Missing My Dysfunctional Family at Thanksgiving
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Missing My Dysfunctional Family at Thanksgiving


This post was originally published on November 26, 2014.

When I was a kid, it was a tradition in my stepmother’s family to wake up ass early on Thanksgiving morning and brave the traffic through Center City, Philadelphia to watch the Thanksgiving day parade. Thousands of bleary eyed families would belly up to the police barricades that lined the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, juggling thermoses full of steamy hot chocolate and piles of extra blankets, and watch as the street swelled with marching bands and the sky filled with bobbing, giant cartoon character balloons. The best part of the parade didn’t happen until the very end, when Santa and his eight reindeer floated down the street on a fake pillow of snow. From his sleigh, Santa waved and smiled robotically at the rows of hysterical children who all waved their letters to him wildly over their heads. If you were lucky, one of Santa’s elves would snatch up your letter and dump it into one of the fat red sacks surrounding his sleigh. I remember one year, in addition to a Pound Purry and a Pogo Ball, I asked Santa to please allow my brother to come home for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, that was the year that my letter didn’t make it into Santa’s fat red sack.

My brother was in scary shape the year that he was banned from the holidays. If he wasn’t drunk, then he was high on something and if he wasn’t in jail, then he was busy dodging warrants for his arrest. My dad got really fed up with his antics one year and threw him out of the house. But it was my stepmother who took it one step further and came up with the brilliant idea of banning my brother from all holiday celebrations out of fear that he would, as she said, “ruin everything.” I remember being so angry with her at the time and so incredibly furious with my dad for going along with her suggestion. Even though I was a dopey 10-year-old kid, I could sense that my stepmother’s decision to ban my brother was more a cruel punishment than an innocent precautionary measure. My brother must have felt it too because, despite my stepmother’s request, he made a special guest appearance at Thanksgiving that year and it was one that I will never forget.

After thawing out from the parade and inhaling Thanksgiving dinner, my stepmother and a handful of the other women who were there scurried off to the kitchen to start washing dishes and prepping dessert. The rest of us—me, my dad and the other remaining members of my stepmother’s family—rolled out to the living room with bulging stomachs and sleepy eyes. From the kitchen, above the hiss of running water and the clanking of spoons, my stepmother yelled, “Everyone’s taking leftovers this year—there’s enough here to feed an army!” Someone must have stuffed one of the apple pies in the oven because the living room started to smell like cinnamon and sugar.

“Who wants coffee?” another voice yelled out above the commotion in the kitchen. “How about tea? Who’s having tea?”

Everything about that Thanksgiving was exactly like all the others before except for the fact that my brother wasn’t there. And I wondered where he was. I wondered if he was alone or sitting around a friend’s table somewhere talking tryptophan to death or musing about how good the apple pie smelled or fussing over which lucky pair would get to break the turkey’s wishbone after dinner. And I wondered if anyone else in the room was thinking about my brother or if they even cared that he wasn’t there.

I was sitting next to my dad on the couch when I spotted a wobbly shadow moving outside on the porch. Dad noticed it too and crept over slowly towards the living room window. He peeked his head around the edge of the pleated curtain and when he realized who it was, he let out a tired sigh.

Dad backed away from the window, turned to face the front door and just stood there. I watched as his chest moved in and out with each breath. Behind him, the room fell awkwardly quiet. Every pair of eyes in the room bounced like a tennis ball between the shadow on the window and the back of my dad’s head. Suddenly, there was a firm knock at the front door. Dad waited, shook his head no and the knock came through again. He looked exhausted as he took a deep breath and pulled open the door. My brother was standing there alone. Even though he was a carbon copy of my dad—dark hair, button nose and olive skin—they looked at each other like strangers.

Dad stepped aside and my brother busted in the living room. “Yooo! Happy Thanksgiving!” he belted with a goofy grin while throwing his arms wildly in the air.

My mom said that when my brother was born, he looked like a monkey. She said that he had a thick mop of black curly hair on his head and his limbs were long and flailed away from his body as if they were made of rubber. She told me she took one look at him and asked the nurse, “Are you sure that he’s mine?” The nurse laughed as she handed my brother to mom, saying, “Yes, he’s absolutely yours.”

My brother was tipsy as he made small talk with a few of the remaining people in the living room. The others had awkwardly scattered to the kitchen as soon as they realized that it was my brother on the other side of the door. I sat on the couch and beamed. I was so happy to see my brother and at the same time I felt so incredibly guilty. I knew that my brother had a problem. I knew that he drank a lot and that he used drugs but I also knew that he was hurting. And I could sense that behind his drunken armor and his trademark goofy smile, he felt rejected. I could see that even though he was an addict or an alcoholic or whatever my family called him, he was still a human being.

Dad was holding the knob on the front door when my stepmother entered the room. She was wringing a red kitchen towel in her hands as she looked on disapprovingly at my brother. Then she switched her gaze over to my dad and shot him a hard look, scrunching her lips up tight and cocking her chin out to the left side. The look on her face said Get him out of here and my dad complied. He pulled my brother by his arm back through the front door and didn’t offer him any of the Thanksgiving dinner leftovers. As my brother’s shadow shrunk away from the living room window, I couldn’t help but replay the dejected look that seeped onto his face as the door clicked shut behind him. In a matter of seconds, he regressed from being a drunk, stubborn 18-year-old into a stumbling, helpless toddler.

Every year, as the holidays start to bubble, I try to imagine what my family might look like if addiction wasn’t an issue. And sadly, I struggle to pull that picture together in my head. I can’t ever remember a holiday in my family that wasn’t laced with some free floating anxiety over who might show up drunk or uninvited or who might instigate a fist fight. Maybe that’s why I just can’t see it. But even though I can’t imagine my family sane and sober during the holidays or addiction free for any of the other 364 days of the year, I’ve been lucky enough to spend plenty of Thanksgivings and Christmases with friends who do have normal, loving families that aren’t wilting from addiction. Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot from them and I’ve taken what I’ve learned and applied it to how I now spend the season with my husband.

It’s been over 20 years since I’ve spent a holiday with my family and sometimes, despite the drama, dysfunction and addiction, I actually miss them—especially my big brother. The strange truth is, although I hate to admit it, I’m comfortable in chaos and there’s always plenty of that whenever my family is around.

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About Author

Dawn Clancy is the creator of Growing Up Chaotic, a blog and radio program for those determined to survive and thrive despite growing up in toxicity. Her goal is to create a community hell bent on breaking, cracking and demolishing the cycle of dysfunction.