Rediscovering my family's Thanksgiving

It's a hard weekend because of how much I miss my Mom, but happy because of how much this trip to Yosemite meant to her. I wish I had started coming back sooner, but I’m grateful to be back now.

I don’t remember our first trip to Yosemite, I just knew it was where we always we went for Thanksgiving. At least we did until my father got sick and things got much more complicated for my family. Thirty years later, I’m grateful to be back.

I remember standing in the driveway with a couple of my cousins, a bear standing alongside one of the cabins our families had rented in Yosemite National Park. It was impossible to make out the beast’s full size, its dark fur blending into the shadows. It was only when it steamed a breath of warm air into the November air that I realized it was standing on its hind legs, snout near the small, opaque window looking into a bathroom.

Another year, my cousin Greg volunteered to carry the dessert from the cabin where the adults were eating down to the one with all of the kids. He walked up to the patio, slid open the back door and declared “Dessert’s here!” only to find a group of strangers staring back at him. Wrong cabin.

And in 1984, my grandfather stirred on the couch, a gravelly grunt conveying the disbelief he felt after watching Doug Flutie’s prayer of a pass travel 48 yards downfield. When my grandfather’s hands slapped his thighs, I knew something momentous had happened because it was one of the only times I can remember him expressing emotion in any way other than laughing.

These are the Thanksgiving memories from my childhood. Not the food. But my father’s big brood of a family congregating in one very specific place: Yosemite. Well, Wawona, actually. It’s a village located just inside the park’s Southern Entrance. It predates the formation of the park, and every year my father’s family gathers there in the growing numbers that Irish-Catholics are known for.

I was 11 years old when my family stopped going, my father too sick to travel. He died a couple of years later at the age of 38, my Mom remarried and we started hosting our own Thanksgiving. The memories of Yosemite were cordoned off into the first chapter of my life.

Nostalgia is a hell of a narcotic, and in my case it’s particularly potent. It’s very easy to look back and see a more innocent, more honest time for my family, living in this rugged little timber town in Southern Oregon. Not only did we have a white picket fence out front of our house, but my father had dog-eared the planks and painted it himself. He was a logger who worked in the woods, driving a yellow, diesel truck the color of Nacho Cheez with a forest green hood to cut down on the sun’s glare. He’d come home in the early evening smelling like dirt and diesel.

My father, whom we all called Pop, was toward the middle in a run of 10 children. He grew up just north of Los Angeles in a place called Montrose, which was tucked up next to Glendale, north of downtown L.A. Five of his siblings would settle within 10 miles of their family home.

My Pop was the outlier. He went to a public university instead of a Jesuit institution like Loyola-Marymount. When he graduated, he moved to Southern Oregon with my mother where he became a logger. I was born in 1974, my sister followed three years later and in 1981 my brother Casey completed our contribution to the generation that was collectively known as “the grandchildren.” There are 37 of us all told in my tier of the O’Neil family with a spread of 30 years between oldest and the youngest. I’ve always taken pride in just how many of us there are.

My Mom took to my father’s family completely and without reservation. There was certainly more commotion than she was used to. Things were messier, and often louder, but there wasn’t nearly as much pent-up anger as she’d had to navigate as a child.

My Mom, Carol Jean, loved her parents, too, but it was different. Her parents lived in a mobile-home park in Ojai, Calif., not out of financial necessity, but because it was easy and neat and efficient. My grandfather and grandmother had separate bedrooms. She smoked, he didn’t.

When my mother was growing up, they tended to drink. My Mom would be clued into when this was happening because the children would be served dinner first. She learned to expect an argument later in the evening. Her father later stopped drinking. It was harder for her mother. I was told she spent time in rehab. One trait that held throughout their lives was the willingness to cut off friends and even family over perceived slights or small transgressions. At some point in 1994, my Mom’s father got so mad he stopped talking to her, a grudge that didn’t dissolve for more than a decade when he was dying of cancer. She got one last meeting with him before he died on the Oregon Coast in 2006.

We related to my mother’s family, but we belonged to the O’Neils. Our summer vacation was two weeks in Los Angeles where we’d go to the beach, perhaps an amusement park and spend time with our cousins. Thanksgiving wasn’t a holiday so much as a family retreat. We drove the 500 miles from our house in Oregon in a single day, packing into our increasingly crowded hatchback.

There are a couple of hundred cabins in Wawona, many of which can be rented. The Thanksgiving attendance would vary by year, but there were usually between seven and 12 cabins that would be reserved by members of our clan.

There must have been turkeys. It was Thanksgiving after all, and there were enough of us to require multiple birds. I’m sure there were rolls, too. And green-bean casserole. Probably a Jell-O mold, but hard as I try, I can’t remember the meals from my childhood trips to Yosemite. My memories are about the people, about the place. The snowball fights and jumping from the rock into the oh-so-cold river and that time I’ve already told you about where my cousin Greg brought the dessert to the wrong house.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I learned the waterfalls and rock formations like El Capitan are what make Yosemite such a renowned place. I don’t remember going to the valley floor as a kid. I was too busy hiking to the rope bridge and playing soccer with my cousins.

We didn’t make the trip in November 1985. We had just moved into a new house in Oregon so we went to Southern California at Christmas instead. My Pop’s father, whom we all called Bob-O, died in January 1986. He was on a ski trip with his oldest son, Dennis. My grandfather fell while skiing during the day and broke his leg. He died in his sleep that night, having suffered a heart attack.

Bob-O was known for feeding the deer in Yosemite. Remember that bear I mentioned up at the beginning? Plenty of people pinned its presence to Bob-O’s penchant for giving snacks to the wildlife. The O’Neils didn’t go to Yosemite the year after his death, and by 1987 our Pop could no longer travel.

I do not remember the moment when I knew my Pop was sick, but I always knew he was not entirely well. He was frequently sore and occasionally ran fevers that caused him to sweat profusely at night. There was a small, spiral-bound notebook my mother kept on the small wooden barrel next to her bed, which she used as a nightstand. She’d log the date he suffered a fever as well as his temperature, which could climb as high as 103 even 104 degrees. The knuckles of his hands were swollen, his fingers bulging at the joints like misshapen hot dogs. He sometimes held his breath and grunted when he stood up because it hurt to rise. I never recall him actually sprinting because.

My father was formally diagnosed with adult-onset Still’s Disease, which is a specific type of inflammatory arthritis. Its hallmarks are fevers, joint pain and a rash. There is a significant overlap between these symptoms my father had and those often associated with the early stage of Lyme Disease. The most definitive argument against this possibility is that Lyme Disease was confined to the East Coast in 1971, which was when my father first exhibited symptoms, and he had never been near an area where he could have been exposed to the ticks that were known to carry the disease.

As for Still’s disease, there is no test for it. It’s a diagnosis of exclusion, which means it is based on case history and observation and ruling out all the other potential causes. It’s very rare, occurring in less than 1 in 100,000 adults, and when it is diagnosed, the situation usually resolves itself. Only one-third of all cases result in symptoms that persist for more than 10 years. Even when the condition is chronic, as it clearly was with my father, Still’s disease is seldom life-threatening.

Up until he was about 35, my father just pushed through the discomfort of his disease. He swam for exercise and took aspirin. Lots of aspirin. I’m talking like four tablets every six years, but gradually the amount of pain began to shrink what he was capable of doing. His trips to the doctor became more frequent. He had to start working in the office instead of going to the woods, driving a car because it was too difficult to get into a big diesel truck. He was prescribed “Gold,” which turned out to be disappointing not only because it didn’t seem very effective but the tablets turned out to be white. He spent a week at UCLA’s medical center one summer.

He began taking prednisone, a corticosteroid that was to help with the soreness, but he was taking such a high dosage that it weakened his bones. He injured his back trying to move a spare tire for his car and had to wear a back brace that looked like a girdle.

His illness became an auto-immune disorder, and it began affecting his organs. My father died at home in September 1988 at the age of 38. I was 13 years old.

The second chapter of my life started when my Mom remarried in 1990. We moved from Oregon to Santa Cruz, which is just south of San Francisco on the California coast. My Mom stayed in touch with my father’s family, and was especially close with his Mom, but she started hosting her own Thanksgiving. Her father, who’d relocated to Oregon, would drive down. At least he did until he got mad in 1994. Her aunt and uncle started coming up from Camarillo. My stepfather’s mother would usually come over and stay the weekend, and that lady was something else entirely. A tiny, angular woman, I doubt she weighed more than 90 pounds. She had dentures, which wasn’t that odd, until my Mom told me she’d asked to have her teeth pulled at some point because she believed they were giving her headaches. She rigorously applied makeup to her lips, which resembled dried earthworms, and would insist on kissing your cheek when you said good night, pursing her lips and waiting for your to lower your head to wear she was sitting.

She would start drinking champagne by about noon, and carry a flute around with her the rest of the day. She chewed her food exhaustively at the table, which was odd, because I don’t know if she ever really ate. There was one time at the dinner table I watched her spit a whole mouthful of food into a cloth napkin, which she balled up and held in her lap.

Those meals I remember. My Mom would start cooking at 8 in the morning by toasting a whole loaf of white bread for her stuffing, which would include celery and apples. She’d make mashed potatoes and green bean casserole while roasting a turkey that was never dry despite the fact she didn’t brine it. She made two pies, one pumpkin and one apple.

I stopped coming home for Thanksgiving in 1996, which was my senior year of college. I got a freelance assignment from The Seattle Times where I was answering phones at night. I was asked to cover a high-school football game, a sign of things to come when it came to professional obligations.

In 2001, my Mom’s second marriage was disintegrating. My stepfather had made a bit of a mess for himself professionally. He was a superintendent in a one-school district in San Jose, and there were some questions as to why his travel budget was larger than that of the San Jose mayor. The fact he was driving a black BMW the district paid for didn’t help nor did the pen that was expensed at a cost $468.12. There were TV news reports about the district, a story appeared on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News.

There were some personal things mixed in there, too. He moved out on August 31, 2001 – my mother’s birthday -- and that November she made a last-minute decision to join my father’s family in Yosemite, driving down with my sister. It was too late to find a cabin so they stayed at a hotel in one of the small towns outside the park.

I was working through the holidays at this point, and Thanksgiving is a particularly busy time of year for anyone covering the sports I did. In 2002, I was flying back from a Sonics game in Memphis on Thanksgiving. In 2008, I was covering a Seahawks game in Dallas. In 2014, I watched Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson carry a turkey off the field after winning at San Francisco, knowing my family was gathering just a few hours south. I’m not complaining. No one forced me to choose this profession, but I could have worked harder to get that time off especially once I reached my 30s. I was building my own career, sure, but I had also put some distance between myself and the dysfunction that was occurring within my family. I wish I’d bridged that gap sooner.

I came back to Yosemite for Thanksgiving in 2017. My Mom had been diagnosed with cancer two years earlier, and while signs were very positive at the time, I wanted to spend the holiday with her. The Seahawks were playing at the 49ers on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. My wife, Sharon, and I flew to San Jose from Seattle on Wednesday, and drove up to Yosemite the next morning. It was a powerful feeling to be back in this place that had been such a landmark in my childhood with all of these people who knew the first chapter of my life as well as I did. The joy I felt at being there was tempered by the regret over how long I’d been gone. I decided then it would be a priority going forward.

When we came back the next year, my Mom wasn’t doing as well. The cancer, which had been in remission, was growing rapidly and the immunotherapy had not slowed it nearly enough. She got short of breath more easily and was tired. At the end of that year, she decided against another round of chemotherapy. She died at home in March 2018, surrounded by her three children.

This year will mark the fifth time that my wife and I have traveled to Yosemite to spend Thanksgiving with my father’s family. It’s the third time we’re making that trip from New York. We’ll share a cabin with my sister and her two kids, the same one we stayed in a year ago because it has a foosball table. I’m making mac-and-cheese, Sharon is making pumpkin pie in our contribution to the Thanksgiving potluck where the early estimate is that there will be 65 people.

It is both hard because I miss my Mom and incredibly happy because I know how much this meant to her. I wish I had started coming back sooner, but I’m grateful to be back now. Above all I’m thankful for the family that I had the good fortune to be born into by a mother whose love kept us all together.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Give a hug to the ones you love, and know that I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this story with you.

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