29 years ago Mama burst into tears at our dinner table. “This is our last Thanksgiving together as a family.”
I rolled my eyes as only mature 17 year old seniors can, “Oh Mom. . .”
But she was right.
I haven’t spent Thanksgiving with my parents since then. . . until now. My parents flew in from Honolulu this morning.
So much has changed.
Growing up, Mama called us orphans because we had no extended family in Hawaii. So my parents invited all the “orphans” they could find for Thanksgiving. Never far from Mama’s ideal was the old Chinese manse, with hundreds of rooms filled with hundreds of distant relations where great uncle Chou or second cousin on my father’s mother’s side is only several courtyards and raised doorways away.
First we had to clean.
Because Mama’s a pack rat with clutter piled everywhere AND she raised her kids to follow suit, our home on Thanksgiving morning was almost as inhospitable to orphans as anything Dickens imagined.
Heaps of stuff had to be put away.
Gecko droppings and eggs had to be vacuumed off the curtains and end tables along with the termite wings from the last flying termite flurry.
The piano and teak wood furnishings had to be dusted and polished with Pledge.
Unfortunately, all four Tuan kids suffered from cleaning paralysis.
We moaned. We groaned. We took lots of breaks. Amazing how interesting an article about the Cold War found underneath the pile of laundry can be when you’re 10!
Our whining, our sloth, our bad attitudes inevitably led to Mama standing with hands on hips warning, “You don’t want me going on the warpath.”
But we couldn’t avoid it. Soon she snapped, berating us for all the messy irresponsible ways we led our lives. Truly responsible children put their toys away. Children who want to go to college, make a living and not become bums on the street should not find their two months old homework wedged behind the Chinese lamp.
Mama felt extra stressed because she was also chopping vegetables for six different Chinese dishes while roasting a turkey with Chinese sticky rice stuffing and packing away her papers and bills mounded on the dining room table.
It was just too much for one woman to handle.
Where was Baba during the chaos?
I can’t remember.
Probably at his immaculate university office, blissfully writing physics theorems on his chalkboard, not thinking twice about whether he should have any role in house maintenance. He certainly wasn’t vacuuming or dusting or protecting his children from the screaming banshee Mama had become.
By dusk, when Baba arrived with Chinese visiting scholars and New Kapahulu Chop Suey’s fish balls with gravy and chow mien, our house looked presentable. The lone bottle of wine for 20 adults had been uncorked along with eggnog spiked with (literally) a few drops of rum.
As our fellow orphans filed up the thirteen stairs to our doorway, leaving their shoes outside Hawaii style, Mama still furiously cooked while ordering her daughters to pass around macadamia nuts and Chinese pizza (scallion pancakes).
Most years, we didn’t pray or give thanks before our meal—Baba called himself an apostate and Mama went along. So as soon as we filled our plates, we kids retreated to the family room to watch TV and play games while the adults chatted in the living room.
By 1 am, as our last guests clambered into their cars, my family stood in our driveway practicing the Chinese custom of “song ren” (sending people as far down their trip as possible) waving goodbye as they drove away.
This year, my sister’s driving up from Philly with her family of 5. An even dozen will sit around my dinner table, and we will pray and give thanks to God. Baba re-committed himself to Christ when I was in 8th grade, Mama followed along and now we’re a veritable family of Jesus freaks.
I’m hoping I won’t go on the warpath, not because I don’t regularly go on the warpath (raging outbursts being something passed down the female line) but because my very neat husband won’t allow me to be the packrat I was raised to be.
We won’t have any “orphans,” but the addition of 2 husbands and 6 grandchildren, (including my 2 teens who will be more than happy to roll their eyeballs at everything I say) means our house will have that nice crowded feeling, an American version of a Chinese manse.
My Thanksgiving meal includes nothing Chinese other than the white rice my sister wants, and we’ll serve a far higher proportion of alcohol/adult, but just like growing up there will be far too much food.
We have no gecko eggs or termite wings, no fish balls with gravy or visiting Chinese scholars. But for the first time in 29 years, I will gather around the Thanksgiving table with Mama and Baba again.
I’m thankful. Very thankful.