All I knew about Vietnam in November of 1968 was that it was a place where lots of young men were getting killed, and my cousin Tommy was there.
He’s my mom’s cousin, technically, but since she was an only child, her aunts and uncles became my aunts and uncles and her cousins became my cousins. Mary Rose was my favorite among those aunts, and her son Tommy was like the cool older brother I never had.
Heaviness hung over that Thanksgiving. My mom’s side of the family gathered in a big clubhouse at a condo complex. There were TVs and a pool table and a gigantic kitchen. Though games were on and eight-ball played and a typical feast set out, the most powerful presence was the one who was absent. Mary Rose played a part many soldiers’ mothers did in the Sixties: She never let it show.
Until just before dinner, when she was given the large gift-wrapped packaged. Peeling off the paper revealed a framed photo of Tommy somewhere in Southeast Asia, in fatigues and dog tags, holding a little Vietnamese girl on his knee; trusting love in her eyes and confident caring in his.
“Oh, Tommy,” his mother cried, clutching the photo to her chest. I hadn’t known tears could stream at once out of both pain and pride.
November 25, 1982, was my third day sober. The term “treatment center” hadn’t become common, so I was in the “Chemical Dependency Unit” of a small hospital in the railroad town of Galesburg, Illinois. An alcoholic lives off denial, delusion, and disease, but by the Tuesday before that Thanksgiving I was living in the desolate desperation from which surrender is born.
I would be away from family, which now included my own young son. There was no insurance because such benefits didn’t yet exist, so I would have to commit to payments for years. My job was on the line. None of that mattered.
After years on the alcohol merry-go-round, all that mattered was not taking a drink. Yet, I knew if I did not get locked-up somewhere that morning, by afternoon that thing inside me would snap and Jack Daniels and I would be off once more like an insane rider on a mad bull.
Thanksgiving dinner was pressed turkey roll and powdered potatoes shared with others from the ward in a far corner of the cold basement commissary so visitors wouldn’t feel uneasy. I hadn’t known sobriety could taste so delicious.
Last November, my family gathered back in Illinois. On Thanksgiving we took turns having turkey plates in a comfortable cafeteria, and sitting around a hospital bed in the room where a ventilator was breathing my mom’s last breaths. At her funeral, my biggest hug was found in cousin Tommy’s arms. I hadn’t known hearts so broken could be so full of love.
Many Americans say Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday; a day of food, football, and family fun. These Thanksgivings had nothing to do with football, not much to do with food, and weren’t particularly fun. Yet they are the ones etched deepest in my consciousness. They have defined me, and shaped my family.
I treasure my dreary Thanksgivings.
Keith Larson is a regular Observer contributor. Follow him on Twitter @ClubLAMA