Monday, November 22, 2010


I love reading all of the "What I'm Thankful For" posts that flood the Internet (and grade, middle, and high school classes) every year at this time. And there is no question that I have much to be thankful for in my life.

In fact, I think I try to vocalize that I'm thankful for the things I'm thankful for when they actually happen.

And so I tend to feel a little cranky about my thankfulness around this time of year--knowing that at some point someone is going to ask me what I'm most grateful for, and I'm going to have to come up with something all lyrical and poignant, and really, I never did like being told what to do or how to feel.

So you know what happens when the stubborn and childish and Southern feel cornered, right? We turn all smart-ass and look for the black comedy.

Which leads me, inexorably, inevitably, naturally, and predictably, to my own family.

There were a lot of memorable holiday family get-togethers while I was growing up. We had our share of drunk friends and/or relatives, and/or dogs and cats, and lots of recalcitrant food--turkeys with the giblets still in, ovens never turned on, apples pies eaten off the kitchen floor--but there are some moments during those long, long childhoods that stand out, and that give you a sudden insight into why your family works the way it does…or doesn't.

My grandmother was a clean, clean woman. And not adorably-quirky clean like Monk, but more like douse-you-in-alcohol-and-light-you-on-fire-to-get-rid-of-the-germs clean.

My mother, on the other hand, had an ink drawing of a wild woman with flowing hair and hippie dress hanging in the kitchen with the less-than-subtle title of "F@#K HOUSEWORK" (only the @ was a "U" and the # was a "C" [just in case you weren't clear]) in giant Gothic script under her breasts. There might have even been candles and small animal sacrifices under it, but I admit that my memory might be playing tricks on me with that one.

There were likely epic battles of will between the two women in the years before I came along, but things had mellowed to a nice, classic, comfortable passive-aggressive Southern mother/daughter kind of thing, subtle enough that it wasn't until I was about thirteen before I saw it ripen, split open, and rot over the course of a Thanksgiving dinner.

We'd, somehow, made it to sitting down at the table and passing bowls and plates, and my brother's face had morphed into that fascinating-yet-horrifying mask of desperate hunger that only fifteen-year-old boys are capable of, and the inevitable discussion of how moist the turkey was had begun.

I seem to recall that it started innocently enough, though I might not have been mature enough to read the little signs of strain beneath the compliments, but it soon deteriorated when my grandmother began expounding on how filthy turkeys were, how you had to clean them--no--scrub them, inside and out, several times before you cooked them…and then it happened: "Of course you wouldn't bother with that," she said to my mother.

Oh--the silence, so brief, so, you know…silent.

And then: "Oh no, we tie a rope to the turkey legs and drag it around the backyard a few times before we cook it," my mother said.

She was laughing.

The rest of us laughed.

Well, most of the rest of us laughed.

If there were Family Dysfunction lightbulbs, a 100 watt one would have gone off above my head for the very first time.

Just like that everything changed. My grandmother stood suddenly enough that her chair tipped over backward. Half of us scrambled to our feet, while the other half seemed to resign themselves. I was a scrambler, my brother was a resigner.

"Get out!" she screamed, raising her arm ninety degrees and thrusting her finger toward the door. "Get out!"

The laughter continued in its own strange, uncertain way, but my mother simply tilted her head toward her own mother with a secret smile and said, "Really?"

"Get out!"

"You got it." My mother stood and gestured me toward her. "Let's go," she said.

I immediately hustled around the table, but my brother wasn't going anywhere without some food, so he moved a little slower, grabbing a turkey leg and a couple of crescent rolls before my mother managed to get him to the front door. We left in a strange, jostle of a family huddle, my mother leading the way, me following behind with wide eyes, and my brother trailing, casting an occasional wistful glance over his shoulder at the pies sitting on the counter.

It wasn't until we were in the car that my mother began to laugh. It's entirely possible that it was hysterical laughter, the kind that masks or turns into tears, but at my age I only heard the laughter. And suddenly, magically, it was funny.

I remember that Thanksgiving with a grin. A smart-ass grin, but a grin nonetheless. It was dramatic, and pointless, and, I suppose, even sad, but it was also well-felt. By God, I remember that Thanksgiving.

That is what makes a holiday memorable. That is what makes a family. And that, in the end, is what makes a writer.

Kristy Kiernan is the author of Catching Genius, Matters of Faith, and Between Friends. She lives in southwest Florida, and she is completely devoid of family this Thanksgiving. Which, well might be really relaxing!


Carrie said...

First of all, LOVE that you blogged! Second of all, OMG!!! Freaking hilarious!!!

Kat said...

I'm laughing so hard that I nearly lost my coffee in a very painful way. This was a priceless story. It just reminds me of so many of our own crazy holidays. As I told my DH before we married, my family put the "fun" in dysfunction. With families like that, you either write, or you end up in a tower with a gun. I'm glad I found a pen! Kat