In this personal essay, after suicides and heartbreak ravage her family, Jenny Aurthur finds she has no choice but be transformed.
Of Breakdowns and Breakthroughs
Of Breakdowns and Breakthroughs
Jenny Aurthur | Longreads | May 2018 | 28 minutes (6,886 words)
On the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2004, my father went missing. I was at the Santa Monica apartment I’d been subletting to a friend while working for three months in New York City, getting ready for bed when my phone rang. It was my mother, wondering if I’d spoken to him. I had not seen or heard from my dad since he’d picked me up from the JetBlue terminal at the Long Beach Airport three days earlier. I was 30 and had returned home to L.A. from New York to spend the holiday with my family.
I’d never missed Turkey Day with my folks. Nothing about my childhood had been typical. I was raised by atheist, socialist activists who called me “Jenny Marx,” never just Jenny, after Karl Marx’s wife. They skipped religious holidays, but observed Thanksgiving, well, religiously.
Thanksgiving had solidified into a legendary event among our friends, and most years we had a full house. It wasn’t unusual for so many people to show up that some had to sit cross-legged on the floor, leaning against the living room wall. The food was so good, and the company even better, that no one minded not having a seat at the table. My father cooked for an army, and there was never a shortage of food. Our parties were lively and conversations were raucous, everyone talking over one another. We were an opinionated bunch. Current events were passionately discussed, and my parents were walking encyclopedias. Topics ranged from global warming to recent movies to the upcoming local and presidential elections. The musical selections were just as diverse as the crowd, from Dixieland jazz to gospel to classical to Dylan.
Everyone got quiet when the food was ready. We passed around two kinds of homemade stuffing — one for vegetarians and one with Italian sausage. Huge bowls of steaming sweet potatoes, buttery green beans, thick slices of light and dark meat my father carved from the 20-pound bird, fresh cranberry sauce with tart orange zest, loaves of freshly baked sourdough bread, green salad, and a ceramic pitcher of hot gravy barely fit on our dining room table.
I started having friends come over for the holiday when I was in junior high. My mother, Elinor, and my father, Jonathan, were popular with my classmates and considered the “cool parents.” During the years I was in school and well into my twenties, our house was the place to be. After Thanksgiving dinners with their own families, droves of my old pals showed up to our house. Everyone loved being around my parents. When I was in high school, one of my best friends, Leisa, was having trouble at home, and my mom took her in. Another friend, Ania, also lived with us a couple of years later.
“I wish Elinor and Jonathan were my parents,” my girlfriends would often say.
This year, though, Thanksgiving would be different. I’d been living in New York since the late summer. Preoccupied with my work, I put the holidays on the back burner. My parents and I had decided to keep it mellow for once. Eight years after my younger brother’s suicide, for the first time, it would just be the three of us.
Historically the kitchen was my father’s territory, and when I was growing up, my mother, my brother, Charley, and I were careful to stay out of his way. He loved being the king of his castle, but he pretended not to enjoy it. “I’ve been burning my ass over a hot stove for the last three days for you ingrates,” he complained, acting annoyed, wiping sweat from his forehead. He loved this yearly charade, and we went along with it, rolling our eyes and laughing.
The aromas coming from the forbidden room made our mouths water and stomachs growl impatiently. Under the pretense of being helpful, my mom, my brother, and I would wander into the kitchen and lurk over the stove and poke around. We were shooed out immediately. “Everyone out of the kitchen,” my dad said with mock exasperation. The table had been set for hours; that was my job. I pulled out and polished the prized Tiffany family silver that had belonged to my grandparents, for its once-a-year appearance. My mother was responsible for buying lilies and dahlias. She also designed beautiful Japanese-style flower arrangements that she’d made in her ikebana class. Charley was in charge of dusting and vacuuming. We liked a late dinner and by the time we ate at 8:00, we were famished.
“Now can I sit down?” my dad asked, drawing out the “now,” acting like an indentured servant finally getting a break. Collapsing into his chair with a dramatic sigh, he surveyed the bounty of food, enough for Henry VIII’s court. “Well,” he said, “if we don’t have enough we can always order pizza.”