November 23, 2017 “A Thanksgiving Memory”
Thanksgiving 1973, 4:30 am, and we watched out of our apartment window, snow coming down in buckets. We had got up early to drive the three hundred miles from Chicago to Alton, to my dad’s house, but now we hesitated. Snow in Chicago, in those days, was serious stuff.
But we got on the road, very little traffic, stopping along the way for coffee and hot chocolate. The snow followed us—or we followed the snow—all the way to Baldwin State Park, my dad’s name for his fifty acres of woods on Route 67. He and my stepmother hadn’t attended our wedding in Long Island. This was the first meeting.
I warned Barbara, from the moment I knew we were serious. My dad was two men in one body. He could be gregarious; he could be buried in foul moods, like layers of dirty blankets. Surly I exaggerated, my wife said, as we drove up the steep, one-lane dirt road above Piasa Creek, the oak woods heavy with snow.
Dad greeted us at the door. He hugged Barbara and took her coat. My stepmother came out of the kitchen and kissed my wife. Dinner was nearly ready, as our trip had taken almost eight hours. Dad sat us in the living room, the TV in the background showing a football game. He was in his recliner, a glass of ice and amber liquid on the end table next to him.
Barbara nuzzled next to me, watching my father watch the football game. Few words were spoken. Then halftime came. Dad looked at me and asked if I wanted a drink. Barb, why don’t you go and help Marlene with the dinner?
Dad and Barb walked into the kitchen. Marlene told Barb, no thanks, you sit with your father-in-law and get to know him. Back came Dad with a drink for me, Barb trailing behind. He sat and turned up the TV and sank into oblivion. Barb took a sip of my drink and asked for one of her own.
You know where the bar is, my father said, not even bothering to glance our way. My wife stewed for thirty minutes. No words were exchanged by anyone in the house. Finally, she looked at me. She jerked her head: Come talk to me. We stood up and went into the hall bathroom. I warned you, I said. The nerve of my dad, to ignore the woman guest. I made a bad joke: He treats his wife the same way.
I’m leaving, Barb told me. I will not stay in this house. We drove eight hours, for this? I knew her well enough to know she wasn’t joking or just letting off steam. She was leaving. Never mind that we were deep in snow-covered woods, with only a two-lane highway the shoulder of which was too narrow to walk.
She fetched her coat from the hall closet. Going for a walk? my dad asked. And out the front door my wife went. Marlene came from the kitchen to announce that dinner was served. She asked my father: What did you do to upset Barbara? He shrugged and went right back to watching the television.
We’re leaving, I told my dad. Okay, he said, so casually, so seemingly disinterested. The important thing with him was to steel the emotions; nothing could hurt him.
Marlene followed me to the car, kissed Barbara and said she was so sorry her husband was a jerk.
And back we drove towards Chicago, the snow letting up a bit, exhaustion making cautious drivers of us both. We stopped at a Cracker Barrel outside Bloomington and ate the saltiest Thanksgiving food I can ever remember. We got some wine and a motel room, and we passed the bottle back and forth and laughed, at the worst Thanksgiving of the imagination, an event that would never be discussed again.
The next summer, my dad walked Barb all around the fifty acres. They came out of the woods holding hands.