Laughter is a survival technique and it’s very effective. One time during Thanksgiving my mother’s current costume of choice was a short black wig and small round tinted glasses. She was a bit overweight and this combination made her a dead ringer for Roy Orbison. My brother pointed that out to me.

“Holy crap,” I said. “She really does look like Roy freakin’ Orbison.” When he started singing “Pretty Woman” I nearly lost it.

“What are you doing in there?” my mother yelled from her favorite spot on the couch. She was probably worried I was abusing her one and only son.

“Nothing,” my brother yelled back sweetly. “Your daughter just said you look like….”

“Shut up!” I screamed punching him in the arm. He flashed an impish grin.

“Elizabeth Taylor,” he finished sticking his tongue out.

Grow up, I mouthed. My mother said nothing. Perhaps my brother protected me from mom’s wrath as an act of charity during this holiday intended to celebrate family. Who knows? But I was thankful. The last thing we needed that Thanksgiving was some huge battle. Maybe somehow we could find a slice of normalcy hidden in the cake of madness. It was worth a shot.

At some point, my mother extracted herself from the couch and made her way to the table. It would be my fifteenth Thanksgiving in New England. How delightful. If Norman Rockwell had painted this scene it would not have been called, “Freedom from Want” it would have been called “Freedom from Roy Orbison”.

There was Roy, aka my mother, at the head of the Thanksgiving table prattling on about how thankful she was for a bunch of shitheads like us. Well, a couple of shitheads like my dad and me. My brother was “her boy”. In fact, she would torture me more times than I can count playing that hideous Richard Harris Song “My Boy” on the hi-fi stereo. Unlike Roy Orbison, my mother was not going to make it as a professional singer. Her voice wasn’t bad, she just had destroyed it by singing various selections from her jukebox of hell over and over again until one’s ears would bleed.

What my mother lacked in tone, she made up for in volume. This only added to the PTSD I suffered every time I heard “My Boy”, or any Richard Harris tune for that matter. Macarthur Park should fall into the pits of hell and be instantly incinerated in my opinion. Who even knew Richard Harris sang. That guy should have stuck to something he was good at. Acting.

We had one of those console stereos that was popular in the day. It was this huge piece of furniture that consumed an entire wall of our living room. Dark wood and built in speakers with metal swirls that screamed 1970’s. There were a record player and an AM/FM radio built into this monstrosity. I think it even had an 8-track tape player. It was state of the art, but not exactly meant to be cranked up to the highest volume possible. If a particular song my mother chose to torture us with had a lot of bass our whole house would vibrate. Earthquake in New England.

Mom enjoyed changing the lyrics of songs in order to send a message. Not with “My Boy” though. That one she just sang exactly as it was, in this loud baritone voice. Kind of like a drag queen imitating Ethel Merman. “Because you’re all I have my boy, you are my life, my pride, my joy, blah, blah blah….” Those lyrics were like a shot to my heart every time she sang them. My brother was her life, her pride, her joy. What about me? Something she might scrape off the bottom of her shoe I would imagine.

Oh well, Ce la vie. Moms and daughters struggle. A story as old as time itself. I did hate my brother a lot back then. I’m sure some of it stemmed from that “My Boy” song. He probably hated that stupid song as much as I did. Maybe more.

I can’t recall what album was playing on the stereo that particular Thanksgiving day. If I had chosen the playlist, it would have been Simon and Garfunkel.

“Hello darkness my old friend, you’ve come to visit me again. Disguised as Roy Orbison at our table, like some whacked out Aesop’s fable.” I change song lyrics too, probably some genetic anomaly.

Typically at Thanksgiving, my Dad sat at the head of the table. It seemed to make sense since he cooked the entire meal. I always offered a toast to the chef. The man who got up at 4 a.m. after working his ass off all week at a factory, then planned the meal, shopped for the meal and prepared the meal with very little sleep. I thought he deserved a thank you. I didn’t offer a toast to my mother. Feel kind of bad about that now, but at the time I wasn’t very fond of her. It was kind of like my brother. I hated her, I hated him and I thought they hated me. They didn’t. I think I hated myself.

The stereo played 24/7 during those high times, but this Thanksgiving wasn’t officially a high time. Not yet! Mom wasn’t full blown crazy yet. She was just on the verge. We could all feel it. Her talking was speeding up quite a bit but had not fully blossomed into the incoherent endless stream of nonsense that spewed forth during full manic times. It was just the beginning. That’s why she was at the head of the table this year. Manic Mom didn’t yield her power to no man. My Dad was not the power hungry type so he dutifully sat at the other end of the table in Mom’s traditional seat. My brother and I sat on opposite sides. Just the four of us this year. No need to put in the extra leaves that expanded the table to accommodate as many as 12. We’d had that many come to Thanksgiving before. Not this year. Maybe people didn’t want to come to Crazy House. They were lucky. They had a choice.

I set the table. That was my job from the time I was little. My dad had asked once who wanted to set the table and I volunteered enthusiastically. After that, the job was mine. No matter how whacky things got in our house, we all tried to hang onto our own normalcy, in our own ways. Setting the table was my reality check. It reminded me of happier Thanksgivings. The ones that did mirror a Norman Rockwell painting. It seemed I wanted very little of life back then. Just happiness and peace. I still remembered those happy Thanksgivings and wanted to bring them back, but they were long gone. It was like those memories had been miniaturized and stuffed into one of those magic snow globes. Inside the glass container, my beautiful family was sitting at the Thanksgiving table. Yet as soon as you shook the globe we disappeared in a storm cloud of snow. We lived in that storm now.

Even still, I forced myself out of bed that Thanksgiving when I heard the pans clanging in the kitchen. My mother was asleep. That was a good thing. During the manic times, she barely slept. That meant no one slept. I looked in on her and sighed happily. She looked peaceful in sleep. When I walked into the kitchen rubbing my eyes, dad smiled. Somehow he was always smiling. I could see the exhaustion lining his face but he still had a twinkle in those hazel eyes. It killed me. I wished so much that we could go back to how things were when I was little. They weren’t perfect, but they weren’t crazy.

Getting up early to help Dad stuff the bird in spite of my vegetarianism was our special bonding time. It always had been. He would playfully slap my hand as I picked the raisins out of the stuffing and warn “No picking.” He’d laugh when I told him how gross the gizzards were. That’s what gives the stuffing flavor, he insisted. Even so, he lovingly created a batch of non-gizzard laden stuffing for his little girl, extra raisins and all. In that kitchen, Dad didn’t have to sing “My Girl”. I felt it. That’s how it was between me and Dad. His little Punkin’ would be there by his side helping him out whenever possible and he was so appreciative. He didn’t have to say the words thank you. I was there because I wanted to show him my gratitude.

Before Mom Orbison commandeered the head of the table that year we watched the Macy’s parade. Just me and mom. My brother took off for the high school football game and Dad looked in occasionally, but he didn’t have time to sit. He was too busy basting the turkey and peeling potatoes. Parades brought out this sweet little girl energy in my mom that I cherished. It gave us an opportunity to share the good things in life. The dancers, the marching bands, the huge balloons representing familiar fictional characters. My mom loved it all. By the time the Santa float came out signifying the end of the parade the anointed one returned from the Turkey Game. My brother shared the scores and some other football highlights. The boredom made me hungry and thirsty.

Thanksgiving meant wine. Usually Riunite with ice. Oh, that’s nice. My favorite flavor was Lambrusco. It tasted like grape juice with a nice little kick that made everything a little fuzzier. It seemed to soften the edges of life.

That year we probably had generic wine. My Dad was on a generic kick. It seemed everyone in our town was. White packages with stark black lettering were everywhere. Why spend money on all that ridiculous advertising? Generic wine, coffee, cigarettes, and cereal were all available at a large discount. We probably even had generic powdered milk. Thankfully there was no such thing as powdered generic wine or I’m sure we would have tried it.

Actually, I’m not a hundred percent sure we had wine that year. My mother preferred hard alcohol and had recently decided to experiment with making her own. She seemed to be experimenting with a lot of things those days. This was part of her ongoing dream of creating the next big thing to make her mark in the world and her million dollars. There always was some weird science experiment fermenting on the counters or in the bathtub. Fortunately, she wasn’t making bathtub gin. That year Mom was cultivating Galliano.

The liquor was being aged in several lead crystal containers. I don’t know where she got the recipe, but it was pretty much vodka and sugar with some sort of flavoring. It tasted yummy almost like Riunite, but with a major kick. Nothing like a good buzz to bring the family closer together. It worked. I think I may have even lifted a glass to thank my mother for her contribution.

Mom remarked on how beautiful the table looked. You always make the table so festive she said smiling. I’d worked extra hard on making the table perfect that year. My sister’s friend had taught me how to make napkin fans and I had perfected the art. There on everyone’s plate was a burgundy napkin fan. We looked like a normal family. Roy Orbison’s family.

In the end, it ended up being a really nice Thanksgiving. Right after my Dad gave his blessing which was “Over the lips and through the gums look out stomach here it comes,” my brother started humming Pretty Woman, very softly so only I could hear it. The Galiano had already started working on me and I tried hard to hold back my laughter. My brother saw me on the verge of cracking up and he hummed the song a little louder. Then louder still until I couldn’t hold the giggles in anymore. I started laughing so hard I almost peed my pants. My laugh was infectious. First, my Dad started laughing, then my mom and then my brother. Of course, my parents had no idea what we were laughing about, but the laughter must have felt good to everyone.

“What is so funny about that song?” My mother asked.

Then I felt bad. Really bad. We were making fun of my mother on Thanksgiving Day. Maybe I was a shithead just like she thought.

“Nothing,” I said wiping my eyes. Tears of laughter turned to tears of shame. “Joe just said something stupid about Roy Orbison that I thought was funny.”

“Oh I love Roy Orbison,” My mom said.

“Me too,” I said.

Then Mom gave a more religious blessing. I can’t remember what she said but I wish I could. I’m sure it was beautiful. If Norman Rockwell had been there to paint the scene I would have asked him to call it “Gratitude” because that’s how I felt. Grateful to be part of a family that taught me so much in spite of the challenges we faced. Grateful for one last Thanksgiving with my brother before he went off to college, and grateful for the man who planned, shopped for and prepared an amazing feast with very little sleep and a smile on his face. Oh, and of course deep gratitude for mom’s delicious homemade Galliano. She should have made a million dollars with that recipe, the stuff was magical. As for Roy Orbison, I’m grateful for him too. Every time I hear “Pretty Woman” on the radio I think of that Thanksgiving. Even still, I won’t be asking Santa for the Richard Harris Greatest Hits album. Macarthur Park in a snow globe is fine with me.

updated by @americymru: 11/24/19 06:16:51PM