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Karen Strumpolis is an artist, art instructor, and writer living and working on Long Island, New York. She has an MFA in Fine Art and writes as part of her artistic practice. When she’s not painting, providing one-on-one art lessons, or scribbling small secret jottings in a series of notebooks, she’s imbibing an overpriced caffeinated beverage to keep her ADHD roaring ahead of the competition.
It’s Thanksgiving Day, and the kitchen counter is covered in pot gummies.
My second-oldest brother, Liam, has painstakingly wrought these trim, grape-flavored squares. He has ordered syringes, molds, eyedroppers, “flower” from Curealeaf, the nearest medical marijuana distillery, and a purple infuser (diffuser? cooker? I’m not up on my pot-cuisine terminology) that looks like a cross between a Keurig and a designer waterbottle.
While my stepmom Rosa recruits me to make the dessert components of Thanksgiving, Liam squints at his recipe, converting drams to milliliters and halving measurements, trying to achieve the perfect dose and the ideal flavor at once. While I measure brown sugar into a bowl, he reports on the progress of the pot-cooking-device. “This will make the house smell like weed,” he repeats. “Sorry.” (He’s delighted.)
There are five us in the house, five adults locked in a maladjusted and quarantined folkdance: my dad, the very Greek patriarch, carpenter/handyman, and bastion of conservative Christian values; Rosa, the immaculately turned-out Italian huntress of dust, dirt, and domestic disorder; my youngest brother George, the body-builder physicist endlessly working on his glutes, quads, and PhD.; Liam, dubbed “permanently partially disabled” by Medicare, by necessity a chemical wizard of all things that reduce physical and emotional pain; and me, a thirty-something artist/creative with Peter Pan syndrome and neurotic tendencies. (We also have a tenant, Lucy. As far as I can tell, she’s perplexingly normal. It naturally follows that she doesn’t come into this story.)
Liam’s miracle of turning weed to gummy treats is the one constant on the roller coaster ride that is Thanksgiving 2020, a many-tentacled tug-of-war between precaution, paranoia, governmental interventions, propaganda, and religio-political rants. The gyrations of the holiday can be broken down for dissection into several phases:
a) First, the plan was that Dad and Rosa would go to Rosa’s parent’s house while my sister (who, along with my oldest brother, Aaron, is a successfully fledged adult and therefore semi-liberated from the antics of the Clan) and myself went to our biological mother’s brother’s house, and then on Friday Dad’s family would descend on our home for Thanksgiving: Greek Edition!
b) But then, everybody/somebody/a few people (the details remain shrouded in mystery, not to say recrimination) convinced Rosa’s mom, whom I will call Grandma Linguini, that having even a moderately massive gathering during a pandemic was a bad idea, and the Italianate component of the festivities fractured into several smaller gatherings at various people’s houses.
c) Once this plan was in place, my uncle’s middle daughter, my cousin Jill, came down with Covid, which automatically cancelled the Northern European festivities.
d) At this point I declined an invitation to accompany the Progenitor & Co to his cousin’s Thanksgiving party on the grounds that this cousin always asks me whether or not I’ve found a husband yet, acts shocked when I say no, and the rest of the conversation centers around matchmaking and female lack.
e) Then, on the Italian front, Rosa decided to celebrate at home with me and my sister (henceforth known as Boudica) since she was upset with her family for “manipulating” her mother into a “state of fear” about a silly thing like a global pandemic. She, Rosa, was therefore rebelliously staying home and not throwing a party. Rosa is the single most extraverted person I know, so this decision was entirely against her nature. With this decided, it was agreed that there was to be no “real” Thanksgiving at all, although the Greeks remained scheduled to invade on Friday.
f) Finally, when I wake up Thursday morning, Rosa announces that “Grandma Linguini felt terrible” and insisted we all go to her house, corona be damned. In fact, Grandma “would not take no for an aswer.”
I stare at Rosa for a moment after she delivers this final bit of news, and announce that I am going for a walk. As I leave the house, Liam paces around the kitchen, earbuds set to cancel ambient sound, humming in a soft monotone, like a monk, as he begins mixing sugar and corn syrup in a double-boiler.
I walk into the rain, heading for the little creek near our house. I love the creek: the ducks are not worried about lethal pathogens; they have no windows or doors to lock; they never hoard toilet paper. The geese fly in defiant arrows of more than ten, yodelling from east to west. There are over a hundred pigeons packed like strung beads on the wires over the harbor, most likely coughing on one another and touching one another’s faces with unwashed wings.
In the rain, I walk alone. A man in a truck shouts “Happy Thanksgiving!” to me and I shout it back. The rain intensifies and I pull my hood up over my head. Water trickles into my pocket where my left hand is hiding.
When I finally meander back home, my pulse has slackened and my mind is made up, or at lease resigned. I’d rather not go to Grandma Linguini’s house, but I am in no mood to have even the mildest of opinions (read: altercations). It’s Thanksgiving. I am ready to go with the potentially contagious flow.
I contribute to the festivities and make a coconut custard pie as Liam pours his gummies into their molds. He says I can leave early with him if I need to. Neither of us are party people.
We pull up to Grandma’s house and shuffle inside. There’s already more than ten people here, naked-faced and hugging one another. My brother Aaron and his wife are the only mensches who wear masks. They want to know for a fact that if Grandma gets sick, it wasn’t their fault.
I’m slightly afraid of Aaron, who is ten years older than me and once described us in one of his short stories as a “Frankenfamily.” It was funny because it was true. And it burned for the same reason. We are a little monstrous, a little unnatural, more than a little embarrassing. Aaron’s cocktail of clearsightedness and disengagement makes him a just but unmerciful judge.
Political and theological lightningstorms rake from one end of the table to the other. The Italians comfortably scream over each other. Vocally, might is right. I scrunch myself up and press my arms and legs together, taking up as little space as possible. They might be loud, I remind myself, but they can cook. The food is magnificent. Be grateful, you Thanksgiving Grinch.
I endure through dessert and then slip out and begin walking home. I’m looking forward to clearing my head, but then Liam comes hurtling after me in his car and demands to drive me; he feels bad, I think, that I didn’t ask for a ride. I try to refuse, but he’s as implacable as grandma.
I only remember Liam’s degree of altered-stated-ness once I’m buckled in, and then it’s too late: I’ve hopped into the car with someone who, in one morning, has taken two Clonopins, smoked at least one joint, and eaten an unknown amount of pot gummies. As we accelerate, it occurs to me that I am an idiot.
So there’s the portrait: Liam, chivalrously driving under the influence. Here I am, resolutely and imbecilically mute, preferring to risk injury or death over giving offense. There is my father and my stepmom, back at Grandma’s, propounding their cherished beliefs at top volume and with military intensity. There’s George, concentrating on ingesting the ideal quantity and ratio of carbs-to-protein. Boudica is seconds away from leaping into the frey with the brave and doomed javelin of her unpopular perspective. And Aaron is inspecting us all coolly, weighing us in the scales of his eyes and finding us lacking, maybe wittyly encapsulating our failings in neat barbed phrases.
I can see us that way, now. The stitches that hold us in one greenish, mouldering body are barely holding. Everyone contributes one or another brand of broken to the cauldron. I see each one of us dead-ending into the failures that define us: permanently partially disabled. Locked in the speeding cars of our lives. Heading who knows where.
And then, like a bolt of energy from a totally different source, I remember an interview I saw with Brene Brown, of TedTalk fame.
In the interview Brene tells a story — and I’m retelling it, so this is basically gossip and highly unreliable, it may never have happened — about some speaker/shrink/guru asking their audience, which included her, “Do you think people are doing the best they can?” And Brene and all the other people the Questioner is addressing laugh and say nooooooo, of course not. People slack off and poop out and disconnect and give up and phone it in and no, they do not do they best they can.
And the Questioner asks Brene, and everyone else, “Think of someone you know who is not doing the best they can.” And it’s easy; she can think of someone right away: a total disappointment, a waste of life.
“What if,” asks the Questioner, “a source beyond doubt, like God or some other ultimate authority, appeared to you and told you, ‘I promise that this person is absolutely doing the best they can.’” And Brene, and the rest of the audience, begins to cry.
Liam drives me safely home. I get out of the car and thank him and watch him drive away, and then I take out my keys and let myself in and go inside and collapse into my bed.
It might have been nice if my parent and his consort could express their views with a little more kindness. It might be nice if Boudica could feel happy and accepted and joyful instead of suffering from chronic depression and wielding her javelin. It would be great if Liam could stop self-medicating himself through family, pain, and generalized anxiety. I’d love it if Aaron could find a vulnerable space inside himself from which to extend some grace. It would be wonderful if I could summon the courage speak up, to meet life.
But you know what — I think we might all be doing the best we can. I think we’re all fighting our terrible, invisible, humiliating battles, within and between each other. I think each day we all sit down to banquets of forgiveness, provided at great cost, by and for one another. We are a Frankenfamily, but we’re doing the best we can.
I’m grateful for that.
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