I’ve laid a lot of fires this Thanksgiving season. I’m on my fourth one this week. Until today, it wasn’t really cold enough here for a fire, but I set it for sentimental reasons. It’s what we do on holidays.
And as holidays are wont to do, thoughts of my parents and aunts and uncles and siblings have been pushed to the forefront of my mind this week. My uncle–my mom’s older brother–died earlier this week. I was out of contact with him too (and to save time, just assume I’m out of contact with all of my relatives unless I state otherwise.) My mother’s sister is also ailing, now 92 and in a nursing home.
As I crumpled newspaper and my daughter’s old school papers to lay under the grate tonight, I remembered all those fires I helped my father set in our enormous fireplace when I was a child. I was given the job of balling up the newspapers while he set the kindling and wood on the grate. When I was old enough, he let me light the paper with the long fireplace matches, and sometimes I could sprinkle the color-changing crystals on the fire. I don’t remember if my siblings ever did this job, but in my memory, I see it as something only I did.
My memories of my dad are largely positive. I was the only one of the five kids that he favored with special “dates”, once-a-year events that he planned just for me. He’d take me to dinner at a very special restaurant, and then we’d go to a show in downtown Chicago. I saw 42nd Street, Cinderella (ballet), The Nutcracker, Victor Borge. I wore my Sunday best, and my father, the definition of a well-dressed man, wore his best suit. He always smelled good.
I liked helping him with yard work, stacking firewood while he chopped it, washing the car. We’re both slow eaters, so we were always the last two at the dinner table. For years, my dad ran long distances, well before it was popular to do, and I sometimes went with him. When I’m not dealing with a wonky knee, I still run. He has a depth of knowledge about music that rivals that of some of my music professors, all of it self-taught, and we’d talk for hours at the table or in the car about composers and performers. Well, he’d talk, I’d listen.
I hardly talk to my dad at all these days. My brother says that Dad changed when my mom got sick in 1991, and then when she died in 1996, his change was irrevocable. But for me, everything with my father changed two years before mom got sick — when I married my first husband and had my son.
Over that time, I’ve changed too. I left childhood very quickly, walking into parenthood two weeks past my 21st birthday. There’s a gulf between what once comprised my family and the remaining shards of relations. I don’t fully understand what created it, and I’m afraid to probe into it. Since I don’t have to face it every day, I shove the thought to the recesses of my mind, intending to deal with it later.
I have anticipated using this year as a goodbye tour for everything in my past, an opportunity to make amends before I ship off to the West. I have a lot of work to do, and don’t even know where to start. It would be so much easier to just pack my bags and launch myself into the adventure without a glance, but I know I’ll regret closing all of those people, those memories into boxes. They’ll have to be dealt with somehow.
My husband marvels at this familial distance. He’s in regular contact not just with both of his siblings, but with aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and childhood playmates from Canada. His family has had their share of fractures, but they always manage to set aside differences in favor of maintaining family peace. I admire that about him, about his family, and I simply do not understand how it’s done. I suppose there is some tacit agreement that family is more important than individual wounds. My family has no such agreement.
My sister has urged me to go and see my dad sooner rather than later. I’ve continued to put it off, partly because I still have trouble reconciling the dad of my youth and my dad as he is today. But I know I’m going to have to do it soon. When, I do not know. He’s getting to the age where there’s no telling whether he will be there next Thanksgiving.
Maybe while I’m staring into the flames crackling in the fireplace, the answer will come to me.