November 21, 2012

A Not So Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving

When I was a kid I used to look at the old Saturday Evening Post magazines my grandmother kept in her house. I’d spend hours staring at the Norman Rockwell paintings on the covers, wishing my life resembled those pictures.  For a girl like me - one whose family was always in transition – they were glimpses of a normal life. A Perfect life.

The Thanksgiving editions were especially appealing. I’d make up stories about the family that sat around that perfect turkey. The dad was cheerful, employed at an advertising agency. The mother stayed home and baked cookies. The kids got along. Grandpa told stories about the good old days and grandma always had treats in her pocket for her favorite grand kids. In my eleven-year-old heart I believed that when I grew up, I could recreate the scene and have my own perfect holiday.

What follows is the week leading up to this year's attempt:

              Thursday (One Week Before Thanksgiving)

I’m heading to the grocery store with my husband, clenching a sales ad and a handful of coupons. I am on a mission:  if we buy four hundred dollars’ worth of stuff , we ‘win’ a free turkey.  But as the realization that Thanksgiving is less than one week away hits me, I start to hyperventilate.
“I can’t do this,” I tell my husband as he pulls into the grocery store parking lot. It’s hot in the car. Almost balmy.  I roll down the window and suck in big pockets of air.
“Every year you go through this thing of yours…trying to create the perfect holiday. I say relax. Things are only as difficult as you make them.” He almost hits a pedestrian and a cat as he parks. The cat meows and the pedestrian flips him off. He doesn't notice. “Just calm down.”
Calm down? Easy for him to say. He has exactly three jobs during the holidays: Carve the turkey, pick out a tree, and watch TV.
“You’re just anti-holiday.  If it were up to you, the only holidays we’d still be celebrating would be July 4th and Superbowl Sunday.”
“You forgot New Year’s Eve.”
Somehow I'd chosen a husband who hadn't factored into my Normal Rockwell scene. For the time being, I would just have to make do.
              In the parking lot, I spot a woman with a long pony tail, a Santa’s hat, and a bell.
I fumble through my pockets, removing a bobby pin, a button, and a dime. I look helplessly at my husband to see if he has any spare change.

             "You're wanting to give our money away already?" He nods towards my dime. "Just give her that."
 “The poor lady is sitting out here, shivering, and you want me to toss her a dime?” I glance around, hoping there's another entrance. There's not.
“Sorry.” My husband smiles at the woman before I can make my getaway. “We will have to catch you twice next time.” She woman smiles back. I forget how charming my husband can be to females who don't wash his socks.
Inside the store, we pile groceries into our cart, filing every available nook and cranny. Still, it's not enough to win my turkey. My husband wants to check out, whether or not we get free poultry. In a panic, I throw in twelve cans of Spam and a case of split pea soup. 
I grab a turkey, the biggest one, and perch it atop the mountain in our cart. “We’ve made our quota!” I gloat. We pay and head for the exit.

My husband elbows me as we leave. The charmed bell ringer has left her post. In her place stands a little person wearing an eye patch, dressed like one of Santa's elves. He swings his bell in my direction and I shrug helplessly as he appraises my haul. I offer him a can of Spam. He takes it, but his eye shows no signs of twinkling.
“We can never come back here,” I say, racing for the car.
“Sure we can. We just have to wait till January.”

I call my family, trying to figure out who is coming for Thanksgiving. Getting a group of people  together for anything is a challenge, especially my family, who like to ‘play it by ear.’ To complicate matters, half of them have changed religions this year (and dietary restrictions) and the other half has converted to veganism. Suddenly, I wish I hadn’t won such a large turkey.
By the end of the day I have the final count. It looks like we are down to: Videogame Boy, Holidays-Are-A-Waste-Of-Money-Girl, and Dude-Who-Just-Wants-To-Watch-Football.
Oh, and my mother.

It’s housecleaning day and I’m surveying my home, inspecting it through the eyes of someone who has never seen it before. I notice things – crooked pictures, hand prints, a beige carpet that used to be white.  How can we live in all this filth? I get out the Mr. Clean Magic Erasers and go to town, scrubbing walls until the sponges fall apart. My husband walks by on his hourly pilgrimage to the refrigerator. He sees tears in my eyes and stops to check in. I tell him about the dead Magic Erasers and then send him to the store to get more. He comes back with a six pack and a bag of Cheetos, but no Magic Eraser. I tell him that he doesn’t care about me or family or traditions, because if he did he would have remembered cleaning supplies.
“You’re trying too hard,” he says, but returns to the store.

I stare at the wall, looking at a spot that’s been there for so long I thought it was wallpaper. Maybe he’s right. I almost put away my bucket and gloves but the image of my mother, rearranging my cupboards, pops into my head. If I have to endure one more year  of her telling me that I'll get an infection down there if I don’t properly scrub the bath tub, I’m going to jump into the oven with the turkey.My husband returns, hands me over the box of cleaning pads, and I scrub the walls until the paint chips off.

I’m thinking I should decorate. The house, while clean now, is sparse in the holiday cheer department. I wonder if it would be okay to decorate for Christmas before Thanksgiving even arrives. The stores do it, so I guess I can too.  
            I start small: a wreath and some holiday hand towels. Hmmm? I add a Santa cookie jar. But these few items aren't enough. It looks like someone sneezed Christmas instead of welcomed it. I bring out the big bins. Soon, I have a living room that rivals Santa's Workshop. I might go blind from all the blinking lights.
“Too much?” I ask my husband.
He pats my head and heads for his man cave.

I wake up at four AM, sure I've forgotten something necessary for our big day. I wander around the house for five hours trying to remember what it is. Finally, I decide to go to the store, hoping it will trigger the memory.
The one-eyed bell ringer is there. He catches me in my car. I put my foot to the gas as he wags his bell at me.
“Shit.” I dont have any spare change, or Spam, today.
"Get what you needed?" My husband asks upon my quick return.

"Whateverwas I needed, can wait another day."

I look in the mirror. I’m pale and my hair is stringy.  I know that someone will be taking pictures and tagging me on Facebook. And now with Instagram…
I rush out and get a spray tan. It’s cold and costs as much as a turkey.  I try to secure an appointment for a haircut. They are booked up through next week. I decide to cut my own bangs - just a little trim. Then a little more. Next, I cut the sides of my hair, adding layers. This isn’t so hard. I consider becoming a cosmetologist.  

By the time my husband gets home, I’ve got a mound of hair in the sink and I’m dual-wielding scissors. “You’re going to be bald if you don’t stop!” He takes the scissors and bans me from the mirror for three hours. When I finally check my reflection again, I see that I look like an Oompa Loompa with a Daryl Hall haircut.  

I take a shower and go shopping for a hat.

I sleep in. There’s still one more day until Thanksgiving and I'm already exhausted. I’m starting to miss being a kid, when the only stressful thing about the holidays was making sure Santa didn’t catch me on a naughty day.
There was still so much to do: Cooking all that food, displaying it on a perfect table, and making sure that no one kills any body else for the next 48 hours feels insurmountable. Not to mention I need to look up "Holiday Spam and Split Pea Soup Recipes" on Pinterest.
All I want is one perfect day. I don't even have the strength to get there.
I tell my husband who is getting ready for work. He sits on the bed next to me.
“There’s no such thing as perfect. And for the record, those Saturday Evening Post images aren't real.”
“You’re family had perfect,” I argue. I have been to his parent's during the holidays. If Rockwell were still alive, he’d be painting my husband’s family.
“Again, there is no such thing as perfect.” He kisses my forehead and leaves.  But if his family wasn't perfect, whose was? 
I ponder this as I dress, looking out my bedroom window. It’s raining. I stumble down the stairs to my coffee pot, grab a cup, and make my way to the computer to search for Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving Images. I locate the famous 'family around the table scene' and stare at it.  
The people in the picture are happy, healthy, and clean. Their hair is combed, their teeth are white, and no one is wearing a Meat is Murder t-shirt.
I look closer. Suddenly, I notice that one person is looking away from the others. And Grandma is doing all the heavy work.
Maybe they werent perfect, after all. Maybe they all just put on their finery, posed, then went back to arguing politics and bad football calls. Somewhere between passing the salt and the dinner rolls, life is bound to happen.

I stare more, transfixed. I re-imagine the scene: Grandpa is worried about his pension. Uncle Pete announces he's leaving Aunt Berta because she whistles in her sleep. And sweet Mary Jane wants to quit school to become a professional mime.

Maybe what Rockwell painted was one perfect second, caught between a myriad of imperfect seconds. Rockwell painted an ideal world, not the real one. He was a dreamer. Like me.
I looked around my now chaotic house. Just yesterday, it was in perfect shape, but today its back to normal. The hand prints on my stainless steel appliances have returned. The dishes are all dirty. And that mysterious spot has reappeared. 

              I sigh and sip my coffee.
I take down some of the decorations, leave the dishes in the sink, and smile at my husband. But I don't let him see it.
            I may not have the perfect house, or family, or life. But I have something better. I have my house, my family, and my life.

          And that really is enough, and possibly more than I can handle on a normal day.


        April Aasheim is a wife and mother living in Portland, OR. She is the author of the best selling witchy series: The Daughters of Dark Root. Find her on Facebook or at

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