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. And she lays a mean fire.

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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32 comments

  1. RA

    Wow Yves,
    What an untraditional but interesting Thanksgiving story.

    Please tell Betty-Jo I wish her well from afar.
    Is there pumpkin pie? I think that is good medicine.

    Reply
  2. Samuel Conner

    off topic, but it sounds like Betty-Jo is almost ‘Jackpot-ready’. IMO multi-skilled generalists have a bright future (at least within the range of ‘brightnesses’ that are accessible from where we currently are).

    All the best to you and your Mom and Betty-Jo.

    On-topic, the great T-day gathering in my family was driven by a single node in the family network, Mom. That is a fond memory of the past.

    This year, for me T-day will be about the future; time to start cold-stratifying perennial seeds for an abundant Spring efflorescence. There is a future, if we can manage to live long enough to reach it.

    Of course, this requires that the potting bench be cleared enough to work at.

    Space, the final frontier.

    Reply
  3. Jen

    Thanks for this post Yves. This has me thinking of Lambert’s frequent advice on the water cooler: “Be excellent to one another.”

    I’ve had some good thanksgivings with family, and some bad. Some of my best thanksgivings recently consisted of running a 5K race in the morning (I exercise a lot in various ways but almost never run), going home, taking a nap, and fixing whatever I want for dinner, followed by a day after gathering with friends.

    I wish you, your Mom, Mary Jo, and everyone here at NC all the best.

    Reply
  4. DJG, Reality Czar

    “Betty-Jo drove off with the food.”

    Thank you for this wonderful sketch of someone worth knowing.

    I have changed my observance of Thanksgiving considerably this year. For many years, though, I prepared the dinner for my family members (which means extending invitations to roughly twenty).

    For many years, I had my three godchildren (who aren’t kids anymore) recite poetry or create a toast using a literary work. It was a way of setting the tone, not getting all lugubrious, and sparking their wit.

    All in all, one of the best toasts / texts for Thanksgiving comes from Alexandria. Cavafy, meditating on what we learn throughout life:

    Ithaka
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51296/ithaka-56d22eef917ec

    Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
    Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
    But don’t hurry the journey at all.
    Better if it lasts for years,
    so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
    wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
    not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

    [Keely translation]

    Best wishes to all.

    Reply
  5. Steve H.

    > But that’s the idealized Thanksgiving.

    My fathers family was a hot mess, and my mother an orphan daughter of an orphan daughter, but she briefly married into a traditional northern Wisconsin family.

    The table stretched to infinity, it had foods I still don’t know what they are, and I had earlier wandered under the forest of poles in the living room with a quilt over them. They had one of the last family cheese farms in the state, three vats where we turned the curds by hand.

    My mother fled after a few months. The husband was not traditional, I was getting in fights, and I finished out the year at P.S. 196 in Queens with my father. But I saw what I saw, and I know that it was real.

    Reply
  6. John Beech

    Hi Susan,
    Didn’t realize you grew up in B’ham. Did so myself (John Carroll, Catholic high school, then University of Alabama).

    Remember, Alzheimer’s brings about changes in the brain structure.
    https://www.reddit.com/r/interestingasfuck/comments/r14trd/normal_brain_vs_alzheimers_brain/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=ios_app&utm_name=iossmf

    My mother remains undiagnosed but is repeating herself, perpetually angry, hasn’t spoken to me in a year, and always had a short fuse (as kids we joked about her emotions being akin to an AlkaSeltzer as she’d blow up and 10 minutes later be fine). Little did we know.

    She’s widowed (Army wife, also) and in her mid-80s. Still living independently but now I have discrete checks made on her because she’d resent (bitterly and vociferously) anything she came to the realization was directed by me (or anybody), in that regard. No clue how much longer. Dealing with it as best we can during C19. Her being an international flight away (they retired in Panama and she won’t leave) makes it impossible for me to fly to see her (reasons, principally due to C19).

    Note; I similarly, moved around a lot, but have better Thanksgiving memories if for no other reason than my wife of +40 years, and I, have made them together for ourselves. Anyway, good luck with your mother.

    Reply
    1. John Zelnicker

      @John Beech
      November 25, 2021 at 7:50 am
      ——-

      Susan has made it clear that she didn’t grow up in B’ham. Her parents moved there after she went to college as she notes in the post.

      In another post she said she had not lived in B’ham until 2019.

      Reply
    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I did not grow up in Birmingham or any where in the South. The posts clearly states my parents moved here after I started college.

      The closest place to the South in which I lived was Keyser, West Va, as well as Piedmont, Maryland and Luke, Maryland, before I was 6. They are called the “Tri-Towns” and are very close to each other, I remember only Luke. I graduated from high school in Dayton, Ohio but spent the first two years of high school in Escanaba, Michigan. I will spare you other details of where I lived.

      Reply
  7. Pate

    The fact there was no mention of pecan pie at the thanksgiving dinner table makes obvious your family being northern interlopers in the Alabama south (Mom could be the exception as she considers butter a food group). And in the event your “not having much sentimental attachment to thanksgiving” is a consequence of your father’s abandonment, please remember that hunting is primal and that only real men hunt in West Virginia. Meanwhile it sounds like short lil’ ol’ Betty-Jo is living life – what is she cooking today? Oh, and what time do we eat?

    Reply
  8. Eclair

    “… small boiled onions served in butter, mashed rutabaga, and mince pie (which I never understood…)”

    Gosh, Yves, those were the sides my born-just-north-of-Boston grandmother served every Thanksgiving. With giblet gravy.

    And, those unheralded home-care workers who help us care for our aged parents: my friend’s mom died last spring, aged 93, and afflicted with Alzheimers for the last 10 years of her life. Her faithful home-care worker had been with her for 15 years, spelling my friend and her brother. During the final year, her mom slept for most of the time, getting up only to eat her favorite foods: fried eggs and cardamom buns from the local Swedish bakery. The aide gave her foot rubs daily, to relieve painful leg cramps.

    Blessings (as well as more adequate compensation and social approval) on all those who perform the mundane and necessary tasks that ease our journey to Ithaka.

    Reply
  9. Bazarov

    I’ve known a lot of Americans with stories like Betty-Jo’s. Some of them were close friends–quite a few died untimely deaths.

    There’s a reason this country produced the blues.

    Reply
  10. saywhat?

    Sorry, can’t resist:

    Danger’s old college flame, Betty Jo Bialosky (Proctor), uses several aliases: Melanie Haber, Audrey Farber, and Susan Underhill, but “everyone knew her as Nancy.” from Nick Danger

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Reply
    1. lordkoos

      Wow a Firesign Theater reference! Nick Danger, private dick…

      Anyhow, hope everyone has a peaceful Thanksgiving no matter what your situation. Most of my Thanksgivings have been pretty good with family and good home-cooked food. Although in my younger days I did spend a few alone and lonely. I remember one time it was a hot turkey sandwich at Denny’s.

      Best wishes to all.

      Reply
  11. meadows

    I usually tell my peeps that…. “Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday when family and friends gather from far and wide to overindulge, renew old grudges and make each other miserable.”

    Sorry to be cynical, it’s my famiy history. But with such low expectations, a reasonable level of happiness is attained! Check out Taibbi’s “Thanksgiving is Awesome”

    Best to all, and thank you!

    Reply
    1. ChrisPacific

      Haha. I married into the tradition and we were always far away from family, so we had a lot of piecemeal Thanksgivings with friends in the same boat. These rarely work well because everybody has different and non-overlapping expectations for everything about the day, particularly the food. If you’re lucky and everyone is civilized then you all do your best to get along on the day and the worst you have to deal with is wistful remarks (“wouldn’t it be nice if we could do X next year?”) which will however be repeated any time the subject comes up forever after.

      The rare ones that did work generally did so because the host stepped so far outside everybody’s expectations that the nostalgia buttons were all avoided. One friend hosted a vegetarian Thanksgiving which was a huge success, and still ranks among my most memorable Thanksgiving experiences.

      Reply
  12. Susan the other

    I’ll give thanks for this revelation, Yves. What exactly are we grateful for? We just all stagger through, living our unexamined lives. I think I’m glad you found Betty Jo. She sounds like a keeper.

    Reply
  13. Brian Beijer

    Thank you Yves for such an honest and well writen post. There were so many uniquely American experiences in Betty-Jo’s story that it brought back clear memories of my own life in the States and reminded me of the reasons I left.

    Having left the States almost 10 years ago, I’ve never once thought about Thanksgiving. My wife’s family used to attempt to “recreate” Thanksgiving dinner to help me feel less homesick. I finally got through to them that I wasn’t homesick because there was nothing about the US that I missed, especially not family nor Thanksgiving. I always dreaded Thanksgiving as it consisted of everything I dislike… spending way too much time eating lots of bad food with people I do not like. The worst was trying to pass the time after the dinner. People were usually too full and/or drunk to leave, but we had nothing in common so talking was out of the question. We would spend the hours channel surfing between Fox news and bad holiday specials. Ugh. No thanks.

    Reply
  14. upstater

    Footnote 2 is classic Yves!

    Plenty of fake nice where I’ll be in a few hours. Father inlaw passed 2 weeks ago, so this is a must do to memorize an abuser. Hagiography big time.

    But the food is even worse… my sister inlaws is where everything for Thanksgiving comes out of a can or box, except the turkey. Even the gravy is canned! Stovetop stuffing! All sorts of sickly sweet and gooey desserts topped with Kool Wip. My wife offered to bake dinner rolls from scratch and a home garden butternut squash dish and it was no thanks…

    I was going to send the “how to avoid salmonella” link, but my wife didn’t think it would be a good idea.

    Reply
  15. Arizona Slim

    Can I rain on this parade of doom and gloom by saying that I have been in invited to a picnic at the home of my neighbors and friends? Looking forward to it!

    Wishing my NC people all the best!

    Reply
  16. Karpwood

    Thanks for the Thanksgiving story to put our lightweight holiday blues in perspective. And thanks for Betty-Jo’s story, a great antidote to both self-pity and self-congratulations on being a member of the credentialed class.

    Reply
  17. sporble

    Thanks for this post, Yves. I appreciate your personal contributions as much – if not more than – your “normal” posts. I wish you, your mother, Betty-Jo – and everyone else here at NC a peaceful and satisfying Thanksgiving.

    To me, one of the most wonderful things about NC is the sense of community. I really do give a sh!t about you people here. And I’m thankful for NC helping keep me at least somewhat sane in what seem to be ever-increasingly crazy times.

    This 10 sec. scene from “Brazil” says it best:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlCPkmb6cuY

    Reply
  18. wilroncanada

    I’m NOT celebrating Thanksgiving…until next year…in October…in Canada…with Turkey…my closest friend…fowl language specialist.

    Reply
  19. Hepativore

    I spent Thanksgiving with my cat. I made a turkey with roasted yellow potatoes, gravy, baked squash (pumpkin) and corn.

    It was a big turkey, around 26 pounds, but when you factor in the cost per pound, versus what you get out of a turkey carcass a turkey is quite economical. Plus, you might as well buy the largest turkey you can find if you are going to get one because at around 14 pounds and over turkeys have a higher ratio of meat to bone so you get more for your money.

    Now, I do not have to cook for a week, and my cat also got plenty of turkey today.

    Reply
      1. Hepativore

        Thank-you, Yves.

        I think that people underestimate that many cats are just as affectionate as dogs as he spent most of the day in my lap.

        Reply
  20. Brunches with Cats

    Couldn’t find a small enough turkey for one, or even turkey parts. I used to buy turkey legs, which were good for 2-3 meals, but they were nowhere to be found this year. So T-Day became D-Day with a frozen duck from Aldi’s for $2.69/lb. Big mistake, and partly why I’m in a pissy mood tonight. But I sure am thankful that my dinner companion was the cat and not family. At least he doesn’t tell me what I can and can’t talk about (if I read it on NC, it’s banned) or make me pretend to be fascinated by re-runs of Jay Leno’s muddy dirt bike adventures.

    As for the duck, inside the opaque plastic packaging was 12 percent water and sea salt for “seasoning” and an 8-oz plastic packet of “all natural” orange sauce. So now a 4-lb duck for $10.79 is a 3-lb duck. While it was cooking, I made my easy “alone for the holidays” dessert, gluten-free pumpkin cake with burnt-butter icing. Intending to get four meals from the duck, I quartered it and sat down to a nice-looking dinner. Well, it was nearly all skin and bone. To get the equivalent of one smallish slice of turkey, I had to eat another quarter. I doubt there was even 8 oz of meat on the entire bird. I’m all for “meat as a condiment,” but I’d prefer it to be by choice. But hey, I’m thankful for the soup carcass. And for the excuse to eat both halves of the dessert.

    The other 60 percent of pissy is leftovers from yesterday’s long drive to the VA Medical Center in Syracuse for a neurology consultation. Doc (head of the neurology) said the vestibular incident I mentioned in a comment several weeks ago definitely wasn’t a stroke and that lesions in the imaging point to MS. After two sets of reflex and gait tests checked out perfectly, she was baffled and said she wants more tests, including another MRI, and if those don’t tell her anything, she wants a spinal tap. I put my foot down at that point. Unfortunately, like every other doctor these days, she doesn’t have time to hear why I won’t submit to another fishing expedition on my back and neck that leaves me in pain for days, with no painkillers, just when we’re reaching the peak of seasonal affective disorder. The cat’s a wonderful companion, but can’t do the dishes or cook worth a damn.

    Reply
  21. Kristiina

    Thank you for the Ithaka poem! Cavafy was first translated to French by Marguerite Yourcenar, who is a lifetime favourite. And Yves used to like her, too.

    Betty-Jo definitely has the jackpot-resilience that is the treasure worth having. Boyfriend is making a big mistake, but I think she might be better off finding someone who can appreciate her. And Yves, your mother obviously has a knack for only picking on dependable people. Mine is pretty much that way, too. Contributes to jackpot-readiness as well.

    Reply
  22. Anonymous

    Why doesn’t your friend just get vaccinated? Even for people who have had COVID it is effective. There really is no reason not to.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      She is philosophically in the category that IM Doc calls “soy boy man bun jocks” even though she is not an exercise fetishist. Her father was killed by doctors and she is deeply suspicious of conventional medicine. She has not seen a doctor in 17 years. She is very robust and her Covid case was symptomatic but mild.

      Reply
  23. Offtrail

    Yves, I’m glad you found a good aide for your mother, and Betty-Jo a good employer. Best wishes to all three of you..

    Reply
  24. thistlebreath

    That’s a seriously good portrait of Betty-Jo. Many of the above comments aren’t far behind. Cavafy is a tasty surprise.

    If you lived both in WVA and the UP, you have seen poor.

    Reply
  25. Phil in KC

    I grew up with a love for Thanksgiving. It was a quiet, peaceful, and reflective day, qualities consistent with my own temper. Sometimes we’d do a few outdoor chores like rake leaves or some light gardening, but we’d do these as a family while my mother was in the kitchen, getting the meal ready.

    Much in contrast with current Thanksgivings with my step-children and their kids, during which, the children squabble and argue with each other loudly, punctuated with flashes of anger and sadness, sometimes crudely expressed. Things are carelessly flung throughout the house only to be missed later, leading to iterations of “have you seen . . .” or “I can’t find . . . .” Medications don’t help, and I flee mentally to my happy places and avoid people. Stress makes me shut down. I want the holiday to end as quickly as possible. All this makes me disappointed and sad.

    Reply

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