Last night, erev Thanksgiving, I sat with a close friend at a Starbucks, up by where her parents live. She went to high school in that Manhattan neighborhood, so the mean streets of the upper east side are her old stomping ground. I grew up just across town. We were talking about our the death of my stepfather last week and the odd position of both of being parents and having parents who were starting to need our care.
Andie came out to support me in my abject dread of spending the next day amidst mountains of food with my devastated, widowed mother, her ex-husband, my dad, with whom she’d barely spoken in decades, and my 47-year-old autistic brother. My brother, who usually stays with my mom over the holidays, is staying with my father because my mother simply can’t take care of anyone but herself right now, which is how it came to be that this unholy foursome was to break bread together. My nuclear family hadn’t had a holiday together since the early ’80s, at the height–or rather, nadir–of my eating disorder. There was so much unexpressed rage and disappointment around our dinner table, and most of mine wound up being surreptitiously thrown up and flushed away, along with thousands of calories worth of food. I felt like the ghost of Thanksgiving past had decided that I’d been enjoying too happy a life with my husband and beautiful kids, and so I had to visit the war-torn emotional terrain of November 1981, as some kind of perverse lesson in gratitude.
Suddenly, Andie and I heard a banging on the glass, and saw a bunch of 14-year-old boys and one girl, probably back from prep school for the holiday, huddling outside and gesturing exaggeratedly to a friend who was inside the coffee shop. He tried yelling at them through the glass, and they pantomimed not being able to hear him, so he went outside. Thus began maybe half an hour of the kids going in and out of the Starbucks, bellowing at each other through the window, making as much noise as they possibly could and asserting their ownership of the physical space by spreading out among the three vacant tables, sitting on one another’s laps and playing that age-old game of Who Can Be the Most Outrageous and Disruptive that unsupervised teenagers seem to love.
I told Andie about how my friends and I were likewise obnoxious, shrieking on the D train to school in the Bronx and throwing food at one another, making other passengers choose to sit next to one of the unwashed homeless guys who lived in the subway back in the Dinkins years rather than be near us. Andie recalled how on her rides in from Queens, she and her friends would hang like bats from the bars, so that when the double doors opened, the people on the platform were greeted by a wall of inverted teenagers glaring at them. They tended to wait for the next train. We were awful. They’ve since redesigned the subways so there are no bars suspended across the doors.
These kids were so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves speak, and their being themselves cast us in the role of the very adults we had once rejoiced in irking. I threw them the stink-eye, and then worried that they would break the window and sever an artery. Karma, as they say, is a bitch.
So I am sometimes. “I feel like going over to them and saying, ‘You know, we were you,” and see what they say,” I remarked. “It would be unfathomable to them.” I saw us through their eyes, two relatively frumpy women who were almost as old as their moms, talking about depressing adult stuff and drinking decaf. “What if I just said, ‘You are going to be us someday, or else basically married to us. What do you think of that? And can you keep it down?'”
Andie didn’t think there was much point. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” she shrugged. I pictured her, smart-mouthed and adorable, loose on these same streets. I saw her, and I saw myself. Then we moved on to discussing how to telegraph Andie’s desire for the same necklace I was wearing to her husband, because how nice would it be if she didn’t have to go out and buy it for herself? I took a picture of my own neck with my BlackBerry and emailed it to him. Eventually the teenagers went to be teenagers somewhere else, and their cloud of noise pollution floated out after them.
Fast forward to today, Thanksgiving. It didn’t meet my worst expectations–not even close. My parents behaved like the mature adults they’d evidently become over the last 30 years, my brother was his best self, and I didn’t instantly revert to the 14-year-old bulimic who had last seen this assemblage of people. Everyone was kind, nothing but the gravy was simmering, and no one got maudlin or tried to apologize for past misdeeds. It helped to have my own kids running around being cute and distracting, and a meal to help my lovely husband cook, so I could hide in the kitchen.
So much had transpired in those years, mostly good, lately tragic, that my fears that we would all click into our old roles was, thankfully, unfounded. Each of the four of us had changed just enough that we no longer fit together in the same hideous dysfunctional shape that I thought was the only one we could form. We were playing new roles, ones that worked better together in an ensemble. I didn’t even have to drink or take an Ativan, though I was prepared to.
So I’m thankful that although some things never change, some things really do, and often for the better.