For the most part my family is like a litter of cats: we huddle together when it’s cold, but we also have our fights, walking away from one another with our tails high for weeks, sometimes months, until enough time has passed to pretend there was never a problem. I don’t operate well within this dynamic because I like everything out on the table. I tell it like it is and if I have a problem I like to get it off my chest. Between communication breakdown and other, typical family dynamics, my family hasn’t always been the “Leave-It-to-Beaver” model my mother tries to create. Each of us has broken her heart at one point or another. (I wonder if that is what I have to look forward to with my son, Noah?) But this year, gathering at my middle brother’s home for Thanksgiving was different: a glimpse back to the idyllic family whose house all the neighborhood kids wanted to play at, the family people looked up to as a pillar in the community. The family I’ve missed, but had learned to accept no longer existed.
There are five of us siblings: three boys, two girls. I’m the baby. The holiday began with my sister picking up her daughter who is attending her second year at Occidental College. We planned to have them swing over to Culver City to pick up Noah and me and take us with them to Thanksgiving with the family. We were in no hurry and made a pit stop in UC Santa Barbara to visit another niece and her boyfriend before they left to spend the holiday with their respective families. We spent the night in Cayucos at my sister’s late mothers-in-law’s on the water. Noah had his first taste of winter seawater. The brisk, cold tide barely washed over his feet and he toppled over, startled, soaking his clothes. Thanksgiving morning we drove through the beautiful wine country of Paso Robles toward my brother’s house in King City where the family gathered this year for Turkey Day. He lives in the remote hills of oak trees and pristine air, the sky baby blue and clear.
Noah is absolutely enamored with my older sister. In fact, if I attempt to interact with him he swats me away, “Don’t like jugo!” or whatever it is I’m trying to offer him. So, I don’t have to entertain or tend to him; he just goes from grandma to auntie to his nieces who are old enough to be his aunts.
This year distinguished itself from any other year I can remember. The men—my brothers and brother-in-law—didn’t spend the whole day and night with beers in their hands screaming at football games on TV. Even at the height of the Jets game, they were outside in front of the fire talking. I joined them with my obligatory piece of pumpkin pie and whipped cream. Noah sat on the deck playing with the new puppy, Moose, the yellow moon spying a happy family between the oak branches.
Once we were all sufficiently satiated, we settled in the family room to watch old videos my brother had taken of past Easters, Christmases, his wedding. My older nieces and nephews now in high school and in college were Noah’s age and I fell in love with them all over again. I was oohing and ahhing through the entire retrospective. And I thought about how I’ve been recording Noah’s main events and how fifteen years from now we will all be sitting around one holiday watching him and his other two cousins his age oohing and ahhing and looking at ourselves and how much we’ve aged. It went by so fast and every day as Noah comes up with a new word –“rainbow”, “catch”, “picture” –I can feel the time passing as if I am an hourglass emptying of sand. Not that I’m running out of time, it’s just sifting away with each day that passes.
The highlight was Noah’s first haircut, with everyone gathered around. They were teasing me that it looked like a mullet so I gave in, watching his chestnut hair fall to the deck. Noah sat there like a king upon a throne as my sister cut off his locks that had grown so long in the back. Of course I kept some as a memento.
It’s the morning after now and my sister’s son has a football game tonight in Visalia, in the central valley where they live. We’re all going. It will be cold and I still haven’t learned the game. My father will be there (he had his own Thanksgiving with his wife) and I can give thanks as I did last night when we were all gathered together like a family; a second Thanksgiving.
Funny thing was, I wasn’t planning on coming this year. King City is a good five hours from Los Angeles and I thought it would be too much traveling with Noah. But since my sister was coming down to LA, I agreed to drop my life for five days and go with her. I have to remember it isn’t about me anymore. It would have been easy to stay home, spend the holiday with friends, but I’m a mother. I owe it to my son to cultivate relationships with his extended family and after seeing the videos last night I regretted not bringing my video camera.
It’s the morning after and coffee is brewing. My brother and his wife are cooking bacon and eggs, beckoning my distended belly to the breakfast table. My mom’s husband just hit the road back to Three Rivers; he won’t be coming to the game, but my mom will come with my sister, Noah, and four of my nieces. As I write this it sounds almost cliché: gathering around fires, watching old family videos, bodies lain around the house on couches and blow-up beds, the Beatles on rotation. I’m glad I waited to have Noah; everyone’s more mature, more appreciative of family. I can’t remember feeling this comfortable and grateful; I can’t remember feeling such a part of my family. I had to become a mother to fully get this, and really, there’s nothing, nothing more important in life. Breakfast, the Beatles, my brothers and sister are waiting. I’m going inside to join them.