In my mind, the Thanksgiving picture is always the same: the eight of us—my father, mother, half-brother, four half-sisters, and me, the youngest—holding hands around the table while Daddy says grace. “Lawd, you know your servants are hungry!” His eyes are closed in prayer, but he isn’t able to hide his smile at the sound of our giggling. “We thank you for this food and for our family. We ask you to bless them both. Amen.”
We pile our plates with the Thanksgiving feast so lovingly prepared by my mother. “Let’s go around and say what we’re thankful for,” Mommy suggests. Smiling at one another, we all say that we are thankful for each other. For our family. We eat until we can’t eat anymore, all of us filled more with laughter than vegetables soaked in pork fat.
But none of that ever happened.
My parents were married for ten years, all told. In 1991, they moved Kimi—my oldest half-sister—and me to Salisbury, North Carolina, leaving my father’s four other children in Camden, New Jersey with their mother. One by one my half-siblings came to live with us in the country, and by 1993, all eight of us lived together in a three-bedroom, 1100-square-foot house. I was both thrilled and unnerved by the constant company, the flurry of activity. I often felt uncomfortable, as if I didn’t belong in my home.
Once in a while we’d all watch a movie together, and I would always find a place on the couch. My half-sister Moni made sure to sit nowhere near me. She’d been our father’s youngest child until I was born, and she held it against me. “God don’t like ugly,” I once overheard her say, knowing she was talking about my mother and me. Through the small-town gossip vine, we learned that my father had told my half-sisters that the house was theirs; Mommy, Kimi, and I were just living there.
I’ll never know why my father played favorites with my sisters. My best guess is that, living so far away from their mother, they made my father feel needed, soothing his insecurities in a way that I could not since my mother rarely let me out of her sight. My sisters made my dad feel important. Anyone who seemed to come between them was seen as an enemy—including my mother and me.
My parents never really argued; Daddy just complained, or didn’t say much at all to Mommy or to me. But one night, I heard Daddy’s voice boom from their bedroom: “THIS IS MY HOUSE! THIS IS MY HOUSE! THIS IS MY HOUSE!” Then I heard the bed squeal and his stomping in the hallway. My father had never hit my mother that I knew of, but this time he’d pushed her down onto the bed before storming out. Mommy slept in my bedroom that night.
Eventually she convinced him to go to counseling with the pastor. According to my mother, the pastor told my father, “This is your wife. You have to love her and not put your kids ahead of her. That’s what the Bible says.”
My father replied, “That’s good for people who want to do it.”
Once, when Moni told him a girl at school tried to fight her, Daddy told her to fight the girl fair and square, on our front lawn. A bunch of neighborhood people came to watch. “Al, you stop all this right now,” Mommy said. “How can you call yourself a Christian?” He ignored her, and some people from our church, who’d come to see the fight, stood up for him.
Mommy had told me to stay in the house, so I looked out the window and tried to see what I could in the dim porch light. I heard Moni screaming. The other girl had her on the ground, straddling her like a horse, pulling her head back and forth by her hair. Moni might have gotten a punch or two in, but she definitely lost the fight. The other girl stood up with barely a scratch while Moni burst into the house, crying and humiliated. But the next day, it was as if nothing had happened: Daddy went about kissing my sisters’ cheeks and tickling their stomachs, as usual, while I looked on from across the room.
The fight was one of the final straws for my mother. She said she couldn’t stay with a man who would put his child in danger.
Thanksgiving 1993 was the only year when both my parents and all my siblings and I could have spent the holiday together. But I have no recollection of a Thanksgiving celebration that year. My mom was too depressed to cook dinner on a daily basis, much less make a whole feast for the holiday. Maybe we went to my maternal grandmother’s house in Camden, while my siblings spent it at their mother’s house around the corner. Or maybe we stayed in North Carolina and went to the home of some white church folk who we knew would smile while they served us dry turkey and tasteless green bean casserole. Maybe we pretended it was just another day.
My parents finally got divorced when I was thirteen. From then on, although we were cordial, my father and I spoke only once a year or so, and I almost always initiated the call. He didn’t call me on my birthday or ask to come to my high school or college graduations. I invited him to my wedding, though I didn’t invite my three half-sisters.
The last time I saw my half-sisters was at my father’s funeral in September 2015, after he died of colon cancer. When I walked into the foyer of the chapel, my sister Iya was the first person to notice me. She glared at me with her jaw clenched and her eyes blank, as if she’d never known me; as if she wished I’d never been born.
Thanksgiving was the first major holiday after my dad passed away. I spent the day in rural Maryland with my in-laws. My husband Rustin’s family is also a large bunch, consisting of two parents, five sons, five daughters-in-law, and numerous children. But he and all of his brothers have the same parents, and those parents have been married for almost fifty years.
I watched as my mother-in-law billowed a white tablecloth over the grand table in the formal dining room. My father-in-law dragged out the little kids’ table from the basement and set four tiny seats around it. They brought down the good china from the locked cabinets. Rustin’s eight-year-old niece said grace before we dug into the food piled high on ceramic serving plates or bowls that matched the china. The little kids ran around their table and their parents squawked, “No running in the house!” Rustin’s parents smiled contentedly to themselves, cradling full glasses of wine. I stuffed my face with turkey, dressing, and dueling sweet potato soufflés, then watched football until I fell asleep in a ball on the couch.
Surrounded by holiday mirth at my in-laws’ house, I started to feel heavy, almost oppressed by everyone else’s joy. When Rustin and I got back to New York that Saturday night, I lay on my side in our darkened bedroom, looking at the outline of the streetlight on the curtains.
I knew that my father had been abused as a child, didn’t know his father, didn’t know how to be a father himself. But now I found myself wondering: Aside from those genuinely warm holiday memories from childhood, what else did we all miss out on?
As I fell asleep, I saw, behind my eyelids, a movie of my dad and me on the porch of a beach house, some summer in the future. It was twilight, and we were drinking beer out of the bottle, even though my dad always thought he was too holy for alcohol. We were laughing together when a tiny palm suddenly slapped the screen door. “Hey, you!” my father said. In my mind’s eye, my husband opened the door and let our son out to run the few steps to his grandfather, who scooped him up into his lap. Daddy bounced the boy for a minute, then put him down so he could jet down the stairs to the beach. Rustin ran after him, catching up and throwing our giggling toddler over his shoulder.
My breathing blended with the rhythm of the waves. I could hear my father’s laughter, feel my cheeks stretched with my own smile, taste the salty air on my tongue with the beer.
These were the moments that I missed the most. The ones that never happened.
When I opened my eyes, tears had run down my face, soaking my pillowcase. I was finally mourning my father.
Mourning helps you process loss; to get used to the idea of a future without someone who was important to you. When most people mourn, they think about the past and all of the good times. It hurts to think that these things will never happen again. In my case, my spirit was stung by the loss of a past and a future that could never have been.
Mourning a fantasy helped me climb one more rung on the ladder of acceptance of my past. I had no choice but to accept who my father was: a deeply insecure man whose fragile ego was more important than his wives and children.
He caused pain to so many people. I never had any control over his behavior. I don’t think he would have changed, if he’d lived longer. Accepting the fact that my fantasy would never have come true lifted the burden of hoping that he would ever be different. It freed me to let him go.
Rustin and I spent last Thanksgiving with my mom, my sister Kimi, and my half-brother Al and their spouses and children. We all went to my mother’s house and held hands as my brother-in-law said grace and thanked God for our family. We stuffed our faces with turkey and vegetables soaked in pork fat while my mom regaled us with the story of how she met my dad.
“My friend Carol set us up since I needed a date to the prom,” Mom said, twirling her fork between her thumb and index finger. “After prom, we all went to Atlantic City and roller-skated on the boardwalk.”
We all laughed as my siblings recalled stories from our childhood. We didn’t bother playing any holiday music; it would have been hard to hear over the chatter and laughter in the kitchen. Al giggled as he told us, “One time one of my friends was like, ‘Hey, set me up with your stepsister,’ and I said, ‘Nope, you’re on your own!’”
Sitting around the table with my family, I was filled with the same shameful relief I’d felt after hearing about my father’s death a year prior. But I also felt overwhelmed with gratitude for my new family. I no longer had to think about calling my dad to wish him a happy Thanksgiving, then failing to do it because of fear and the hurtful reminder of his absence.
I’ve taken steps to try to address the hurt my father caused by going to therapy. My friends and my husband help keep me grounded. Now I find myself looking forward to future Thanksgivings with my own child, who has not yet been born or even conceived. While I’m still anxious to make up for my father’s mistakes—while I still fear I could become a version of him, making my future kids feel inadequate to compensate for my own self-doubt—I try to have faith that my fantasy of a happy, harmonious family can still be a reality for my future children.