Ours is a large, traditional farm-style home with broad front and back porches and warm yellow siding and a deep red front door. To get from one end of the house to the other is quite a hike, particularly whenever I’m on my way to the master bedroom. I am not a meandering type unless I’m in a book store, so when I head toward my bedroom, it’s pretty obvious where I’m going. And it has happened several times now that I’ll be midway through a purposeful stride toward my bedroom, and will get to the doorway leading to the short hallway that leads to the master bedroom, and one of my youngest daughters will call out to me from the table or the kitchen, and try to initiate a conversation.
That’s what happened a week ago, and the week before that, and the week before that. At least once a week, one of my three youngest daughters will only become aware of my walking through the house when she sees me ready to disappear into my bedroom, and just at that point of no return, the point where I’ll turn the corner and disappear from sight and earshot, at that very point a young voice will chirp, “Mom!”
Every single time that happens—Every. Single. Time.—I stop mid-stride and turn on my heel and react with an irritated sigh, “Can you see me walking to my bedroom? I’d like it if you’d stop me there (pointing to a spot along the way), or there (pointing again), or there (pointing yet again) if you have something to say to me. But not here.”
And then my little girl, whichever one it is, will sigh as I walk away. Every time it happens, my irritable reaction bothers me. But I shove it aside, continue with whatever mission I’m on, and then return to whichever daughter had something to say to me and hear whatever it is she has to say.
The last time this happened, one of my youngest daughters lectured the one who had made the blunder. “Can’t you see her walking to her bedroom? Why didn’t you stop her there?” she asked, pointing. She sounded a lot like me. But because I wasn’t angry, just irritated, and because I hadn’t done or said anything hurtful but had just felt that vaguely disturbing sense of being somewhat irritated, I paid my irritation no mind.
Thanksgivings around here are wonderful. I’ve worked for much of my adult life to create what I wanted for my family, and I seem to have succeeded so far. My nephews would rather come here for Thanksgiving, they tell us, than anywhere else. Our children say their favorite family holiday is Thanksgiving, because the atmosphere is congenial and lively, and the food is always good. The day before Thanksgiving, we women have what has come to be called Pie Day, a day when we get together and bake our pies and other baked goods such as stuffing or side dishes, and chatter, listening to music and cracking open some bottles of wine after lunch.
I can still remember how warm and wonderful it was at my grandmother’s house when she and her sister and my mother would get to cooking together. I’d sit at the snack bar between the kitchen and the small den on the other side, the swinging door between the kitchen and the dining room going thwack-thwack as dishes and food were carried back and forth, the bustle of preparation feeling so convivial, the smell of apples and sage wafting from the oven. Waves of feminine conversation lulled me into a sense of safety and comfort that I only ever felt at my grandmother’s house.
I wanted this too when I was an adult, and after some years I figured out that part of the recipe for this atmosphere was Convivial Women. My mother is not Convivial or Comforting or even helpful in a crowd. She irritates the hell out of me and we have always been like oil and water, or fire and ice, or two magnets repelling one another. I’ve always known that my mother would not be helpful for me on a cooking day. So the first year I had one, I asked my two eldest daughters to help me.
Neither of them showed up on time, because one was barely 21 years old at the time and, having been adopted at age 18, still orphan-hearted enough to need to ramble and tumble around like a tumbleweed. The other was 16 and more interested in hanging out with friends than cooking, something I knew but didn’t quite understand because she was the first teenager I had actually raised. I just wanted to be around Convivial Women, even if they weren’t really quite women yet.
And so I was disappointed that year, which made me look at what I wanted and needed, and I learned. We had a good Thanksgiving that year anyway. The following year I invited women who weren’t my daughters to help me cook, and I also invited my daughters. The then 22-year-old had by that time moved to another state, and the then 17-year-old didn’t cook with us, but did show up to nibble and chat. We had a great time, and from that year on, every year on the day before Thanksgiving, my kitchen has been full of beloved women. I do not invite cranky, vampirish, or high maintenance women. I only invite the convivial ones.
My friend Ruth says she loves coming over here on Pie Day. Besides my grownup daughters coming and my little girls hovering and helping, Ruth’s best friend came by this year with her little boys. Our friend Amy came, too. It blessed me to hear them say, “I love coming over here,” because that’s what I wanted to do: to build a home that felt good and warm, like a homecoming. When our friend Amy left, Ruth and I stood in the driveway waving goodbye, our arms around each other, and cried as if we were Amy’s mother and sister. We don’t get to see Amy much due to her living far away. But when we see her, it’s just as if we were spending day after day together as we did years ago. We love each other. We feel so blessed.
So on Thanksgiving, my house was full of people. We set places for 30. Some years we may have only one friend of a family member or other Thanksgiving nomad joining us, and other years we may have an entire family as guests. This year, we had my son-in-law’s childhood friend. I am as fond of him as I can be, so it was wonderful to have him with us.
My mother and father arrived in the midst of the gaggle of other family members and friends. I sometimes call my Mom “Mother” when I write or think about her, because when I write “Mother,” I’m referring to my subjective experience of “Mother” rather than the actual multi-dimensional mother who birthed me. To me, “Mother” is Mother from whose very touch I recoil. Mother who sucks the air out of a room. Mother whose quirks demand attention, and I do mean demand. She does it in the nicest way, so nice that no one could ever blame her for it. It’s this that I find so insidious and deadly.
I was sitting at the table across from my brother’s fiancée and chatting with her when Mother interrupted me and asked, “Anne, where’s the yellow bowl I brought?” I waved in a northerly direction and said, “It’s over there, mom, on the counter,” and continued talking with my future sister-in-law.
“Anne, where’s the yellow bowl I brought?” Mother asked again. This time, I made eye contact with her and pointed directly at the bowl, sitting in plain sight on the counter above the ovens. “It’s right there, Mom,” I said, and returned to my conversation with my future sister-in-law.
Mother then came to stand right beside me at the table, her elbow touching my shoulder, and leaned far over into my sovereign physical space, putting her face about a foot from mine, and asked, “Eve, where is the bowl? I want you to show me the bowl.” And, like a human who has been captured and inhabited by an alien mind, I stood up, leaned backward so as to get some physical distance from her, and let her lead me into the kitchen to show me the yellow bowl. I didn’t even say, “Excuse me” to my sister-in-law. I just got up robotically and followed Mother.
When we arrived at the bowl, Mother put her arm around me and clutched my shoulder with her other hand in one of those sideways hugs, and said, “This was your grandmother’s bowl. You said you wanted it. I brought it for you.”
My consciousness returned to me then, because she’s such a liar. Until this day I had never before seen this particular yellow bowl. In fact, I had a set of brown bowls and white bowls just like this, because one year many years ago, my granddad had bought every woman in the immediate family a set of bowls like this. They’re great earthenware baking dishes with lids. There are two sizes, small and large, and we make cheese dip in the large one, so it always has warm connotations.
The set my granddad gave me when I was 20 years old was brown. My grandmother’s set was white, and my Mother released the white one from its captivity after I had been married about ten years. This yellow bowl I couldn’t recall seeing before.
What had actually happened around bowls was that every year for about six or eight years, I had had a discussion with Mother about the bowl she puts her delicious potato salad in and which she had brought with her on Thanksgiving this year, too. That bowl is a fantastic 100-year-old bowl that belonged to her own grandmother, my great-grandmother. That bowl had somehow survived both World Wars in Germany, and was brought by my Omi, my little German grandmother, all the way over here to give to my mother. It’s a deep brown on the bottom, with a creamy yellowish rim around the top, and it is so old it’s crackled all over like Korean celadon. That’s the bowl I’ve asked to be given some day, whenever Mother is finished with it. And, in fact, I’ve asked for many a kitchen implement from my German grandmother, but Mother won’t release them and that’s fine with me. They belong to her now; that’s the first thing. The second thing is that this is how she is: She seems to hold things hostage as if controlling objects keeps people tied to her.
But over this unknown yellow bowl, she told me a pretty tale of love and inheritances that was a complete and utter lie. I turned toward her and I could feel my stone face, and I said, “Ah, I see.” And that was that. And I did see. I saw clearly.
A few hours later, I was walking through the kitchen and past the dining tables and through the sitting area where the fire crackled in the hearth and the family sat around drinking coffee or sipping wine, and when I got Right. To. That. Point. Of. No. Return: where the short hallway leads to my master bedroom, Mother called out,
I stopped in my tracks, mid-stride, and froze. My back was still turned toward my mother.
And she started talking. I turned around and faced her, and whatever she was saying was totally inane and useless and meaningless. It was as if her entire purpose was to stop me in my tracks, for she might as well have been speaking in tongues. As I looked at her, I saw my three youngest daughters out of the corner of my eye. Two were sitting in the same chair, and one was snuggled close to an older sister. I cut my eyes sideways to look at them and they were spellbound, riveted, watching this drama, for they knew What Grandma Had Done.
In that moment, I saw and I knew the source of my irritation. I saw the pattern and the connection. What I didn’t know in that moment was the depth of the pain and rage beneath that one simple act of responding to Mother’s call as I walked purposefully to my bedroom.