MARCANO: Even a bad Thanksgiving can teach a lesson

Long ago, my mother met a man she thought was her Prince Charming.

He was handsome, smooth, and well-spoken. A real charmer. He wore form-fitting suits and shoes so polished I thought I’d go blind looking at them. He looked like he walked out of a fashion magazine, with olive skin, jet-black hair, and pearly whites that gave off an easy, confident smile.

He drove a Mustang — blue, as I recall — and the first time I saw it, I was in love. He promised me that one day it would be mine.

My mother had been divorced from my father for several years, buckling under the strain of raising four children while working full-time. This guy made her smile and laugh with a teenage giggle that said, “Wow, do I have a crush on you.”

One day, about a week before Thanksgiving, the doorbell rang, and there he was. His suit was torn, his lip and nose bloodied, and his coifed hair disheveled. He stumbled into the living room and said thieves stole his money in a mugging.

He relaxed for a while, left, and returned the following day, and he and my mom went out. When she returned, she said he would spend Thanksgiving with us.

It turns out they went to her bank. I don’t know how much money she gave him, but any amount would have been too much because we were poor.

She called Price Charming that night. Her face went blank as she gently put down the telephone receiver.

His phone had been disconnected.

She realized she hadn’t been to his apartment and didn’t know his address. She realized she was the victim of a con.

My mom quietly spent most of Thanksgiving in her room.

That Thanksgiving didn’t have the feel of fellowship and family. Instead, I saw through my mother’s tears a dreary day of betrayal.

With Thanksgiving just four days away, I started thinking about that miserable experience. Bad things can often teach good lessons. The con job helped shape who I am, sometimes for better, often for worse. And I did learn two lessons: 1. Never get played. 2. Protect your family at all costs.

I may have left the James Monroe housing projects in the Bronx, New York, but I can’t shake the lessons.

To this day, I’m cautious and distant with people I don’t know to the point of aloofness. I’m protective to a fault. Those qualities can be fine when used judiciously, but just like anything else, too much is never good.

Thanksgiving isn’t always about cheer, good times and football. Sometimes, as in my case, it’s about painful lessons that resonate years later and surface in damaging ways that still get me in trouble. Not often, but rarely, and that’s still too much.

My mother moved to Kettering in 1996 and in 2001 was diagnosed with liver cancer. She had a lifelong battle with hepatitis she contracted while working as a nurse pathologist.

I was with her when the doctor told her she had less than a month to live. On the car ride back to her apartment, she asked me to get her a bottle of vodka and said, “I’ve lived my life. You go live yours.”

During her final days, when she wasn’t that lucid, she looked at me and said, “Reuben?” That was the man who hurt her so many years ago.

That one word showed me the depth of her feeling. I let it go. Who am I to judge? And still, my predilection for protection and caution can make me forget that judging is a fool’s errand.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for all the experiences that shaped me, good and bad. I’m thankful that I understand my faults and how my protective tendencies can result in hurt feelings. It doesn’t matter that I don’t mean any harm by what I say or do. The words and actions speak louder than the intent.

I’m thankful for those who embrace me when I’ve been petulant and those who don’t, because they remind me to be better.

Ray Marcano’s column appears each Sunday in the Dayton Daily News. He can be reached at raymarcanoddn@gmail.com.

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