I remember what questions popped up in my mind on a regular basis when I was a little kid. One recurring one was how someone got to be first. I never meant first in a figurative sense, but rather only a literal one. Like how did you get to be the first car on the road? Just when it seemed that no one was ahead of you, another car popped up on the horizon. How did that happen? And how was it possible that while I was hanging around in my own life, doing basically nothing, people were having babies, dying, playing, working, being sick, having sex, getting shot? And what about the multitude of microscopic and even smaller functions going on in my autonomic body? I can’t feel or hear them. You get my drift. Time and space, past, now and future, are truly difficult concepts. Not to mention all these other random concepts. Are there really parallel universes? Is what I’m doing now spiraling off into a wavelength that lasts forever? Or is what I’m doing now really a hologram somewhere, like Princess Leia was in Star Wars? I hope so because that might get me right next to Michael again in some corporeal iteration down the road. But I digress.
Right after Michael died, I was desperate to visit Glacier National Park. I felt dual needs, one to strike out on my own and establish a personal equilibrium that had been sorely tested through the years of his illness, and second, to be in a place where I and my incumbent issues could feel much smaller than they’d felt for so very long. My hopes for that trip were squelched by a dreadful wildfire season in 2017 so I wound up in the Sedona, Arizona area instead. That trip helped but the following year, 2018, I rescheduled for Glacier which for some reason was exerting a powerful pull on me. Below are some of the amazing views from that adventure.
I brought a small handful of rocks home from that satisfying experience which I keep in a small glass of water on my dining room table, to display the myriad colors which only show up when submerged. Those colors represent a lot about time and order of which I was not entirely aware at the time of my trip. I did feel as if I was shifted back into a more fitting size than I had been in a long time, although I hadn’t really parsed out exactly what that size adjustment actually reflected.
Last week, right before Thanksgiving, I was doing one of my deep internal dives. I was thinking about the strangeness of the holiday, the personal favorite of my family, with its restrictions, its anxieties and the absence of so many from our table. Our problems were significantly less than those faced by millions of others. Always an important reminder. To distract myself from those pressing thoughts, on Thanksgiving Monday, I’d enrolled myself in a Smithsonian webinar called The Geology of Glacier National Park.
The landscape of Glacier National Park, Montana, and surrounding areas reveal evidence of almost two billion years of geologic change. This evidence is preserved in various rock types, including their fossil content, their position and orientation, and the very shape of the mountains and valleys.
An “aha” moment. Glacier’s draw for me wasn’t just about the actual current physical majesty of the park, but also the fact that billions of years had shaped it, carved it, filled it with long-gone oceans, forests and animals, not to mention the multitudes of rock layers so different from each other. Reminders of the complexity of life on every level. So what does that have to do with being first in line and Thanksgiving? For me, everything.
When I was growing up, my mother was the center of our family of six, my parents and us four siblings. We were also surrounded by extended family, my maternal grandparents, along with my mom’s youngest brother and his family. On weekends we gathered regularly for family dinners. And as a matter of course we spent holidays together. I remember my grandmother’s cooking. She and my mom shared the food prep chores. But to me, my mother was the matriarch of the group. My grandmother was a sour individual with a bad temper, developed over a hard life. She was meticulous and vain, not much fun and she yelled a lot. The line I most associate with her was, “you could eat off my floors.” Great.
My mom provided humor and plenty of warmth. I was well into my twenties before I realized that the boundaries between parent and child were muddied in our family, and that role-switching was a trend that started early in my young life. I’d been mothering my parents, especially my mom although I didn’t know that then. During my college years, I headed home for the holidays as did most of my friends. After getting involved with Michael when I was twenty, we still went to the family of origin tables for all the traditional gatherings. We only spent one Thanksgiving with his family which was a quiet, dismal affair. My noisy crew was boisterous, full of chatter and singing that went on for hours. I carefully observed the dynamic between my mother and grandmother which was fraught with tension and arguing. But it wasn’t a power struggle about who was in charge. My grandmother relinquished that role to my mom when I was quite young. Their issues were more reminiscent of being competitors for attention and love. I found their dynamic completely alienating. I didn’t want to repeat it.
My older sister’s marriage took her away from Chicago when I was still in my late teens. My brother, the eldest in my family, dominated his wife who had very little chance of stepping into my mom’s role. He was also bi-polar and intermittently very unstable.
One year while I was away at school, he went to my parents’ place and had a huge fight with my dad about long ago slights and judgments. They were so upset that they cancelled Thanksgiving. I was furious as was my younger sister, who resented being penalized for something in which we played no part. I had my first holiday dinner that year. At the same time, I was trying to figure out who the grownups were and how the baton of family leadership got passed from one generation to the next. I certainly felt that whatever was happening in my family was as dysfunctional as could be. I suppose every family has elements of that.
In August of 1981, Michael and I became parents. We’d been living together for 10 years. I was thirty and feeling the real beginning of adult life. We decided we’d like to host Thanksgiving that year. I really wanted to show that I could be more than just a rabble rousing rebel with a job and a kid. I wanted to be a balabusta, too, the Yiddush word for a good homemaker. I didn’t feel like anyone thought of me that way and I wanted to change how I was perceived. That holiday was simultaneously terrific and a nightmare. I had a two month old baby and a raging respiratory infection with fever. I was determined to soldier through, ingesting lots of cold remedies while trying to recreate everyone’s favorite foods. I pulled it off even though I felt terrible. My parents and grandmother stayed with us. My grandma always said she never slept but we all peeked into the front room where she lay, dead to the world with her pile of sports magazines that titillated her sensibilities. Big laughs all around. That was her last Thanksgiving. We went to Chicago a time or two after that but ultimately, we became the hosts of November. My mom was approaching her early 60’s and my dad had health issues. Within five years of that first dinner, my parents relocated to my town where my younger sister also lived. My older sister was in California. My brother had divorced and remarried, moving to Las Vegas. Eventually his kids grew up – two also headed west. So it was my family, my sister’s family and my parents who formed our core unit.
Sadly my dad died barely three years after moving here. The holidays were by then permanently based at my house. After a time we were joined by other families, cousins and their kids, the occasional aunt and uncle and sometimes my older sister’s family or my brother’s kids. There were boyfriends and girlfriends, college roommates and our adult friends who didn’t have family, or our kids’ friends who were alienated from theirs. My mom was the elderly matriarch. She got the first plate of food, with the turkey leg which was her favorite. She’d always exclaim at her laden plate and say she couldn’t possibly eat all that. But of course she did, every time. Diabetes be damned.
My dad had always babied my mom and although she complained, his protection was important to her. She went from a domineering mother to a domineering husband. She never drove a car. My dad handled the business end of their lives although she was smart and capable. When he was approaching death, he passed her care on to me and I unwittingly accepted. What else do you say to your dying father? I was just 38 years old. My mom switched her dependency to me without missing a beat. She also switched her hostility at being dominated to me as well. I pleaded with her to remember she was the mom and I was still her daughter. But she could never quite put that together. On one hand, she wanted to be the matriarch of the family, honored for her strength, wisdom and knowledge. At the same time, she was like an angry little kid. She alternated between sniping at me and fawning over me. She badmouthed me to anyone who would listen but deny that ever happened. I just wanted her to be my mother but that wasn’t in the cards. So began my trotting to therapy to sort things out with myself, if not her.
The Thanksgivings rolled around every year. After awhile, I had it down to a well-oiled machine. Everyone was happy, stuffed and having a good time. Everyone but me. I was watching my mother. She spent a lot of time bemoaning the fact that she could no longer do the things she used to, like assembling a big dinner. The truth was she didn’t really want to do it which was okay. She felt marginalized rather than being the focus of attention. She had big needs coupled with big resentments. Intellectually, I knew her issues had little to do with me but emotionally it was rough. I dragged her to therapy with me for awhile but that was mostly a failure. What was happening inside me was the development of a blueprint for who I never wanted to be if I was ever in her shoes. That seemed a long way off.
But time moves so much faster than we anticipate. The years picked up speed. In a blink, I’d been doing Thanksgivings for 30 years. Mom aged through her seventies and eighties. She lived with us for a time but the onset of Michael’s cancer coupled with being a primary caregiver for my eldest grandson was too much to handle. Off she went to an assisted living facility. Of course we still took care of her. But her best years when she could have been the family leader she wanted to be got away from her. My older sister, never my biggest fan, lived far away. I tried imagining how things sounded to her from my mom’s vantage point, particularly as she devolved into dementia. So hard to perceive from far away.
I was my mom’s power of attorney. She and Michael were both experiencing life-threatening situations simultaneously. My sister tried to assert herself as first in line. But that simply wouldn’t do under the circumstances. Her choice to be distant and somewhat detached for a lifetime had cost her that line of succession. Suddenly it was clear that being first had somewhat illogically but practically had fallen to me. A lot longer time ago than I’d been cognizant of that fact and indeed, somewhat of a shock.
Mom died in July, 2015. I plowed through two more Thanksgivings. Michael died in May, 2017. I knew that I was done hosting those dinners. I’d put in 35 years and was full up. But years of observing the passages of events, responsibilities and assumption of the matriarchal role taught me a lot. I am the oldest in my family now. My parents and my brother are dead and my older sister vanished from my life after my mom died. Michael is gone. I am not marginalized like my mom felt she was. I still bring family favorites to Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t compete with my kids for attention. We barely ever argue. If I wanted to do the whole deal, I think I could. But I don’t with no regrets. I am definitely older than those around me which is the natural way of things. Inside, I am as striated as the rocks I love. I’m more striated outside too. I have no grandiose notions of myself and who I should be. I am a speck, if that. When you stand on the rocks of Glacier you get your mind adjusted about your place in the scheme of things. I finally understand how you get to be first in line. By default. By things outside your control. By genetics and accidents. Behind me is the next first in line as there were others before me. In the end, I will be part of the dirt below my feet, preferably in my garden with the ageless rocks around my space that I’ll share with Michael. The long journey to understanding is so utterly simple in the end.