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The Politics of Thanksgiving
In Iraq, they don’t have Thanksgiving. That’s what my father says. We should all be grateful to spend the holidays with the family or else nobody gets dessert. That’s the rule.
“No politics talk, no work talk, nothing. You are happy to be there,” he says, demanding confirmation from my sister Elizabeth and me.
“But Papa, you celebrated holidays with grandma in Iraq, right?” Elizabeth is always asking questions. My father never answers her, he just says unhappy children do not get dessert. Who are we to argue? In Iraq, they don’t have Thanksgiving. In Iraq, they don’t have dessert.
This Thanksgiving is different. Papa usually packs the car with enough food to feed a school and Papa, Mama, Elizabeth and I drive down to Grandma Edith’s house hours from here. Papa counts how many Thanksgiving celebrations he has been to in his life, and reminds us that in Iraq, they don’t have Thanksgiving. He is up to twelve Thanksgivings. Mama will say, “that is more than Iraq has,” whenever he counts, and he will say, “yes, in Iraq, they don’t have Thanksgiving.” And when we get there, we say, “Shalom, Grandma Edith,” and she squeezes our cheeks and tells us how big we’ve grown. That’s how it always goes. Not this year. This year Mama told me that we were driving a different way and we’re not going to see Grandma Edith. We were going to see Uncle Richard and Uncle John, and since I had had my Bat mitzvah not too long ago, I can sit at the grown-ups table.
“It’ll be fun,” my mother said. I was not so convinced. Mama said that I’d like Uncle Richard and Uncle John, she just knew it.
“You haven’t seen them since you were in diapers,” Mama laughed, “but I know you will like them. They are my step-brothers, you know that? They love you.”
On Thanksgiving day, Papa didn’t pack the car like usual. He didn’t remind Elizabeth and me that there’s no Thanksgiving in Iraq. When it was time to leave, both Mama and Papa were not ready to go. We could hear them fighting from upstairs, but we knew better than to interfere.
“Girls! Get in the car!” Papa yelled from upstairs, his thick accent booming throughout the house. Elizabeth and I ran outside and packed ourselves into the car, seat belts fastened. Mama pulled open her car door, slumping into her seat.
“Mama, are you tired?” Elizabeth asked. Mama had dark circles under her eyes- the kind she covers up with beauty cream- and her hair had been thrown into a lazy, messy braid.
Mama didn’t answer Elizabeth. I watched her stare at the front door of our house, waiting for Papa to come out and drive to Uncle Richard’s. When Papa did come out, Mama gasped. I couldn’t see why at first, but Elizabeth was startled too. Papa opened his car door with such force that the entire car shook. He sat down and looked back at my sister and me.
“You girls excited to meet your mother’s family?” he asked. It was then that I saw what Mama and Elizabeth were so startled by.
“Papa! Where is your yamaka? You always wear it!” Papa didn’t answer. He just started the car and started our journey to somewhere that was not Grandma Edith’s.
“Papa, please, where is your yamaka?” I asked again. Papa kept looking ahead at the road.
Mama turned back to me, “Don’t worry about it, honey, Papa is fine.”
Nobody talked the rest of the ride there. Elizabeth did not even ask one of her stupid questions. Papa did not count how many Thanksgiving celebrations he had been to. Mama did not laugh and make fun of him.
We got to Uncle Richard’s sooner than I expected. Mama hopped to the doorway and rang the doorbell three or four times. A tall, buff man with grey hair and a grey beard answered the door. When he smiled, his two front teeth shocked you by not existing.
“Richie!” Mama said
“Kate!” Uncle Richard looked at my sister and me first. He hoisted up his blue jeans. “These your girls? They’ve gotten so big,” he said, and kissed us both. Mama smiled and nodded.
“Hello, Yosef,” Uncle Richard said to Papa. Papa just nodded at him.
“Kate, this f***ing Christ killer of a husband you have. Won’t even say hi to me.”
“Richie! Not in front of my girls, please!”
“Mama,” I started to cry, “Uncle Richard thinks Papa killed God.”
“No,” Mama scolded, “he doesn’t.” Papa rolled his eyes, and Uncle Richard smirked.
“Yosef, Richie, please,” Mama pleaded, “Can we just try to have a nice Thanksgiving this year? I was really looking forward to this. I just want everyone to have a good time together, okay?”
“You’re asking a lot of your husband, Kate,” Uncle Richard said with a smug look on his face, “Jews don’t have the ability to have a nice time.”
Papa swore in Hebrew under his breath and advanced towards Uncle Richard with his fists clenched. Elizabeth grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard. I couldn’t believe it; she knew what was happening.
Mama forcefully put her hand on Papa’s chest to stop him.
“Yosef, please, listen to me!”
Papa pushed her off of him.
I can only remember a few things about what happened next; everything happened in a flash. Papa was on top of Uncle Richard screaming in Hebrew. Uncle Richard kicked his legs and spat on Papa’s face. Mama pushed Elizabeth and me into the house. She immediately ran back out. Elizabeth and I peeped through the window.
“Yosef! Richie! Please!” Mama’s black makeup stained her cheeks.
Papa stood up, but Uncle Richard stayed down. Papa leaned over and spit on Uncle Richard’s face. Behind us, I heard glass break.
“Hello?” I turned around, seeing a casserole among shattered glass all over the tile floor.
“Girls, what’s going on out there? Why are they screaming?”
The man stopped listening to me and ran outside.
“John!” Mama yelled, falling into his arms. Uncle Richard was up now. I could see black and blue bruises and cuts on his face. Papa’s lip was busted and bleeding.
“Thanksgiving is ruined,” Elizabeth muttered. She was right.
Mama noticed us peeping through the window. She tripped over the doormat and yanked open the door.
“Girls! What are you doing?”
“Nothing!” Elizabeth and I backed away from the window. Papa followed in behind Mama. He reached over and grabbed Elizabeth’s hand in his left, and mine in his right.
“C’mon girls, we’re going home. Your mother can stay here with her Richie.” Papa began to walk out of the house with us in tow.
“Yosef!” Mama gasped, “Don’t take the girls!”
“We’re going home, Kate. With or without you.”
I looked behind my shoulder. Mama stood gaping on Uncle Richard’s doorstep. Elizabeth was already in the car by the time I turned back around. Papa gave me a nudge and I got into the back with Elizabeth. The car roared to life and Papa began to back out of the driveway.
“Wait!” Mama yelled, running up to the hood of the car. Papa stopped short and glared at her as she got in. Papa sped out of the driveway and down the street. Mama stared at him the entire car ride home. They didn’t speak for so long.
Elizabeth fell asleep on top of me. I tried to sleep too, but I couldn’t breath with the weight of her body crushing me. I stayed awake and watched the stars move outside my window.
Around an hour had passed when I heard Mama whisper, “I didn’t think he was still like this.”
“He was like this the day we were married.” Papa said, slightly raising his voice.
“I know, Yosef, I know. But that was twelve years ago!”
“Bad men seldom change.”
Papa sighed. Mama wouldn’t meet his eyes.
When we got home, Elizabeth awoke with a start. She abruptly opened her door, and ran through the garage and into the house. Mama followed silently. Papa told me to get to bed; it was too late for young girls like me to be awake. I needed my beauty sleep.
“Goodnight, Elizabeth,” I said, walking past her room.
“Elizabeth?” I poked my head into her room, “Elizabeth, what are you doing?”
“Leave me alone,” Elizabeth yelled into her pillow. It was hard to find her under the pile of blankets and pillows she had barricaded around herself.
“Elizabeth, stop. Don’t be so overdramatic. What’s wrong?”
“In Iraq, they don’t have Thanksgiving. And we didn’t have Thanksgiving either. And Papa killed God.”
“Elizabeth!” I gasped, “Papa did not kill God.”
“Uncle Richard said he did.”
“Believe me, Papa did not kill God.”
“Okay, but we still did not have Thanksgiving dinner.”
“What better are we than Iraq?”
“Don’t say that, you know Papa is very proud to be from Iraq.”
“Obviously not, he left,” Elizabeth stated matter-of-factually.
“You don’t know anything, do you?”
“Just leave me alone!” Elizabeth began to cry. I decided it was better to leave her alone. I didn’t want to deal with her childishness right now. I let the door close with a slam behind me.
And Papa killed God.
What better are we than Iraq?
I pushed such silly questions out of my mind as I fell asleep.
“No, Yosef! Why aren’t you listening to me?” My mother’s voice woke me.
“You are so embarrassed to be married to me! You didn’t even tell your blessed ‘Richie’ off!”
“Don’t speak about my brother like that!”
“Oh my God, Kate,” my father’s stomps up the stairs echoed up the stairwell. I buried my head under my pillow.
“Yosef! Come back!”
Papa’s footsteps stopped.
“Because of you, Elizabeth thinks there’s something wrong with me.” A door slammed.
My tears tasted like the bitter maror that Grandma Edith makes for Passover. Papa always said the maror had to be bitter so that we could remember the hard times our ancestors faced. Mama would say, “Yosef, you know they don’t really care about that!” Papa would laugh and say, “okay, girls, how about this: the maror has to be so bitter that you remember the bitter times in your life.”
“Theresa?” Mama’s voice made it’s way through the crack in my bedroom doorway.
“Mama?” I poked my head out from underneath my pillow.
“Oh, I thought you would be asleep. Did I wake you?” Mama closed the door behind her, and walked over to my bed. She fixed my blankets before sitting down in the middle of my bed.
“No, Mama. I was up.”
Mama sat up straight, and began playing with my hair. She was nervous, I could tell.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” I said, taking her hand out of my hair and sitting up straight.
“Your father and I just got into a disagreement, that’s all. Mama’s and Papa’s fight sometimes. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“Elizabeth thinks Papa killed God. Uncle Richard said so.”
“You know that’s not true, right?”
“I know that, but I’m smart. Elizabeth is stupid.”
“Don’t say that about your sister.”
“Sorry Mama. She still thinks Papa killed God, though.”
Mama sighed. Seconds passed before she said, “your father is a good man.”
“I know that, Mama.”
“Your Uncle Richard is a good man too, you know.”
I didn’t say anything. Mama stared at me, waiting for my response.
“He is a good man, you hear me?” Mama stood up.
“But he hates Papa!” I blurted out, and Mama gasped.
“Do not speak about your family like that! I grew up with Uncle Richard, you know that?”
“You apologize right now.”
“To who? Uncle Richard? Why didn’t Uncle Richard apologize to Papa?”
Mama slammed my door on her way out. I stared at the doorway longingly, wishing she had given me an answer.
Even Elizabeth had seemed smart enough to see the tension between Papa and Uncle Richard today. Why couldn’t Mama see it too?
Mama and Papa served uncomfortable silences with french toast for breakfast the next morning. Elizabeth tried to break the ice occasionally- saying things like, “Mama, you remember my soccer game is next Wednesday at 4, right?” and “I still have to do my math homework, but I really don’t want to.”
I wanted to tell her to stop, but I couldn’t. If I told her that nobody cared about her stupid math homework or her stupid soccer game, she would start to cry, and Mama would start to yell. Papa would start to yell right back and a fighting match would begin. I could see it now: Papa ranting about how how he knew he wasn’t welcomed in Mama’s family, Mama telling him he was delusional, and Elizabeth crying in the corner. I left Elizabeth alone and put my plate in the sink.
“Done eating already?” Mama said, giving me a scolding look.
“Um,” I shifted uncomfortably, “yes, Mama, I am.”
“You have better things to do than to sit with your family?”
“No, Mama, I guess I don’t.”
Mama nodded as I sat back down at the table. Papa stared into his empty coffee mug. Elizabeth looked at the three of us with a dumb smile on her face. The version of her that had realized the tension between Mama and Papa last night was gone. In her place stood the Elizabeth I knew: oblivious and occasionally stupid.
Papa poked at his eggs. I could tell he didn’t want to be here just as much as I didn’t. Elizabeth poked around at her cornflakes, continuously making stupid comments (“Oh, Mama, I forgot I have the book fair this week!” and “Papa can you please take me to the mall with my friends next week?”).
After what seemed like an eternity, Papa stood up and put his dish in the sink. Mama watched him.
“Where are you going, Yosef?” she demanded.
“I’m going out, Kate. I have things to do.”
“You’re not going to spend time with us?”
“I can’t sit there forever. You can’t make the girls sit there forever, either.”
Mama scoffed: “They want to sit here. Right, girls?”
“Yes, Mama!” Elizabeth said. I didn’t reply.
“Theresa, don’t you have something to say?” Mama asked, glaring at me.
“Theresa, why don’t you come out with me?” Papa asked.
“Okay, Papa.” I got up and followed him towards the coat closet. When I turned around, Mama was staring at us.
“Fine, if you both don’t want to spend time with us as a family, then don’t. I won’t force you.”
“Okay,” Papa said, and started for the basement. I followed suit, trying to avoid Mama’s eyes. Papa didn’t say anything to me until we were in the car. In fact, it wasn’t until we were passing First Street right before the bridge when he said, “I know you heard Mama and I arguing in the car last night.”
“Yes, I did.” There was no point in lying.
“So then you must know that even though your mother might love me, her family does not.”
“You mean Uncle Richard?”
“Yes, I mean Uncle Richard. Your mother loves him, too.”
“Because he’s her brother.”
“But he said you killed God.”
“I know that.”
“If Mama knows you didn’t kill God, then why didn’t she tell Uncle Richard that?”
“I don’t know.”
Papa turned onto Eighth Street. He didn’t even use his turn signal. He pressed hard on the gas, and then abruptly hit the breaks. A lucky squirrel scurried in front of our path and into a yard across the street. Papa took a deep breath before stepping on the gas again.
“I’m sorry,” he sighed, “I didn’t mean to startle you like that.”
My head was light and my eyes were heavy. I felt like I had ridden down the twisty slide at the playground too many times. My breakfast was rising up through my stomach and into my throat.
“Pull over!” I yelled. Papa rolled over the curb and stopped in front of a corner store. As unfortunate it was that my breakfast was now on the pavement outside of this innocent shop, I figured better out than in.
“Theresa, what’s wrong? You never get car sick.” Papa put his hand on my back. I brushed his attempt to be supportive away.
“What’s going to happen to us, Papa? Do you love Mama?”
Papa didn’t answer for a second.
“Close your door,” he said, starting the car again.
I shut my door as Papa sped off. Papa’s gaze fluctuated between the road and me as we drove home.
“Papa, why didn’t you answer me?” I asked.
“What am I supposed to say, Theresa? You’re asking a lot of me.”
“But I’m just asking if you love Mama.”
“What do you want me to say?”
Memories from my childhood flashed before my eyes. I could remember bringing Elizabeth home from the hospital, moving into our new house, and the first Hanukkah when I could read the Hebrew prayers for the first time. Papa’s face had been illuminated and full of love for Elizabeth, Mama, and me.
When we moved into our new house, I was five years old. Papa put his hand around mine as we turned the key into our front door. Mama trailed behind us with baby Elizabeth in her arms. I ran into the foyer, laughing. Papa smiled as he watched me from the doorway. Mama caught up and leaned against him. Papa kissed her head, and then Elizabeth’s.
“We’ll be happy here,” he said.
“Theresa!” Papa called, taking me out of my trance. We sat in the driveway. I hadn’t even been paying attention to the road in front of us. I stared at our front door, where our family had once shared so much joy. Now, all I could see was fear: the fear of change, the fear of losing Mama and Papa, the fear of losing myself.
“What happened to us, Papa? Why aren’t you happy here in this home, like you said you’d be? What happened to Mama?”
“Maybe I’ll be happier somewhere else,” Papa answered as he got out of the car. I stared at him in disbelief; all my fears were coming true.
“How could you say that? Do you know how much I love you?” I screamed, tears staining my face.
Papa avoided my eyes.
Papa went into the house, but I sat on the stoop. I couldn’t bring myself to breach the wall of fear that the front door guarded so diligently.
“Yosef, can we talk?” I heard Mama say through the window.
I knew what that meant.
“Happy birthday, honey,” Mama said, placing a small cake in front of me on her kitchen table.
“Thanks, Mama.” I smiled at her.
“I just wish Elizabeth was here for your special day. But you know your father. It’s his week with her and he won’t budge.”
Mama and Papa’s custody agreement had been contingent on Elizabeth’s acceptance into a private high school when she turned thirteen. Papa had moved two hours away, and had discovered the school. I hadn’t been interested, but Elizabeth was. The Judge ruled that I live with Mama and Elizabeth live with Papa for that reason. Every other weekend, Elizabeth and I switch; although sometimes Mama and Papa let us see each other. She is only fifteen and can’t drive yet. I don’t have the time to drive out every weekend to see her. But I know if I admit how much I miss her to Mama, it will only make her angry and start a fight between her and Papa.
“I know, but I’m still happy to spend my eighteenth birthday with you.”
“I love you, honey. Blow out your candles! Make a wish!”
I closed my eyes. I had almost everything I wanted: good grades, a college acceptance, a great job, a beautiful girlfriend. The only thing missing from me was my sister. I thought back to the day I threw up in front of the corner store- the day Papa decided to leave. I had taken Elizabeth for granted back then. Without her, my best friend is missing from my life.
“I wish for Elizabeth, Mama,” I couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t mean to make her angry, I was just too sad to stop myself.
“Oh baby,” Mama cried, “I know you do. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about the days when we were all together.”
“Mama please don’t cry,” I hugged her, “that’s my birthday wish. For us to be together. So maybe, it’ll come true.”
I blew out my candles.