Blood is Thicker Than Gravy
A Millennial's Take on Modern Tradition
WORDS BY: TANNER HEWITT
ILLUSTRATIONS BY: JOHN PORTIS
At five in the morning, 29 degrees Fahrenheit, I breathed some warmth into my fingers and aggressively broke the snow-muffled silence that enveloped the sleepy Vancouver, Washington neighborhood. With a sacrificial gift card from my wallet, I began scraping a thin layer of ice from our car windshield, doing my best not to totally disturb this street's post-Thanksgiving hibernation. When I finished, I looked toward home – somewhere a thousand miles over my left shoulder – then across the driveway at the house we had to leave and knew I'd be there again next year, same time, a long way from home. It was tradition.
People say, “Love makes you do crazy things” – I always liked that one. Well, driving for 16 hours nonstop from Orange, California to Vancouver, Washington twice in a week to eat some turkey with my sister and her family is a bit loony, but I've done that a bunch of times. I can easily glam it up for you. Once you get past the deserts and the hundreds of miles of strip malls and into the north of California, there's a great wonder in driving through the shadows of mountains on roads tucked away in forests older than the idea of our country – but that's bliss from the passenger seat. That's solace recovered from looking in hindsight. Ralph Waldo Emerson was talking about life when he said it was a journey and not a destination, not driving down the million-billion feet of concrete on the I-5 Freeway. I never thought twice about the misery of driving that far. I just wanted to see my sister.
Despite this sappy start, believe me when I tell you I'm just as cynical as the next millennial. We know the story of Thanksgiving is basically a lie, and we delight in rolling our eyes at the corporate holidays fabricated to turn out our pockets. The NFL owns Turkey Day, let's be honest, and the airlines make a killing income during the winter holidays. We scoff at the unauthentic. But, tradition is real. Family is real. Watching your nephew grow up on Facebook is not. Those chances you get to squeeze your loved ones, to settle into that care-free holiday state of mind, to look into eyes with the same blood as yours in them – those are real.
If, when you think about the approaching holidays, you begin to dread the crowded highways, the crowded malls, the crowded dinner tables, the awkward family photos and the ensuing family political debates (“screaming matches”), then you need to re-evaluate. We live in the unequivocally most comfortable generation of all time. Technology has given us the easy way out of almost everything, yet we still cling to this penchant for cynicism. When you have the whole world in your pocket, it's kind of hard to fathom the work that goes into making that happen. Everything we cherish was, somewhere along the line, brought to us by the sweat of someone's brow. That's what Emerson was talking about.
I'm not trying to say that college isn't challenging or that nothing is hard anymore, but – it isn't, and it's not. Look, I don't want to sound preachy, and I definitely don't want to write an anti-tech piece, so roll your eyes back this way and trust that I do have a point. When we're young, we push our boundaries, discover our own limits, use those limits to build our character, create our own traditions. As we get older, the things we really don't feel like doing are probably what's best for us. I didn't figure this out or anything, and I can guarantee someone gave this advice a decade ago, and probably a century ago, ad infinitum. What I can do is tell you how I figured this out for myself.
My mother dropped out of high school to have my sister when she was 17. Eight years later, my sister would cry all night when she couldn't stay at the hospital with her new baby brother. That age difference made us very close – we never had to compete for anything, and I always looked up to her as a kid. We went to all the same schools. We only shared the same mother – but we've never thought of each other as half siblings. She moved to Washington with her husband and my infant nephew when I was a senior in high school, and I was devastated.
She was the only one who knew what it was like to live with my mother – we had the same checkered past. All the nooks and crannies of that aren't important, but a lot of people say they have a crazy mom – well, ours was like the “undiagnosed but needs medicine but takes drugs instead” kind of crazy. She always needed help, but we were ill-equipped and, frankly, fed up. I think a certain part of my sister found comfort in being two states away from the kind of anxiety she gave us.
I've been a pretty crummy student most of my life. I was satiated by sometimes wallowing in self pity at the crap life had thrown my way. I knew I was capable, but it was easier to use my past as an excuse for why I wasn't putting any effort into building my future. As a child of divorced, drug-addicted parents, I felt this incredible weight on my shoulders. I think the truth of it was that I desperately wanted their lives to be OK before I could begin thinking about my own. My dad figured it out, got himself together and made a life for himself in Texas. As years went by, my mother could never stabilize her life, and by the time I was in my 20s, and she in her later 40s, her life had taken a severe tail spin.
Whether by her design or sheer terrible luck, she was subject to eviction after eviction, lost one home to a fire and struggled to hold onto anything for very long. She was miserable, and the first half of last year things were reaching a fever pitch. By May, it was apparent that my mother, again on the brink of eviction, had run out of options. The stress I felt was astounding. I couldn't wait until Thanksgiving to see my sister – I needed to be with her. We needed to talk about our mom. I planned a trip to go see my sister, and in the week that led up to it, my mother and I had some terrible arguments over the phone. It's not easy trying to get someone to realize the error of their ways, especially when, despite all the issues we'd had together, I'd never really let her know how much they'd affected me. I was scared for her, she was scared for herself and we both didn't know what to do about it.
The day before I left, my mom called to ask if we could see each other that night. I had just gotten an iPhone 6 and wanted to play around with it and had to wake up early for a flight to Washington the next morning. I told her I didn't want to see her. She said to call her when I got off the plane. She said, “I love you.” I said it too. I hung up the phone. That was the last time I heard her voice. The next day, I flew to Washington. My sister got me from the airport and we went out for sushi. We went to her house and cracked open a couple of beers when my aunt called me. I had been in Washington all of two hours. She told me our mother had died that morning and that her roommate found her stiff in her car in the driveway, like she was going somewhere.
This tragedy has been going on since the dawn of humanity, so I will spare you the rest of the details, but let's just say losing a parent in your 20s is a little less than ideal. What's important is that all of the weight, all of the sorriness for myself - in the wake of her absence, it seemed to evaporate. My mother had tried to take her life before and had made it known she never wanted to get old. It was kind of like I always expected her to go before her time. I was still shocked, still unbearably heartbroken, but I wasn't afraid anymore. Everything else I had ever whined about seemed...farcical. Why hadn't I ever dragged my butt out of bed early enough to make it to school on time? Why had I ever groaned while taking pictures on a family vacation my grandmother was nice enough to provide for me? It's cliché, but my whole life literally changed overnight. I could let myself have a future.
My grandmother shared some grim wisdom with me once. She said, “One day, Tanner, it will just be you and your sister.” Heavy, but so very true. So, when you start thinking all those jaded thoughts about “jumping through hoops” to achieve a boring family tradition, remember that little piece of wisdom. It pains me to use another tired cliché, but be thankful this season. Everything you lay eyes on is a gift to you. Nothing is certain, nothing is guaranteed and, in this day and age, nothing is that hard. Kiss your mom's cheek or your dad's cheek or your grandma or your dog or whoever and just relish every second of it.