A journey to a strange land -Nov. 26 column


Two years ago, I was in St. Petersburg, Florida from the Sunday until the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and after that we left on a journey to Texas to see my daughter, Caitlyn and her true love, Corey and spend the holiday with his father and stepmother, with the knowledge that Caitlyn and Corey would not make the trek to Iowa for Christmas as it had been a few years since Corey and his brother had both spent that holiday with Corey's mother and stepfather. It made me think of my Uncle Don and Aunt Marti who had made things easier for my far-flung cousins by saying they would host Thanksgiving and encourage them to spend Christmas with their in-laws.

The Thanksgiving after my mom died, I was 17 and my father (who had been divorce-widowed, my parents' untangling signed just months before the death) encouraged my road trip to St. Louis where my eldest cousin then lived. I was the kid that year as my cousin's first child was due to appear in December. That was weird, being 17 and without my mom or my dad at the holiday. No, the Ainsworth clan was not magnanimous enough to invite my dad to dine with them and I'm not sure it would have been a great idea anyway. So there was Granddad and his wife, Bettie, my aunt and uncle, my three cousins and their wives, and me, the only single. My great aunt Marcella, who had been more like a sibling than an aunt to my mother, stayed in central Illinois with her clan, but sent us a gift – a roll of white paper and several boxes of 64 crayons.

The seven of us, all basically grown, dug in, creating garlands and rings and landscapes and messy portraits and images of grapes and glasses of wine and autumn leaves. I picked up the grey and silver and black crayons to try to approximate my Granddad's flow of silver-fox curls, the burnt sienna and goldenrod to fill in his olive complexion, inherited from medieval Israeli and Greek ancestors. My cousin Richard made a portrait of my mother, with clipped, chestnut waves like Granddad's – hers hadn't even gone grey much before she was gone.

We had a moment, then Uncle Don poured more Chardonnay for all, and we put on smiles and went to the heavy-laden table. It was weird being a free agent, single person at that Thanksgiving, and I was a stranger in a strange land, yet it wasn't completely strange. There was comfort with some things familiar from other gatherings, like Granddad giving thanks for what we were about to receive, my cousins playfully bickering with one another, Granddad's corny puns, Jane's giblet gravy and Bettie's oyster stuffing. I had contributed by helpfully stirring cranberries on the stove and working the rolling pin over crusts for the pumpkin pie.

A stranger in a strange land that year, I was still happy in some ways. I'd had some of my happiest memories with that clan from long summer days in Cincinnati with my grandparents, Reds games due to Bettie being the nurse for Riverfront Stadium. Trips to New York City with my first ballet, the Rockettes and Broadway plays. I would probably have not had a concept of being a playwright were it not for those experiences.

Later on Thanksgiving we opened a gift my cousin Ted's in-laws had sent, one of those trendy, silly games that was new in the 1980s. The instructions for the game were somewhat aggressive and had phrases in all caps. Ted, a CPA who valued propriety, had trouble getting through them as he read aloud, and we finally encouraged him to stop reading the instructions and we would figure out the game as we went along. Was it Buzzword? I don't remember, but we had teams of two (and one team of three as Richard and Susan took me on to their team, accommodating the solo kid). I kept on my content face for the duration of that holiday because much as I deeply loved and still love this side of my family, they would have had no clue what to do with my emotion, trauma and grief from the events of the past months. I sipped my Chardonnay and tried to stay in the present moment which was loving! It was fun! It was abundant. It was a piece of life I didn't know would remain in that moment because things would change so drastically.

We can't recreate that moment, even if we wanted to. The fact that Aunt Marti is passed and my uncle remarried (a lovely woman named Mary Anne who had never married or had children and doesn't quite know what to make of the clan) and my grandparents and Aunt Marcella are gone is notwithstanding. My cousins and I all have grown children. Richard and Jane moved south, far from St. Louis, then divorced ten years ago and Richard is now married to Gary, a fact that causes my uncle great concern for his eternity and has made things strained and awkward among other family members, too. His brothers state their love for him no matter what. I feel like this is something I sensed as a youngster but did not have a name for.

So another Ainsworth Thanksgiving would look a lot different. I am not sure we would all even sit at the same table. I think I would have to see Rick and Gary separately from almost everyone else. They don't live close to the middle brother and I don't know if the love and acceptance from the youngest brother, whose wife is firmly Team Jane, would translate to hanging out. My children barely know an of these people and I understand. Did I meet my mother's first cousins more than a couple of times as a child?

So that brings us here. I love my uncle and the whole clan to bits and am happy to follow my cousins and their kids on Instagram, see the new generation of babies grow, see Rick and Gary's travel adventures and their dogs. But obviously the most we will get is FaceTime, separately, today. Or maybe tomorrow. This year feels like being a stranger in a strange land.

It's hard not being able to say, “Sure! Come on over!” to friends who find themselves displaced. To not go drop in on friends. To not bake pies with Caitlyn. Lots of things are not quite okay and some are plain uncertain. All four of us at my house are either recovering from the after-effects of COVID-19 or the after-effects of caregiving for months.

But I'm thankful. For the in my lungs, the roof over my head, and the place at our table.


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