The past few days, I’ve been ruminating. Ruminating while sorting through piles of paper in my house. Thinking about Thanksgiving which I took over from my mom when I was thirty. I’d just had my daughter in late August that year and felt like I’d really arrived in my adult life. My whole family came down from Chicago and we packed a lot of people into this house. I’d gotten really sick with the flu but I didn’t care how much fever I had – I was doing this no matter what I felt like. And so began a tradition that was maintained until Michael died in 2017.
I was already tired of the whole production. I can’t count how many hours I spent preparing for this one day, and during the last seven or eight events, things were tough. My knees were bone on bone and all that time on my feet was expensive for my body. When Michael got sick, continuing with the annual dinner was heavy with emotion, always wondering if this one was the last one for him.
In November of 2017, just a few months after he died, I handed the tradition baton to my daughter and my son-in-law. This year will be my third Thanksgiving out of my house.
I’ll bring a few of my specialties to their place but now I’m a guest. That’s just fine with me. While going through a lifetime of papers, I realized that I’ve kept all my Thanksgiving prep notes and plans. We often had 25 people here and the quartermaster in me had a battle plan. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to pitch them into the recycling.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking that now I’m a matriarch. I’ve actually been one for a long time because my mom never quite managed that role. Thinking about how you slide into different positions in your family is always thought-provoking. So many people who all shared the same table are gone now. Some spaces are forever empty while others are filled. When I think back, I recognize the role shifting that was in play long ago, but most of the time, none of it was discussed. The transitions just slid into place, as if we were all puzzle pieces whose little knobs finally found their proper fit. At least for a time.
I’ve been trying to focus on the positives in my life these past few days, a socially appropriate attitude for this holiday. Mostly they are little things which in my view are what make up the bulk of our lives. I seem to be transitioning into a place where I’ve almost completely internalized the powerful connection that I still feel with Michael. I see him, I hear him and I feel him all the time. That love is a source of strength for me along with its aura of mystery that radiates through me. I don’t understand it at all but my daily functioning is improved. I’m engaged in an interior dialogue with him which feels comforting. Today I went to the grocery store, one of my most detested chores. I’ve always tended to overbuy. As I stood unpacking the bags in the kitchen, I was mystified by how many packages of cheese I’d bought. I suddenly heard Michael’s voice saying, “so, was there a big sale today? You couldn’t afford not to buy all this?” I laughed out loud as that conversation had happened so many times in the past. I’m glad I have these vivid memories.
I’m also glad that the Walgreen’s clerk knows my name and I know hers. I’m grateful to have relationships with all the young pool employees who listen to my stories and let me mother them. I’m grateful that two people, one of whom is a dear old friend and another who is a total stranger who only knows me through reading this blog, took a moment to send me a New York Times article about my beloved Roger Federer. And of course, I’m grateful for my family and friends and for the fact that after 15 years, my two knee replacement surgeries have erased the dreadful pain I’d tolerated for so long. Another great joy has been unearthing incredible relics from the paper mountain I’ve been climbing. You never know what might turn up.
In what feels quite serendipitous, while thinking of my first Thanksgiving hostess job, begun right after I became a mother, I found a small brown travel journal I’d bought in 1980 for a trip Michael and I were taking that October. The trip was suggested by my obstetrician as a break from our attempts to conceive. We’d been trying for two years and I was really discouraged. Although my mom never had problems with fertility, other women in my family did and I suspected I was in the same boat. My doctor said that before we started fertility testing, a trip away from the constant monthly pressure might help relieve stress which could be getting in the way of pregnancy. So we planned a driving trip to Colorado, a combination of camping, national park visits and a little luxury on the side. I was twenty nine and Michael was thirty one. Most of my journaling during my life was done on notebook paper or legal pads so finding this little book was quite a surprise. I remember this trip well. I’d never been in the mountains before. Going in October promised to be a great choice as kids were back in school, meaning that the places we’d visit would be less crowded than they were during the summer months. We left￼ home early on October 1st, 1980.
We were headed to Redstone, Colorado, population 94. Our destination was the historic Redstone Inn, once a large rooming house and lodge for miners working in the surrounding mountains. We drove through Aspen and Vail to get there, the scenery spectacular and lit with fiery fall color.
Our room was old-fashioned, no phone, no television, no radio. The first night, we unpacked, explored a bit, had dinner and turned in early as we had a busy schedule planned for the next day. We woke up, had breakfast and went for a stroll before getting in the car to check out McClure’s Pass which was incredibly beautiful. In the afternoon, we’d scheduled a two hour horseback ride up into the mountains with a guide. We were taken up into the clouds on narrow paths, surrounded by aspen trees. We saw a hidden mansion of a mine owner and were enjoying the scenery, almost at the end of our upward climb when my stirrup got caught on a branch that struck my horse, causing him to rear and toss me off. Michael’s horse reared too but he held on as the guide scrambled to get control of mine. I was stunned and in severe pain, feeling around in the fallen leaves for my glasses which had flown off my head. I realized that I had no choice but to remount and get back down the mountain to the stables. Each movement of the horse was a jolt to my aching body but I made it. My dismount was more like falling and Michael was shocked that I could barely move. I got in bed and he went to find a dusty tube of Ben-Gay that I slathered on myself. The next day I sent him off for a hike while I lay still trying to read a book, High Tide at Gettysburg. What a crazy detail to remember. One more night in Redstone and then we headed off to the closest hospital at Glenwood Springs where I was examined, x-rayed and given muscle relaxers and painkillers. With the rebounding ability of youth, I got myself going, determined to keep on course with the trip. We did our laundry and then drove to Marble to see a partial ghost town and old marble quarries.
Then we went off to Telluride where we explored the town and then went off to pitch our tent in the San Juan National Forest. I was pretty impressed with my resilience and enjoyed being out in the crisp fall air, cooking outside and being alone. We read by the light of our Coleman lantern at night and had a wonderful time, thanks to those handy medications. From Telluride, we moved on to Mesa Verde National Park. We camped there and were delighted to climb out of our tent in the morning to see deer wandering around our front yard. We explored the pueblos and ruins and read about the history of the vanished people who once made a life there.
Our next stop was Ouray, Colorado. We drove the incredible Million Dollar Highway where at one point my speed was so slow that Michael woke from his nap because he thought we’d stopped. That road is one of the most challenging I’ve ever driven.
In Ouray, we stayed in a hotel. We ate at a delicious restaurant called the Bon-Ton which served Italian fare. We tasted Mondavi wine from California for the first time at that place. Ouray was an engaging town which we strolled through for a day. We eventually signing up for a jeep tour of Engineer Mountain, just under 13,000 feet and a challenge for me as I’m not fond of heights or bouncing along on them in an open-sided vehicle. We did it though and I managed to grab a few rocks which I still have today. We finished our wonderful trip at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National monument, another remarkably beautiful place. I still have the brochure from there, a far cry from the glossy ones you can pick up at any national park today. Then we headed home. Despite my unfortunate accident we had a wonderful, relaxing trip. Within a month of that trip I got pregnant. My doctor was right – we needed to break a stressful pattern. How incredibly lucky were we. My daughter was born the following summer, just a few months before I took on Thanksgiving for what would be a￼ 35 year stint as I unwittingly shifted to being a matriarch. As I work my way through the paper history of my life, there’s no telling what will turn up. Old feelings, new understandings. On I go. Happy thanksgiving to those here and those always near.