Care had been taken in packing all the ingredients. The fresh sage leaves, the boxes of cornbread stuffing, the pecans and dried apricots, the small jars of cinnamon and crystallized ginger.
My father is an excellent cook. I like to think I take after him in that department. So as I unpacked the paper sacks he had brought, it was like I was reading my own recipes.
I learned long ago, after following so many of my father’s careful instructions for crafting his famous dishes, that ingredients matter. “Rotel” brand tomatoes must be used in the green chile. Only freshly grated orange zest in the batter for the croissant French toast.
I held the jar of crystallized ginger in my palm like I had just plucked it from my Christmas stocking. I had scoured the aisles of two grocery stores looking for this, never finding it, yet here it was in my kitchen, as if my father had known all along I had wanted it for this meal.
Yet despite all of my father’s seemingly careful forethought in compiling the elements for this Thanksgiving’s dinner, things were still noticeably amiss. The turkey wasn’t completely thawed. The spinach was bruised. The heirloom tomatoes, squashed.
The imperfection of these ingredients spoke to me, too. From these paper grocery sacks, I unpacked the maddening permutations of my father’s recipes. The pungent sage and bright orange butternut squash sitting beside the ruined tomatoes and slimy spinach – the perfect embodiments of the dichotomy that is my father: His best intentions, smothered by his alcoholism.
Cooking is a way to nourish the ones you love. So you seek out the best ingredients. You take the time to grate the zest and caramelize the onions. My father had planned to make this Thanksgiving’s dinner, and from the looks of what I unpacked from the bags he had brought with him, he had planned to make it a good one.
But when he arrived he was so drunk he could hardly speak, so I asked him to leave. I cooked our Thanksgiving dinner alone, lending my interpretation to the dishes he had planned to make for us, and we ate this meal of gratitude without him.
It’s haunting, how this curse of alcoholism can so wholly inhabit a person. Vehemently you despise the curse, and how it has lurched into your life and slowly, ever so slowly, drained your will to rail against it. Despite this, you can’t easily let go of your love for the alcoholic.
When I attended my father’s rehab center’s “Family Week” two summers ago, therapists had prompted us to communicate all the hurt and disappointment that addiction has brought into our lives. We were encouraged to set boundaries with our newly sober family member, and let him know just what was at stake if he continued down their destructive paths. But you must be prepared to follow through with those actions, they told us, because this is a powerful disease. It will not listen to empty promises.
My father sat on a bench on my front porch, his thin grey hair sticking out from his head like a halo in the early winter sun. Crestfallen.
“Why is Grandpa Jerry sitting outside?” Elle stood on her tippy-toes, her nose barely cresting the window ledge.
I cleared the tightness in my throat.
“He’s waiting for his ride. He’s very tired, and needs to go to his hotel.”
“But are we still going to have Thanksgiving?” she turned to me, eyes wide with the dawning realization that this was a disappointment, her grandfather slouched alone on our front porch in some dreary adult form of time-out.
“Of course we will!” I tried to sound upbeat, as I got to work on the cornbread-sage stuffing.
What I couldn’t tell her was that she and her sister were our family’s last hope of ever seeing my father sober again. I had told him that I could not let my children get to know and love their grandfather if that meant they’d also have to know alcoholism. I set that boundary, and it was crossed, and so I told him goodbye. I told him we wouldn’t be seeing him again, until he’s sober.
It was that simple. I followed the rehab therapists’ format to a tee. And it was the right thing to do, I told myself, as a car took him away.
It was the right thing to do, I told myself as tears welled in my eyes, because despite how much easier it would have been to just let this one go, to just cut him some slack – hey, it’s the holidays! – I know what would have come next. That sickly, unsettled churning in the pit of my stomach, the one that doesn’t go away, despite all of my attempts to ignore it. The dull throb deep in my chest, the one that tells me that by just letting this one go, by smiling through another one of his drunken episodes, I’ve become a bystander drawn to the spectacle of a drowning man. A bystander who just stands there, unmoving, as the murky water sucks him under.
Holding his relationship with my children hostage is my last-ditch attempt at throwing my father a lifeline. I want him to realize the preciousness of their innocence, the unconditional beauty of their love, the brisk flavor of a life sweetened by the presence of two little girls.
I hope that his alcoholism hears the message, and finally releases my father from its grasp. I don’t want my daughter to remember her grandfather as a dejected man slouched on a bench.
I want her to know the grandfather who brings paper sacks full of fresh sage and crystallized ginger, and cooks her Thanksgiving dinner.