It’s important to let kids know what you expect of them. When a kid doesn’t know what the expectations are, she can’t live up to them, parse whether she wants to, or even feel she is able. Holidays bring monstrous and huge expectations. Often we’re not even aware of them. They’re leftovers from childhood, parents, and unfulfilled wishes.
The holiday season has always been a tenuous time for me. It has been this way since I was a kid, shuttled back and forth between parents, alternating holidays between my father in Massachusetts and my mother’s homes in first New York, then Philadelphia. I felt I was in transit, and every time I landed, I was lost.
I didn’t know what to expect when I moved in with my mom and step-dad. I hadn’t grown up with them, I didn’t know what they wanted from me, and I definitely didn’t know how I could live up to it. So I didn’t even try. I just assumed I would fail, and left it at that.
The hardest part was holidays. I didn’t know where I belonged or what traditions were the accepted ones, with so many variables from the ever-changing holiday landscape of my early childhood.
Holidays are always hard in blended families. Everyone comes at them with their own traditions, hang-ups, hopes, and fears. I was a reject from a twice-broken family, and I didn’t know what to do with myself at holidays other than hide.
Don’t Touch the Turkey
At Christmas and Thanksgiving, people gathered and talked. Extended family would ask me things like how I was doing in school. “Good,” I’d say, when the real answer was “I’m on academic probation and will be until I graduate.” Mainly I just wanted the day to be over.
I spent most of my time in the kitchen, where my step-father tended the giant turkey. The turkey was the one saving grace, and it was the gooey, fatty, underbelly parts of the turkey that I coveted most. When no one was looking, I would sneak around the kitchen island where the bird was waiting to be carved and reach underneath, pulling out the oysters and hunks of dripping skin with my fingers.
I had to keep an eye out for my step-father, who abhorred my bad habit. After all, it was his turkey, his to cook, his to carve, and he didn’t want my grubby teenage fingers all over it. So when he wasn’t looking, I grabbed what I could. Once the turkey had sat for its allocated time and was ready to carve, he would see the chunks I picked out of it and admonish me. But by then I’d had my fill.
I didn’t know him very well. He and my mom had been dating at some point when I was a kid, and then they got married. Their whole romance happened while I was off screen. I lived with my dad, grew up with him and his second wife, and didn’t know much about my mom’s life. When I was in her orbit I felt like a stray comet on a long loop, in the sky for a moment before hurtling out again at top speed, bound for the far reaches of the galaxy. I didn’t know where I fit in their life, and they didn’t know either. I never quite knew what I was doing there.
Since I’d seen them only summers and the occasional winter break, I knew them in that way you know people when you’re trying to be on your best behavior. They had a son who was about preschool age. Having mothered a preschooler myself, I can see how tense and peculiar it would be to have a maladjusted teenage person move in and suddenly be part of your deal, disrupting the well-established patterns of raising a baby.
My guess is I was pretty disruptive. I was angry, I was 16, and I was miserable. Here I was, 16 and already on my third marriage. I knew that families don’t last forever, especially not with me in them.
And Then There Was the Other New Family
Things at my mom and step-dad’s were the polar opposite from my dad and step-mom’s. My mom was a working mom, while my step-mom stayed home. My dad’s house was Christian, my mom’s decidedly atheist. There was one similarity: everyone had expectations, and I couldn’t meet them. At my dad’s I’d known what these were, and then watched as the promises that were the basis of those expectations disintegrated one by one.
Arriving at my mom’s, it was like I was supposed to start fresh, without any nagging doubts about the stability presented by this new nuclear family. Moving into my mom’s house was like if Leia had come home after “Return of the Jedi” to find that Alderaan still existed and her constituency was pissed at her for not passing a farm subsidies bill in the Imperial Senate.
Holidays had the sheen of happiness and order, but no matter how hard I tried, I screwed it up. I felt like my step-father basically tolerated me, the insubordinate turkey stealing was just the mold on the cake.
I wasn’t what he had signed on for; the extra kid from a previous marriage never is. He would shoo me from the kitchen, away from the turkey, out into the open where family could ask me questions I didn’t know how to answer.
A Cold Place of My Own
I couldn’t carve out a place for myself in this family. I waited the whole day of Thanksgiving or Christmas until it was over and I could escape to my room above the garage. It was cold, because there was no insulation, but it was the only place I felt okay.
I filled the space with books and painted all over the walls. I had to stake a claim to something, to show that I existed in this place. I was just so inconceivably angry. Within these walls I could expand outside of my skin to fill the space around me.
I listened to The Dead Milkmen, The Smiths, and seven inches from the Philadelphia Record Exchange. I played music loud so the environment on the outside matched my inside. It was like releasing nitrogen on the way to the surface, and I had a bad case of the bends.
One Christmas, after I had been away at college a few years, and on my own a few more, I came home, prepared to resume my posture as carrion consumer on the wrong side of the kitchen island. Only this time, when I walked into the kitchen my step-father was waiting for me.
He had carefully carved off all my favorite bits from beneath the turkey, all the brown little morsels, crunchy pieces of skin from the edges, and those little bites I thought only fingers could get to. He handed me all this on a plate, with a splash of gravy. I sat and ate it while he carved the rest.
From then on, he and I had our own tradition: he’d always carve out space for me, before turning over the rest of the turkey to everyone else.