We’ll be spending this Thanksgiving with my birth mother’s family.
In years past, we’ve been at my adoptive parents’ place, sometimes stopping by birth mom’s for a second dessert on the way home. Every so often there was a second dinner elsewhere, or we had the main meal elsewhere, but it was a rare occasion when my a-parents did not get priority.
I could claim it’s because of my dad’s advancing years. He’s the eldest of all the parents by far. I could claim his health, though he’s as tough as a viking – not even requiring pain meds after major surgery. But…he’ll always be the eldest, as long as he’s alive. And other parents now have health issues, some precarious, some permanent. So it’s really an excuse, a way out, to forgo the others in favor of him.
The truth is, he’s the favorite. I don’t feel I owe him – that I must see him out of loyalty or gratitude – I just want to. When we visit, he is gracious. Always asks after my other parents, by blood or marriage. Interested in the kids, in what they are doing. Always the same questions: Working? (yes) Driving? (no) Plans for college? (not yet) Work is most important. As a child of the Great Depression, he is sure work creates happiness. He always wants to know how everyone’s getting along in their job. When I’m there, I relax. While I enjoy the company of the other parents and always feel welcome, it cannot compare with home.
And it’s not just because it’s where I grew up, or because Dad is at the very beginning of my memories. He continues to surprise me with his stoic character.
One year ago I had no idea that my eldest daughter would be moving out of the country. That she would be following her heart/fiance to a place so far away that I need a plane ticket and passport to visit. I was also unprepared for the emotional onslaught this would stir up in the family. On one side was the majority, thrilled to see Lillie happy while sad she was leaving. On the other side was the vocal minority, who made it very clear they did not approve. It was nigh betrayal what Lillie was doing. Against our culture, against our religion, against us.
My father-in-law was most outraged. Shocked that Lillie could so blithely walk away, not asking for his advice or blessing. He thought he knew her, but the truth is he never bothered to get to know her. Instead he just assumed what suited him. Her paternal family, Lillie famously observed, are a self-absorbed lot. The kids love their dad’s dad because he is their grandfather, but that is all. They have no respect for his beliefs or his heavy-handed methods of “sharing” his opinions. We never challenge him, not face to face. The kids won’t give up their email addresses so it is left to me to sometimes point out he’d fallen for an online hoax. Again. Most of the time I just let it go.
I try to focus on his good points, which he does have. I know he loves the kids. I know he wants what’s best for them. But.
I was brought up with respect. Not that it was forced. I mean my parents modeled it. They respected their elders, each other, and us. I learned respect because they (especially Dad) respected me first. He asked my opinion. He listened. He never demanded or assumed I would follow him lock-step in his political views, religious beliefs, or anything else. He treated me as an individual, not his echo.
It was the same with the kids. By the time they were teens, he conversed with them as peers. Still, when I would visit alone, he asked the questions: Are they working? Are they driving? Any plans for college? He really meant “How are they getting along? Are they happy? Are they moving toward a goal that will make them happy?”
My father-in-law and I have not spoken since Lillie’s announcement. It was really my announcement (and her father’s, my ex-husband) since that’s what parents do: Proudly state “This is my daughter, going confidently out into the world. Rejoice with us.” F-i-l didn’t see it that way. And now I don’t know if we will ever step foot in his house again. I don’t think he realizes the extent of his granddaughters’ loyalty. That he has lost all by castigating one.
I knew Dad wouldn’t do this, but I also knew he loved Lillie and would not want to see her go. I told him as cheerfully as possible that his deceased wife’s namesake, this treasured granddaughter, was going to move thousands of miles away, to another country – permanently – and would be able to come home only rarely. He sat silent and expressionless. I was afraid he did not grasp the enormity of it. No more birthday parties together. No more holiday dinners. No more chatting across the dining room table. Almost desperate to be understood, I said:
“Dad, do you get what I’m saying?”
Without changing expression, he said:
“But…Can she get a job there?”
And suddenly, everything was okay. Tears sprang to my eyes. “Thanks, Dad.” Thanks for making this normal and endurable. “Yes, she can get a job there.”
It’s what he asks first now. “Does Lillie have a job yet?” Followed by, “How about a car?” He was quietly appalled when I told of her plans to learn the local language. “Can’t they just speak English?” he asked, thinking it unfair for this to be foisted upon her. “Dad, it’s okay. She wants to.” He shakes his head, but knowing she is poised for employed makes it better. Because it means she will be happy.
When my half-sister invited us to Thanksgiving at the end of summer, my inner voice nudged me to accept. When I told Dad, he was as steady as always. He knows there’s nothing to prove, no contest. That it isn’t a big deal if we skip a year, or have it on another day. We’ve had many holiday dinners with him, and God willing we will have many more. Later, I discovered my birth mother will be away at Christmas, so this is our chance to see her, and the Miscreant otherwise known as my brother was unexpectedly coming to Dad’s for Thanksgiving. The Voice never fails me.
This Thanksgiving Eve, I am grateful to God for my parents and my children. And thankful I have them in my life.
Elle Cuardaigh is author of The Tangled Red Thread and contributor to The Adoptee Survival Guide
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