I grew up in New England, a place where tradition runs supreme. Holidays were a big deal, and we spent most of the major ones shuttling from this aunt to that grandmother and back again, enjoying the camaraderie only a large and extended family can afford. Those were the halcyon years, when my mother could still get away with dressing me as a doily.
When I was eight years old, we moved across the country to Southern California, and those days came to an abrupt end. We still celebrated every major holiday with all the pomp and circumstance my mother could bring to the table, but in the end it was always just us, and while it was still lovely, it was more….quiet, somehow. We called the family religiously, listening to the hubbub in the background and the people shouting in tipsy voices, “Tell em we said hi! What’s it, 70 degrees out thah? We’re jealous!” And so was I.
We always toyed with the idea of going back to spend the holidays with the family, just once, but the lure of nostalgia was overcome by my father’s distaste for holiday travel, so we remained home, year after year, in the quiet serenity of a sunny and warm Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In 2003, I was just celebrating my first anniversary, settling into a new job, when my mother told me her father, my beloved Pepe, was in trouble. He had been in trouble his whole life, truth be told, but it was a different kind of trouble this time.
In all the old pictures from my childhood, you could see Pepe smiling with the ineffable twinkle of a person who liked to tell stories, usually embellished. Always embellished.
The other thing you could always find, when you looked hard enough, was the small rectangular outline of a box of cigarettes.
We tried for years to get him to quit, bought cartons and emptied them out only to replace the contents with candy, but to no avail. He did quit eventually, when he was finally diagnosed with lung cancer about 20 years after it should have happened, but of course by then it was too late.
We visited him at the start of his radiation therapy, and my mother, who had long missed the embrace of her family more than the rest of us put together, spent a lot of time with him helping him get set up.
She’s a nurse. Of course she would be his caretaker. And when he rallied, he sent her back home to California.
Several months later, she was once again beckoned to New England. Pepe was doing poorly, and now he was in the care of hospice. Did she want to come, they asked. And she did.
She warned us that this time it was different, that the end was actually coming. If we wanted to say goodbye, she told us, we should be ready.
The week before Thanksgiving, Mom called both my sister and I and told us that Pepe had only days left, and should we wish to say our goodbyes, we should get on a plane. So we did.
The story of his passing is for a different time, but suffice it to say he did it his way, like he always did, and as strange as it is to say, we spent a good deal of those last hours laughing even through our tears.
He died on November 23, 2003. He was to be buried the following week, and Thanksgiving was only 4 days away. We piled into my aunt’s home, collapsed in the basements and crammed into the living room, while my aunt tried to manage both the grief of her father’s death and the sudden influx of new guests. The preparation was a welcome distraction. She shopped for turkey while my mother took my grandmother coffin shopping. “Mom picked our her own while we were there,” she said with some chagrin. “She always was a bit of a control freak.”
I don’t remember what we ate, balanced on paper plates on our laps. I don’t remember the pie or the turkey though I know we had them all. I remember laughing my butt off at regular intervals, my father looking in horror at the assembled group and asking, “Why are you all smiling and laughing? Your grandfather just died.”
And my mother smiled back and said, “Because he would have been so happy to see us all together again. This is what he would have wanted.”
Even if it took him dying to do it. Stubborn man.
Life gives us beauty when we least expect it, and what I am most thankful for is the ability to recognize those moments when they arrive. A blessed Thanksgiving to you all, my friends, and may you find your beauty in strange places as well.