A Dad’s Triumph Amid Family Changes

Article and Photograph by Xavier Lopez

Thanksgiving wasn’t a holiday I was ever particularly fond of. I didn’t discover it until I came to this country 12 years ago, and even then it wasn’t something I looked forward to. Get-togethers with my father and his relatives always ended in disaster. My mother’s family still lives in Ecuador, where I grew up.

While going to see extended family sounded like fun while I was a kid, I soon realized that while my father’s family was always kind to me and my sister, they had a tendency to criticize my mother. I don’t know if it was because she took their youngest boy, or because my parents had me before they married.

Xavier Lopez roasted the Thanksgiving turkey, a task usually handled by his wife.
Xavier Lopez roasted the Thanksgiving turkey, a task usually handled to his wife.

Either way, they never had anything nice to say about her, unless, of course, they wanted something.

At some point during my adolescence my immediate family and my extended family had a falling out, thank God. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my family, but I was tired of the drama that went along with these passive aggressive gatherings. My mom, Jenny, knew whenever there was a holiday or a party that if she were going to have a bad time, she made sure that my father, also named Xavier; my sister, Andrea, and I did, too.

So, seven years ago we stopped having Thanksgiving with my dad’s extended family, and since then it’s just been Mom and Dad, my sister and me, and sometimes my sister’s best friend, Penny. Things have been going great, we get along, we laugh, we say what we’re thankful for and we enjoy my mom’s amazing cooking – which, in reality, is my grandma’s cooking and will probably be my sister’s cooking as well.

This year, something went horribly wrong. My mother is a home health aide who takes care of elderly people who can’t care for themselves. At the beginning of the year, she came home early one day and told us some sad news: a woman whom she had been working with for years had passed away. I didn’t think much at the time, but I tried to comfort my mother, not realizing that this lady’s death would be the catalyst for this year’s fiasco.

My mother needed to work this Thanksgiving because her new patient needed her. My parents gave us two options: Dad cooks, or we all go to his mother’s. I immediately panicked and flashed back to the times when I had to make conversation with my awkward cousin Carlos, who only leaves his room when he needs the bathroom and when my aunt forces him to go to family events. We unanimously agreed that we would stay home and try to make the best of it, though my father barely knows how to operate an oven.

Two days before Thanksgiving, we learned that my sister could not join us for the holiday, because her new employer told her she had to work from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m., and then she was going to spend the night at her boyfriend’s. So Penny decided to spend Thanksgiving with her family. My father concluded that Thanksgiving was already ruined, since it would just be the two of us and our cat, Leia. Thanks, Dad.

On Wednesday night, my mother left the turkey in the fridge, all dolled up and ready to go. My father didn’t have to do much but make little side dishes and check on the turkey every once in a while. Mom thought she had made it easy for him.

My father’s anxiety and his name are the two biggest things that we share. On the big day, he overslept and woke up at 11, then freaked out because he hadn’t put the turkey in the oven yet. He called my mother six times to find out what was the right time to put it in and at what temperature – all of which she had explained the night before. When I told him the details, he said he wouldn’t do it until he heard it from her, “just to make sure.”

Once the turkey was in, it was time to obsess about other things. “How do I cut these potatoes? When do I put them in the oven? How do you make mac and cheese? What is in cranberry sauce? Yams? Who needs them? Did we get pie?” Since pie was the only thing I cared about, I got my coat and left the apartment.

Three hours and five supermarkets later, I concluded there weren’t any more pies in the tristate area, or perhaps all across the country. At home, the scene was grim, the mac and cheese was burned and the cranberry sauce had stuck to a saucepan Dad was heating it in. We bought another can of cranberries and another mac and cheese box and this time we cooked them together.

While we made these dishes that, as it happened, no one would eat, we talked about how he felt about Thanksgiving. How he resents his family for the way they treat his wife and how they’re always taking advantage of him and how nice he is. How he feels old since my sister was spending Thanksgiving with her boyfriend. How he wishes we got to talk more often, he works all the time, I have school, work and a girlfriend whom I’m spending more and more time with. We finished the side dishes, which came out perfect.

When the turkey was done we decided to have dinner together, just the two of us. He had a look of accomplishment as if he had defeated the giant turkey now on the table. Then my girlfriend called and invited me to her cousin’s house. Dad gave me an approving look and told me to go.

As the family dynamics change, it’s good to know that my father can definitely handle whatever changes come along, even if it’s a struggle at first. As I left, he waved goodbye and turned on HBO to watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It was time for him to kick back after a long day.