Written by Susan Brooks
One of my most vivid Thanksgiving memories involves my Mom and Dad.
My father served as a Marine in World War II. He was stationed in the Pacific for many months and brought back with him horrific memories of what he witnessed as a young Marine fighting the Japanese.
Dad likely suffered from PTSD, but I don’t recall anyone talking about it. Instead, I remember my mother warning me and my brother not to ask Dad about his time in the war because he didn’t like to talk about his time in the service. She said it gave him nightmares. As a kid, it was hard for me to believe that my big, strong father would ever have any bad dreams, but I loved him so I promised I wouldn’t ask about the war.
Our household was typical of the fifties. A returning veteran, meets and marries a young woman, they start a family and eventually move to the suburbs and buy a house. The father goes to work and the mother stays home and takes care of the family. Our household had the two kids, a boy and a girl, plus a big black dog. We were just like our neighbors who lived in our quiet neighborhood.
But we weren’t. In our house, we had a secret. It was a secret that my mother went to great lengths to hide from me and my brother, our neighbors, family members and strangers. When my brother and I discovered the secret, Mom sat us down and explained how no one could ever know the secret.
My father was an alcoholic.
Long before PTSD was acknowledged as a legitimate psychological diagnosis as a result of military service, my father displayed its symptoms. He didn’t like crowds; he didn’t like fireworks or loud noises; he didn’t like chaos, and his temper was frightening. My father would get so angry so quickly over minor problems.
My poor mother spent her entire married life dealing with my father’s PTSD and its devastating impact on him and our family. Alcohol was the drug my father used to exorcise the demons that haunted him. It was not unusual for my father to drink every weekend. Then he started drinking during the week. Mom tried desperately to hide my father’s alcoholism from us but even as a small child, I could tell when Daddy was either too happy or too angry. We were told that our father was sick, and he used his beer to make himself feel better.
Growing up, I implicitly knew why we weren’t allowed to invite friends to dinner or to a slumber party. My father never drove me and my friends to a basketball game, or to the mall or a movie. It was always Mom. There was never any birthday party or holiday celebration hosted at our house. My mother would always make some type of excuse as to why she couldn’t host Easter or Thanksgiving or Uncle Fred’s milestone birthday.
I remember seeing the pain on my mother’s face when my father would lash out at her for something she said or did. He didn’t want to hear any complaints from my mother about anything in her life. No matter what she was dealing with, she had to keep her worry, her fears, her questions to herself, because my father didn’t want to hear it.
As the years passed, my father’s health began to fail. He had one serious health problem after another. My mother was always at his side, giving him support and encouragement, trying to ease his pain and his fears. I never once heard her shut him down when he needed to talk. I sometimes wondered if Mom secretly resented all the times she needed to talk to Dad, only to be silenced with his look or his hurtful words.
The year my father died, we celebrated Thanksgiving at my brother’s house. He was married to a great lady, they had three little boys, and they lived not too far from my parents and me and my family. Everyone sensed that this would be Dad’s last Thanksgiving. He had lost so much weight and his six-foot three frame seemed to have diminished by a foot.
Dad was feeling pretty good, thanks in part to the loving family surrounding him and the medications he was taking. He teased the grandchildren, talked football with my brother and my husband, and indulged in the assortment of snacks my sister-in-law had prepared.
When it was time to eat, everyone took their place around the dining room table. Five children sat at the adjacent kiddie table, each happy to see a chocolate turkey resting on their plate. My brother thanked us for joining he and his family and asked everyone to share something for which they were thankful.
The responses were serious, sincere, funny, and heartfelt. Thanks were given for a new job, a pay increase, negative test results, straight A’s on a report card, and getting a whole dollar from the tooth fairy.
When it was my father’s turn to speak, he hesitated and then lifted his glass up. With his hand shaking, he turned to my mother and told her that he was thankful for her love and her support and had been everyday they had been together. He apologized for all the misery he had caused her, his inability to cope with his own problems and using alcohol to get through his days and nights. He truly regretted all the money he had wasted on beer and the embarrassment he had caused her when he would get drunk when they were with family and friends. He knew he was hurting her, but he just didn’t know how to stop himself. He thanked her being a wonderful mother to their two children and carrying the bulk of the load raising them. He wished he could turn the hands of time back so that he could do over those times when she had turned to him for a listening ear, words of support or arms of comfort and he responded with anger and rejection.
He then whispered I love you and smiled at my mother.
The room was totally quiet. Even the children seemed to sense that this was a moment that deserved their complete attention and silence. I was sobbing as was my sister-in-law. My brother and husband had tear-filled eyes. My mother had tears running down her cheeks as she reached for my father’s hand. She said nothing; she didn’t need to. The look she gave my father spoke volumes.
Across the room a small voice asked if it was time to eat and everyone laughed.
Two weeks later my father died.
None of us have ever talked about that last Thanksgiving with my father and his tribute to Mom. Instead, we have tucked that precious memory in our hearts, thankful to have witnessed the pure love between two people who had been together almost sixty years.
It is a Thanksgiving memory that none of us will forget.