Thanksgiving Myths and Realities and Betty-Jo


Thanksgiving hasn’t been as commercialized as Christmas, or even recently Halloween. It’s a festival of overeating, hanging out with people you like, perhaps ODing on football or avoiding the football fans, and generally being a layabout. Most Thanksgiving dishes can be made in advance, so organized cooks don’t have to be kitchen slaves on the festive day.

But that’s the idealized Thanksgiving. If you consume any media, you’ll find it reinforced aggressively in ads and TV shows with groaning sideboards, festive tables, and many smiling faces. And if you were lucky enough to have this sort of Thanksgiving at least occasionally in your childhood, you also have memories to live up to.

I suppose I am fortunate not to have much sentimental attachment to Thanksgiving. We moved a ton and had no contact with my parents’ tiny extended families at major holidays, save my maternal grandmother, who lived with us about nine months of every year. My father did impose some menu items reflecting his Yankee roots, like small boiled onions served in butter, mashed rutabaga, and mince pie (which I never understood, even when he later made proper mince that incorporated venison). But we always had my mother’s excellent apple pie and pumpkin pie too.

But my father would sometimes abandon us, since Thanksgiving (and my mother’s birthday) coincided with hunting season in West Virginia, to which he was devoted. He took to doing that regularly after my parents moved to Alabama (after I had started college) and my younger brothers had graduated from high school. By that point, my parents were part of a good social circle and so my mother would always have someone take her in for Thanksgiving and her birthday. I still can’t fathom how my normally appearance-conscious father didn’t care how this looked to his friends.

Needless to say, having gotten the message, I didn’t come home over Thanksgiving when I was in college. It wouldn’t have been very pleasant and my father would have resented paying for the airfare.

So not having sentimental Thanksgiving baggage can be liberating; it gives you more freedom to treat it as a day off and make it your own.

But it also serves as a window into how those who have or had tight family ties can feel real distress at the major holidays. One friend is going through an ugly and protracted divorce. Her daughter, an MD married to an MD, is refusing to let her mother into her house because the mother hasn’t been vaccinated…and the mother has not been vaccinated because she had Covid in late March and is pretty sure she still has immunity.1

Our aide Betty-Jo is another Thanksgiving orphan. Despite the Southern-seeming name, she’s mainly Blackfoot, with some French which explains her French last name, from Connecticut. She became our aide through the Birmingham taxi mafia. I was frustrated with home health care agencies too often providing not great aides and failing to provide coverage and sputtered about it on a short ride to the airport. The driver asked a lot of questions. We got a call from Betty-Jo, whose credentials consisted of having been a New York City taxi driver, being a mother and grandmother, and more recently, caring for a 300 lb diabetic man in the last nine months of his life.

Betty-Jo is in her early 50s, a bit shorter than average female height for which she makes up with a big personality and an excess of energy which can produce occasional overdramatization. She also has a tendency to take charge, which is fine by me since she’s competent across a large range of activities. She’s a good cook (but my mother ruined that by complaining about a dish that I thought was perfectly fine; my mother often beefs about what she is fed, including saying she hated dishes that she ate enthusiastically), a fastidious cleaner (she grew up working in her mother’s home cleaning business) and mechanically skilled (she and her now-deceased husband ran a lawn care business and a three bay car repair shop). She is also pro-active about telling us what needs to be done in the house and yard. And yes, we pay her more than the other aides because she does more than they do.

Betty-Jo has not had it easy. She says she was sexually abused by an uncle, was paralyzed below her waist for three years after a car accident until she had a back operation (she has an impressive scar and her walk is consistent with having a rod in her lower back) and cancer (she can’t afford anti-cancer meds and had to go in recently for a liver biopsy; she sometimes gets bad headaches which she worries is the cancer coming back). I gather she came to the South with medical debts that she’s struggled to pay off. On top of that, her beloved convertible, her one splurge with a big unemployment check from her time at Dollar General, was totaled by a drunk on an expired license with no insurance.

This year is the second year when Betty-Jo will be doing a double shift at our house partly because she really needs the dough and we pay a serious premium for holidays, but also because she has no where to go. Even though she moved to the South to be closer to her two sons, she’s estranged from them (one is an addict that she’s refused to support any more; I’m not sure what the issue with the other son is; I have a suspicion that he doesn’t like that she’s living with a black man).

Betty-Jo’s partner of five years is abandoning her again this year through the January to be in Atlanta with his diabetic mother who lost part of one foot to gangrene and brother, including leaving Betty-Jo to pay all the rent and bills. His justification is that he supported her for a while she was sick, when she gave him a large cash payment to square things off and has also often carried more than her share since then.

Worse, she found out that after her partner got fully vaccinated, he started cheating on her. He then took her out horseback riding (which she loves; she bought a horse when she was a kid with cleaning jobs money and broke it herself) which she mistakenly assumed was part of an effort to do better by her. He then scheduled another horseback outing as a picnic…and announced when they arrived at the stable that he’d invited his two girlfriends in the hope that they could all get along.

Betty-Jo drove off with the food.

Betty-Jo has said her work here makes her feel valued, which is why I get upset with my mother’s too frequent emotional abuse. My mother takes her anger over her powerlessness out only on Betty-Jo and me, maybe because Betty-Jo and I are both assertive, or maybe because we are both white. She’s even reduced Betty-Jo to tears more than once and not always apologized.2

So please, for Betty-Jo’s sake, hope that we have a pleasant Thanksgiving. And in keeping we wish all of you the best!

_____

1 Based on what I have heard about the daughter, she would not be persuaded by a blood test that showed high antibody levels.

2 This is due to dementia only in the sense that dementia reduces the executive function, so people become more themselves, usually in a bad way. My mother has never had much empathy but even now can do a brilliant job of fake nice.

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