Saturday, April 30, 2011

Thinking About Thankgivings Past

Originally Written in late 1990s - Published in November, 2003 on - Last Posted on November 22, 2005

As I ponder my plans for Thanksgiving later this week, I started to reminisce about all those prior Thanksgivings in my life. It has been a mixed bag from the joyous to the sad, but memories nonetheless.

Indulge me, if you would?

Up until the year my mother had her debilitating stroke in 1979; every Thanksgiving at the Stern household in Reseda, California was as close to traditional as every family tries to strive for. Those feasts were as close to a real “Normal Rockwell” Thanksgiving as you can get for a single-parent family and our friends. Two months earlier that year, my mother suffered her second stroke of the year, which caused her to lose any physical function on the right side of her body. It also made aphasic or disabled to speak coherently.

As mom was unable to physically prepare a feast for the family as she has done for the first 14 years of my life, my brother, Matthew, and I ended up at some restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. I could not recall the actual location, but I do recall being depressed at the fact that we were having Thanksgiving at a restaurant rather than the traditional turkey and trimmings served by the one and only Barbara Stern. That experience further changed my life.

From that point, our family was slowly returning to “normal.” Mom was able to gain some physical ability to assist in subsequent Thanksgivings at the Reseda home. At the same time, my life was going through some major changes. From the time I graduated high school, I became rebellious and lost focus on being a part of my family. Most of my actions were centered on the need to be apart from my family in order to gain my own way in life. However, I felt obligated to be a part of the family’s gatherings as long as I lived under my mother’s roof.

During this period in my life, one such Thanksgiving stood out as a sign of things to come. In 1985, I decided to split my Thanksgiving with my family and my friends, the Winferys, down in Lynwood. Joseph and I were friends going back to junior high, where I also met his sister Sonji. I got to know their mother, Eleanor, who worked at the hotel where a regional conference was held for a high school club I participated in. The eldest child, Jeff, became my high school’s assistant basketball coach when Joseph, Sonji and I attended. As the years progressed, I became a part of the Winfery family as I was a part of my own.

It was over an hour’s drive between Reseda and Lynwood. However, mom insisted that I make an appearance at the house in Reseda. I did and grandma was there. I never got along with any of my grandparents when they were still alive. As soon as she spoke, I bolted back down to Lynwood and the Winfery family. They had a great Southern-style spread which was quite yummy. At that moment in my life, being with my friends that Thanksgiving made up for a lot of my issues with my family.

Perhaps the most memorable Thanksgiving ever was in 1991. It would be the last Thanksgiving we spent as a family. Since 1987, I had moved to San Rafael and began my process of coming out as a gay man. I flew down that morning and checked into a hotel in Mission Viejo near where Matthew and his wife Elizabeth lived. They wanted to do a Reseda-style Thanksgiving at their townhouse since all of us will be together. Mom was in her senior trailer up in Stanton, a suburb next to Garden Grove. Matthew asked me to drive mom from her trailer down to the townhouse and back. If you are familiar with Orange County California, it is a long drive.

It turned out to be one of the best Thanksgivings ever! It was also the happiest our family has been. As we left the townhouse, I was transferring Mom into my rented Oldsmobile when I dropped her on the ground. I was exhausted and she pretty much knew that I was. Instead of getting mad or cry, she laughed. We both laughed as we hugged each other on the way of picking her up from the ground and placing her in the passenger seat.

More than a decade later, I have come to appreciate the love our family had around this time of year. In the past, I used to wish that I had a better childhood en route to becoming a well adjusted adult. Those thoughts no longer are valid in my mind. I miss my parents, in particular my mother. She has been gone for 11 years now.

I am comfortable knowing my brother is happy with Elizabeth and their two children, Stephanie and Benjamin, down in South Orange County. Whether we’ll see each other again is something I don’t think about. I have a wonderful set of friends, who have become my family. They consist of a diverse group of wonderful people stretching coast-to-coast. As I move forward in my middle age, I have made my fraternal family here in Minnesota and elsewhere in North America a priority in my life. It is doubtful that I will cross that bridge back home to Southern California for a very long time.

As for this year, I will spend time reflecting back at those times with warmth in my heart, but also with hope and concern. No one should ever have to spend Thanksgiving alone. Back in 1995, I wrote an essay on that subject, which was intended as a call to action for those who read to create spaces for people who otherwise do not have anywhere to go for this American tradition. A few people have heeded this call. Others simply say a sympathetic note and move on.

If you are alone on Thanksgiving, allow the joyful memories of your life to carry you through the day. The tradition of Thanksgiving is one where camaraderie, whether it’s familiar or not, is shared by all who are gathered together. Find a way to share with others, this year and every year.

(c) 2003 One Group/R. J. Olivera; Revised 2005 Randy Stern

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