Category Archives: morphine addiction

American Thanksgiving . . . meh

Me with my daughter Sabrina and my grandparents at a long ago Thanksgiving

Me dandling daughter Sabrina with my grandparents at a long ago Thanksgiving

I’ve never been keen on American Thanksgiving. In the first place, it’s way too close to Christmas. The memory of my grossly distended belly and the self-loathing that invariably attends that phenomenon have scarcely begun to fade before there it is again: The Holiday Meal, in the case of my family, the exact same meal we ate a month earlier, including the dressing which we always had to call rice because my brother Peter refused, for some reason, to eat anything called dressing.

Then there’s the 2 p.m. timing of the meal. It’s Thanksgiving dinner, for God’s sake, not Thanksgiving lunch!   If Thanksgiving dinner happened at a decent hour – any time after 6 p.m., for example – the torment of having to remain awake while cruelly stuffed might be mitigated by an early bedtime. But, no. This insistence on an “early dinner” blows a black hole in the middle of your day — everything is sucked into it; nothing can escape its relentless gravitational pull, and you are left to lie there, beached and disconsolate, a helpless, unwitting witness to the televised spectacle of giant men in tight pants sustaining the kind of traumatic brain injuries that lead to dementia, debilitating neurological diseases and suicide. By which I mean football.

Great Dane Lovey admires the turkey

Great Dane Lovey scrutinizes the turkey

My family is surprisingly functional – which is not to say that we don’t have our fair share of little traumas, pretty much all of which can be characterized, as per my daughter Alice, as, “first world problems”. However, not even we were not immune to the kind of dysfunction that seems to go along with quivering tubes of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie that looks like baby pooh. Case in point: one Thanksgiving when we were children, my mother, frustrated at my brother who was being all winge-y, shook him. Now my parents were not into corporeal punishment; Mom far preferred a good shaming larded with barely veiled threats that she was on the verge of disowning us, as conveyed by such statements as, “No child of mine would ever do (that thing you just did).” All this to say that Mom probably didn’t shake Peter very hard, but, on that one occasion, shake him she did, and, every year thereafter, Peter would kick off Thanksgiving dinner by dolefully recollecting, “And then there was that Thanksgiving Mom shook me. . . ,” sending the poor woman into fresh paroxysms of guilt.

Sometimes we had Thanksgiving Dinner at my paternal grandparents in Hillsborough, North Carolina. My Aunt Elaine and Uncle Clyde would come down from Winston-Salem and Aunt Elaine, who was something of a gourmet cook at a time when that was regarded with some suspicion in the South, would bring along a little something for the family to savor. One year she presented the assembled, bleary crew with tomato aspic, confounding us all. “What is this?” “Do you eat it?”   This reminds me of a conversation we had with my husband’s Auntie Gloria in which she described the eating habits of her daughter-in-law. “She eats strange things,” Gloria confided in us. “Like vegetables.”

Between her alcoholism and her morphine addiction, my grandmother had succeeded in pickling herself by the time my memories of her congealed into some kind of coherence. Noni contributed but one dish to the Thanksgiving feast – her signature dish, a sweet potato,marshmallow casserole awash in a sea of bourbon. At fifteen minute intervals throughout the dinner preparations, Noni would lurch to her feet, weave her way to the kitchen, baste the sweet potatoes, baste herself and return to the living room to stew in her own juice.

My father carves as my mother looks on

My father carves as my mother smiles for the camera

In the meanwhile my grandfather, by dint of steady  drinking, would wax from sentimental to downright maudlin before deciding to check on the mail.  I would accompany him to the mailbox at the end of the long driveway, both of us knowing full well that there was no mail on Thanksgiving but that we needed the air.

So, all in all, I’m thankful for Canadian Thanksgiving, which takes place in the second week of October.  Canadian Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest rather than that time before we exterminated them that Native Americans saved our bacon.  It doesn’t result in a four-day holiday and, therefore, a loyalty test wherein persons are forced to travel vast distances in inclement weather to prove that they love their families of origin. And finally, being on a Monday, Canadian Thanksgiving isn’t followed by Black Friday, about which don’t get me started.  And then there’s the fact that my ex chose Canadian Thanksgiving 1989 to come out of the closet — scarcely festive at the time, but, in the great scheme of things, something for which I am truly grateful.

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Reality Therapy

Noni . . . on her way out

Noni in better times

When my father was a child, my grandfather – Pops — served as foreman for a construction crew that traveled all over North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland building Texaco gas stations. My grandmother and their two boys – Dad and Clyde Junior — traveled with him, living in rooming houses along the way; it was my grandmother’s job to cook for the crew. “What was Noni like?” I once asked my father. “You know. Before?”

Dad shook his head sadly. “She was very capable . . . and warm-hearted, hospitable.” He added, “I wish you could have known her then, when she wasn’t this way.” By “this way” he meant, “senile.”

Noni was not all that old when she stepped out for lunch and never came back – in her early sixties, about the age I am now. The reason for her early-onset dementia was fairly straightforward. When she was in her forties, she underwent an operation for phlebitis. The doctor prescribed morphine for the pain and, “Do no harm” notwithstanding,  kept on prescribing it. Noni became a  morphine addict, which, as it turns out,  does not promote brain health. In not very much time at all Noni effectively pickled herself.

Throughout my childhood and several times a day, Pops would announce that it was time for Noni’s medicine and off the two of them would repair to his study where he would, essentially, shoot her up. It was treated very nonchalantly, by which I mean doors were not shut. At the time I thought it was creepy – it involved a hypodermic needle, after all, stuck in parts of your grandmother’s body that grandchildren do not wish to contemplate, much less view – but I did not at the time realize that Noni’s “medicine” was, in fact, morphine, nor did I realize how common morphine addiction was among white  women of her generation until I was researching the topic for Paper Son, one of the short stories in The Uncharted Heart – it was, in fact, a virtual epidemic, albeit a hidden one. I suddenly saw Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night in a whole new light; as it turns out, it’s the story of my father’s family set in mid-twentieth century working class North Carolina.

I  only remember one instance during my teenage years in which Noni appeared cogent – probably because it was such a rare event. Pops had just concluded a tall tale and Noni piped up,  “Anybody believes that, stand on your head and I don’t see no feet!” Silence.  Everyone turned to look at her.  “What?” she said and went back to being not there.

Most of the time Noni sat on a urine-infused sofa in the living room looking blank. Every fifteen minutes or so, she would lurch to her feet, exit the living room, turn right down the hall, traverse my grandfather’s study, enter the kitchen, duck into the pantry where she would take a slug of bourbon from the bottle stashed there, return to the living room via the dining room and resume her seat on the redolent sofa, where she would twitch a couple of times before sinking once again into catatonia. That was how Noni rolled. She would only come back to life when it was time for us to leave. Then she would rouse herself and, no matter what time of day or night it might be, say, “Are you sure you won’t stay for lunch? There’s plenty of bologna.”

This woman provided one quarter of my DNA. (Or something like that.  I’ve never properly understood DNA.)

Pops and Noni.

Pops and Noni.  By this time Noni’s pretty cooked.

My grandparents both lived well into their nineties. They spent the last five or so years of their life in different wings of a nursing home. Pops was frail but, like my own father, mentally sharp. He resided in the unlocked ward and had a great old time, acquiring a girlfriend named Bunny and editing the home’s newsletter.

Noni was placed in the block of rooms set aside for people with dementia. My brother Peter and I visited her there in the mid-eighties. A sign on the door to her room read, “Mrs. Hardy is undergoing Reality Therapy. Please ask her what day of the week it is, what year it is and who is President.”

“Hey, Noni,” we asked. “Who’s President?”

Noni shook her head. “Why does everybody ask me that?” Then, “Harry S. Truman.”

As we were waiting for an elevator down to the main lobby of the nursing home, I said, “What do you think about this Reality Therapy business?  Do you think it’s doing Noni any good?”

The elevator arrived. We entered it. The door ground slowly closed the way elevator doors do in old folks homes. Peter looked solemn. “Don’t see no feet,” he said.

STORY PORTAL

Past Due is a story about a senile old woman, her housemaid and a whole lot of chickens coming home to roost.  I did not base Miss Bob on Noni, but Noni does inform certain aspects of her character. It appeared in the Dalhousie Review in 1992. To read it, click on the title.