“True North” – A Thanksgiving Story
BY Megan Kogak
Thanksgiving Day never really felt like a true holiday to me. It’s more like speed bump you have to hit in order to get to Christmas. In school, the lesson of Thanksgiving revolves around spending valuable time with your loving family and consume as much turkey and other tasty tidbits until you explode. Never mind that nice painted Disney version of the Native Americans and Pilgrims eating at the same table together. I bet Pocahontas never had to deal with an aunt who still mistook her for her sibling, even though they’ve seen her at least a hundred times since she was born.
With a sigh, I lay my brush down on the floor as I sit cross legged on the floor to gaze at my reflection in the mirror. I make myself take a deep breath. Twenty-two has left me old and bitter, I’m afraid. Today more than anything scares me because of the amount of people who are coming over to enjoy this “festive” gathering. It was my adult duty to make an appearance and pay my respects to all the family members, no matter the cost to my personal psyche. But I’m already wearing myself out with all the thought of the predictable questions I’ll be asked.
“So how’s your job going?” “What do you do again?” “Seeing anyone lately?” “What happened to what’s his name?” “You know your cousin, Lisa, is graduating with her Master’s degree?” Crap, how am I supposed to do this? Gazing at myself in the mirror, all I can see is failure. Despite straightening my hair and putting make-up on myself for the past hour, I don’t even look the least bit happier.
Everyone knows the Hallmark picture is nonexistent. The part where all the aunts and uncles come in and the children are running up to them in excitement, cheeks hurting because they’re smiling so much…if only they aired the reality version where the children run away once that doorbell rings, so they can find a place to hide.
I wish I could still fit in that cupboard under my bathroom sink so I can hide from everyone.
Just as I am changing my blouse yet a fourth time, the dreaded doorbell starts to ring repeatedly. My little brother pokes his head in my room and gives me a look that is a cross between a groan and a glimmer of amusement, “Therrree heerrree.” My returning groan is all he needs to close the door with a slight slam and laugh all the way down the hall.
I say a quick prayer up to the heavens that I don’t make a complete fool of myself and can get through this day unscathed. Atop my dresser sits my jewelry box which I get down and open up the lid. Although my focus was to find my lucky bracelet, the small 4×4 picture sticking out of the side of the mirror stops my search. The tears I thought I shed all out in the past few days were building up again and with shaking fingers, I take out the photo to just gaze at it as if searching for the answers which would explain what I did wrong. Suddenly, I hear my aunt’s screeching voice shouting for all the rug rats to come down and give her hugs…ugh! I need a distraction anyways. Resigning myself to my fate, I take a deep breath and let it go while tearing the picture down the middle, I throw the pieces in the trash and go to pick up my bracelet. Of course, the stupid clip has broken and now I can’t fasten it on my wrist. Whatever…Maybe if it’s in my pocket, it’ll still give me some good luck and shove it in my jeans.
The noise seems to build up to a shrill crescendo as I start heading downstairs and, for a moment, I contemplate what I did in my past life to deserve such punishment. In the family room, I see zero sign of where the floor used to be since there was just a sea of bodies that happened to be all of my family. Eyes turn toward me, and I refrain from covering my ears when my aunts and cousins squeal when they see how much I have grown since they last saw me; about three weeks ago to be exact.
“And where’s what’s his name, hmm?” “How’s life after school these days?” “Come, eat, eat. Nothin’ but skin and bones, you are.” “Oh Sara, your hair is so beautiful!”
Never mind that my real name is Liz and that my sister is Sara. Jeez, we’re three years apart, how can you confuse that?
I graciously refuse to eat the appetizers (those can be a whole Thanksgiving dinner by themselves!), since I’ve been trying to lose weight. Although, mom’s deviled eggs keep staring me in the face and, of course, she had to make the bruschetta with fresh baked bread. By some miracle, I am able to sneak through the kitchen towards the sliding door that leads into the backyard. I pass by my mom, who, along with Sara and my cousin are in the middle of cooking this gigantic feast.
My mom gives me a knowing smile, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” I answer, “At this rate, if a kidnapper comes to abduct me, I’ll volunteer to go with him. Why can’t we ever have a normal family dinner?” “Hon, it’s Thanksgiving. You know we have to make do with the family we have. We can’t trade them in no matter how weird they are. And normal is relative. Get it?” Grinning wickedly, she reaches out to the wine glass on the counter and takes a big drink. “Want some? It helps.” I hate it when she thinks she’s funny.
I can never turn down wine though. Taking the glass out of her hand, I take a sip and put it back on the counter. “Thanks, I’m gonna go out and get some air a bit. If anyone asks for me, tell them I left the country.”
“They’ll still find you, I’m afraid.”
My mother’s chuckle follows me as I step outside to gaze up at the setting sun, which is creating a multitude of amazing colors throughout the sky. It’s going to be dark very shortly. Might as well take advantage of the solitude while I’m out here. I took a deep breath while closing my eyes, and then relaxed letting out all my sadness. If only life felt like this all the time; contentment and peace. And silence…
The contentment never lasts forever though. Without much fight, I allowed my mind to rewind itself back to a few days ago when I was faced with a harsh reality. Who knew the one I loved and trusted over everybody else chose someone else to be with? Just the memory of the day when I found out makes me clench my fists and want to cry all over again. The picture triggered memories I didn’t want to remember. It was a beautiful lie of a woman who thought the man smiling at her back at her really loved her back.Such a stupid thing to believe in. Why does everything have to feel so hopeless?
As I am engrossed with my bittersweet recollections of my recent loss, I distantly hear the sliding door slam shut. Please, God, don’t let it be my Aunt Gretchen again trying to lecture me on the importance of accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior or I won’t be saved and go to Heaven. Too late, I’m already damned.
But when I turn my head, prepared for combat, I suddenly smile because of who came in her stead. I didn’t see him in the crowd but, then again that’s what makes our connection so much better; we’re both outsiders and like to be alone. Grandpa Jack, a stubborn old man to the rest of the family, to me, my best friend and rock, is here to save the day. I hug him real hard, convincing myself that he is too good to be real. Why can’t there be more caring and compassionate men like him in the world?
Petting my hair, he says, “New hairdo, baby?” I answer, “Yeah, I wanted to try a new look.” Took me two paychecks from my crummy job to pay for the highlights and cut, but it was worth it. “Doesn’t matter what you do to yourself. You’re always beautiful.” Even though I didn’t really believe him, I still smiled at him graciously and he kissed me on my forehead.
“I was a little worried. I heard you were out of the country, but then I found you here.” He grins at me.“I was practicing my teleportation until you interrupted me.”
“My apologies.” He chortled. “I hear you’ve also been having some trouble, lately.” I don’t pretend to not know what he’s talking about. In a family as large as mine, a secret cannot be kept for more than five minutes. I give him a sad smile. “For an old man, you have better hearing than most guys I know.”
“Old! Pah! Your grandma just loves to nag. I pretend I can’t hear her, so she can go away while I watch football.” We both chuckle. He finally nudges me in the shoulder, encouraging me to speak my piece. Sighing, I let out what I’ve been trying to keep locked up for the past half hour.
“It’s just Jason, Grandpa He didn’t- doesn’t love me anymore. He found someone else who is obviously prettier and more confident and skinnier than me. He laughed in my face when I asked him why he did this to me.” My chest starts getting tighter with every word I utter. “And it’s not just him, it’s everything! I feel like I can’t hold my head above water. I’m stuck in student loans, my college degree earned me a job at the zoo taking pictures of people, and I’m living with my parents again. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next and it’s making me feel like I’m the worst human being ever. What’s the whole point of it all?”
Grandpa Jack patiently listens to my ranting. Instead of walking away like any other sane person would do when approaching a crazy person, he sits down on one of the lawn chairs and pulled me onto his lap like he used to when I was a little girl. I remember when he read one of my favorite books to me, “The Giving Tree.” He read it to me while I laid against his chest, hearing his heartbeat and laughing at the funny voices he would make.
Once he embraces me, I started sobbing uncontrollably. The things I’ve kept hidden from everyone, including myself, finally showed its ugly face. As a grown woman, I was a little afraid of hugging him too tightly as his once strong body had gotten thinner and more fragile. But he didn’t say a word to me, only tightened his hold around my arms as the spasms continued to take hold of me and I kept spewing every hateful thing I thought about myself. His arms felt strong around me once again. I felt a kiss on the top of my head and kept crying still.
“My Elizabeth,” he murmurs. “You used to be so brave. What happened to that little girl who hit that bully in the face when he took your brother’s lunch money?”
(A minor incident that got me detention and an hour long lecture from my parents on why I’m not supposed to hit boys.)
Although I remember how much my mom laughed when I told her he cried like a baby afterwards. No one messes with my little brother except me.
“I don’t know where she went,” I whisper against his chest. “She’s just hiding in the cupboard again.” “Remember when I found you?” “I do. I was afraid of getting in trouble, but when you found me, I was so happy.” “So why are you so unhappy? Because some horse’s ass treats you like crap?” “Yes, and the fact that my life is over.” Chuckling, “Don’t be dramatic like your Grandma. Where’s your bracelet by the way?”
Sniffing my nose, I dab at the tears on my cheeks and dig in my pocket for the broken chain. “I’m so sorry.”
“Pah! That’s no problem. Give it here.” I released my grip on him, handed him the chain and let him fix the charm bracelet he gave to me when I was a high school graduate. He takes the pocket knife out of his shirt pocket and manages to get the clip on the chain back to its original place in no time flat.
He went on speaking but his head was down, his voice low and raspy. “My Elizabeth, you truly can’t see yourself like I do and it breaks my heart. I know that this is a tough time in your life because you’re still figuring out what kind of person you are. But life isn’t always a fairy tale.”
“You remember what I told you about the war? I was captured and living in the worst conditions a human could be in. Those officers and guards did their best to break me and make me bleed so that I would beg for survival. I watched as my fellow soldiers and friends got shot in front of me. My best friend died in my arms and I couldn’t do a thing about it except hold him until he was gone. Whenever I close my eyes, I see myself standing there and taking it all without putting up a proper fight and wondering why I didn’t do more. Sometimes it was as if it was me that killed my buddies instead of them.”
“One cold night, I was thinking about just getting it all over with. I had hidden a sharp piece of tin under my bed of rags the week before, not quite sure what I would actually do with it but thought I might need it one day. One quick slash to my jugular and it would be over. There was no medical help around and I would be dead before anybody even noticed.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him swallow hard before he pulled out a small silver star covered in crystals from his shirt pocket. He places it on my bracelet amidst the other charms he’s given me throughout the years.
“For some reason, though, I looked up and, through the cracks in the wood ceiling of my hut, I was able to see the night sky. Nothing looked so beautiful. Just then I knew, I knew, by some miracle, that I would survive this and find my way home again. It would guide me and be my hope for the future. I decided that I needed to live.”
He holds it up, letting it sparkle against the pink sky. “I love it. It’s beautiful, “I said a little breathless. “This is something you especially need to have right now.”
I was completely speechless. Grandpa Jack had told me in general what happened to him during the Korean War but he never went into much detail. I would always see his eyes glazed over, lost in memory, but I usually quickly changed the subject because I didn’t want him to be put in an uncomfortable position. During the war he was captured and put into a POW camp where they did nothing but starve and torture the captured soldiers, denying them even the basic necessities like food and medicine. I hated what he was put through while he was serving our country and I know how hard it still is for him to talk about it; even to me.
He finishes fastening the bracelet onto my wrist and lifts my chin up so I meet his serious gaze. “When you feel hopeless again, this is where you find your faith again. Faith in life, faith in God. Faith in yourself to keep on going. Just like I did. Bad things happen to good people in this world, Elizabeth. It is filled with people who will treat you like trash and feel good about doing it. But you have to know that there are good things too, good people. I want you to be that person who stands up for herself again. And don’t be ashamed to acknowledge your beauty because you are beautiful, both inside and out.”
His words moved me and I embrace him again and start tracing the marks on his back where the scars of his imprisonment are still there. My eyes well up with tears again. Being dumped can’t even be compared to being captured and tortured for three years and I’m almost ashamed that I have been so self-centered these last couple of days. I am so proud of my Grandpa for all that he’s accomplished and I’m sincerely grateful that I have him with me today. “I love you Grandpa,” I whispered in his ear.
I heard him make that growling sound deep in his throat when he’s deeply moved or emotional but doesn’t want anyone to know. He gives me another quick hug and then gives me a slight push so he can look me in the face again. He smiles broadly and and then laughed as he hauled me up and onto my feet.
“Okay, enough of this. It smells like dinner is ready. Let’s eat!” The aromas from the kitchen both make our tummies rumble. He chuckles a bit and gives me a little grin. “Do you think your mom has any of that wine left? I have to sit next to your Aunt Gretchen.” Both of us laugh a little and as we walk back towards the house, I lean my head against his shoulder. “Grandpa?”
“What do you think I should do now?”
“First, we start with the pumpkin pie, then we’ll move onto a battle plan on how to get you out of that damn zoo.” His shoulders start shaking with laughter.
“I like both of those choices,” I smile back at him. My grandpa squeezes my arm gently and kisses the top of my head.
“I didn’t give up on life, Lizzy, and neither should you.”