I am not a happy camper.
The brightly colored plastic flags adorning the used-car dealership on Willis Street flap smartly in the brisk November breeze. We drive past Conticello’s Market and turn left on Clifford Drive. A familiar row of old two-story homes comes into view. Tension twists my neck muscles into knots of Gordian proportions.
Clay stops in front of a white house with dark-red trim. The bare hedges and naked maple tree in the front yard are stark evidence of winter’s approach; the few leaves still clinging to its uppermost branches will probably fall before dark. I hope I’ll fare better.
“Here you go, hon,” Clay says. “Pick you up at six. Okay?”
“Clay, why wait till six?” My shoulders slump. My stomach churns. “Take me home now. Spare me the agony.”
“Now, Virgie. We agreed to split up so we don’t have to navigate two dinners and two families in the same afternoon.”
He’s right. This is a second marriage for both of us. Together, we’ve had five years of blended holidays in all sorts of configurations with in-laws, out-laws, children, and ex-spouses, but this is the first time I’ll be alone with my family for a holiday since Clay and I got married. “I’ll pick you up at six. Then we’ll go home and lick each other’s wounds, okay?” His eyebrows draw together and wriggle up and down—the “lust look.” It never works. He looks too much like the Qantas Airlines koala bear.
“Okay.” I kiss him and get out but linger with my hand on the door.
Clay gives me a wink. I reluctantly close the door and watch him drive off.
Growing up in a small New England factory town has its charms: friendly neighbors; a slow, leisurely pace; and no need to lock doors. It also has its demons, and I am about to have Thanksgiving dinner with several of them.
I walk up the steps and ring the bell. Mom opens the door.
“Hello, Virginia.” She offers her cheek for my kiss but turns away before my lips reach it.
She heads down the hall to the kitchen. I follow, watching for signs of frailty. Everything from her fig-brown skin and pink warm-up suit to the frizzled gray company wig looks normal. If anything is missing, it’s the mellowness that’s supposed to come with age.
In the kitchen, Mom opens the oven to check on the turkey. Closing the door, she turns her head in my direction.
Her left eyebrow lifts. “So, how’s everything with you?”
I want to tell her I’m fed up with corporate life, that I’d quit tomorrow but Clay and I are still helping the boys pay off their college loans. Instead, I say, “Okay, but I think I’m in a midlife crisis. I can’t seem to—”
“Oh, I don’t believe in this midlife crisis business, Virginia. I think one has to keep one’s chin up and keep going. Most people give in to their feelings.”
“Well, maybe, but I—”
“I’ve always kept a stiff upper lip. Why, your father never knew how devastated I was when he took our retirement money to bolster the liquor store.” Mom moves to the counter and savagely tears lettuce into a salad. “That was a terrible blow. I had to scrimp and save for years to make up for it. Yes, indeedy, a stiff upper lip is what’s needed.”
I bite my lip.
“How’s Fred?” Mom asks.
“He’s fine. Mom.”
“Why isn’t he here?”
“He’s hanging out with his friends today.”
Her humph is followed by a tsk and then, “Does he have a steady girlfriend yet?”
“No, Ma. He and his friends still travel in packs. He’s twenty-three. He’s enjoying himself. I’m not going to worry about him until he turns thirty, and besides—”
“Thirty!” Her head shakes back and forth; the gray wig wobbles. “Lordy, his best years will be gone. He’ll be too old to start a proper family. Honestly!”
I grit my teeth.
“And you know he never calls.” She puts the salad bowl to one side. “I’m not going to give him anything for Christmas. As a matter of fact, I’m not going to give anybody anything for Christmas. It’s such a hollow holiday now, all the focus on stuff instead of substance. The holiday lights and sales start the day after Halloween! It never used to be that way. It’s not worth it.”
She tops the salad with honey-roasted pecans. Mom’s on a roll.
“And don’t you get me anything, either. I have everything I need. Don’t waste your money.”
She brushes past me carrying a pan of Brown ’n Serve rolls.
“Can I do anything to help, Mom?”
“No, no, dear, you sit and relax.” Cupboard doors slam. Pots and pans rattle.
“Mom, are you sure I can’t help you with something?”
“Yes, yes, of course! That’s what I said, isn’t it? I can handle this. It’s all set, really.”
I watch her for a moment and then wander into the dining room to check on the table. The newly polished silverware gleams. The gold-rimmed china plates sit proudly on the table. The glassware sparkles. Handmade paper place cards grace each setting. All our names are there—except for two. Dad died ten years ago and Tamisha, my eight-year-old niece, died of a rare blood disease a year later.
Of course, Mom put my brother in Dad’s chair at the head of the table. Tony, my pseudo-intellectual, Peter Pan brother has been married and divorced three times. He’s always peddling some foolproof scheme for making big money. Last year at Easter, it was the smoothie bar on Main Street; by Mother’s Day he wanted to open a consignment shop in the mall; and at the Fourth of July picnic, he pitched a food truck franchise he planned to run from his basement. Tony’s schemes depend on money, time, and effort from everyone but him, but when they fail to materialize, it’s anybody’s fault but his.
Junior, Tony’s fourteen-year-old son, is on his right. Junior’s mom is in a psychiatric hospital. Junior blames Tony. Thandy, a musician and Tamisha’s mom, is a few cards short of a full deck and Tamisha’s death put her over the edge. Three months after the funereal, the police found her wandering stark naked down Main Street, playing “God Bless the Child” on her saxophone and proclaiming the second coming of Billie Holiday. Tony had no choice.
Next to Junior is Chuckie, whose spirit is as pure as they come. He’s a bundle of undiluted four-year-old love-energy. His ability to remain unscathed by the vagaries of his father’s life amazes me.
Adrienne’s place card is on Mom’s right. My younger sister lives her life as an empty journal waiting for an entry. The man she married wrote his life story all over her, a depressing saga of mental and emotional pain waiting for an ending. They’re separated now but he’s trying to romance her back. How someone like my sister managed to give birth to such a steady flame of sanity like Sydney is beyond me.
Sydney is seated between Adrienne and me, and on Mom’s right is an extra setting with no place card. Huh? The doorbell rings.
“Get that, will you, Virginia?” comes Mom’s voice from the kitchen. “It must be Adrienne and Sydney.”
Back in the kitchen, after our “His” and “How’ve you beens,” twelve-year-old Sydney scrunches her long-limbed plus-size body into a chair and glues her eyes to her smartphone. Adrienne, deep in her victim phase, is dressed head-to-toe in black. She drapes herself on a stool by the breakfast bar and vents.
“I don’t know if I should take him back or divorce him, Mom. He keeps saying how sorry he is about cheating on me and he’s been so sweet lately. He’s even started taking Sydney out on father-daughter dates but I—”
“Take him back,” Mom says, one hand on her hip and the other pointing a large wooden spoon at Adrienne. “I know what I’m talking about. A woman needs a man. It’s God’s law. Take him back and make Jordan change his ways.”
“No ‘buts’ about it. Take him back. Try some new recipes. Get out of those baggy black clothes. Put on some color, meet him at the door with a smile on your face and do whatever it takes to save your marriage.”
Adrienne turns hopefully to me, but I can only manage a half-hearted smile and feel grateful that mom’s righteous advice is no longer directed toward me.
Mom bustles. She bastes the turkey, checks the annual corn pudding, stirs the ever-present collard greens, and vehemently refuses all offers of help. It’s not a good time to ask about the extra place setting.
The doorbell rings again. It’s Tony and the boys. I get a wet quickie kiss from Chuckie before he makes a beeline to the kitchen to sniff out the treat his “Mu’dear” will have. Junior gives me a weak hug. Tony’s eyes are unfocused; I can tell his thoughts are elsewhere, probably on his next big scheme. I give him cheek. Soon we’re in the kitchen, Chuckie eating his treat, Junior and Sydney connected to their devices, and Adrienne in the middle of another complaint about Jordan. “I tried to talk to him about going to couple’s counseling, but—”
“Counseling is a waste of time,” says Mom. “It’s all talk, talk, talk. And you know how I feel about airing private affairs in front of strangers. If you want your husband to act like the man you want him to be, you have to act like the wife he needs. Brush up on your womanly wiles.” She grins and winks. “It always worked with your father.”
Adrienne’s face begins to crumple. Tony snatches the space between Mom’s advice and Adrienne’s oncoming tears to launch into his newest idea about flipping houses. “Listen, Virgie, it’s foolproof. This town is bursting at the seams with run-down properties.”
Mom watches Tony with her “no harm in indulging him” look. I steel myself for the pitch. “If you and Clay jump on this with me, we could be rolling in cash by next summer. I’ve got a list of prospects from the town clerk’s office and all I need is . . .”
I tune him out. I’m drained, exhausted, done. It’s all I can do to stand in the doorway and watch. I can’t listen to another word, not from Tony, not from Adrienne, and not from Mom. Every holiday is the same. It’s like we’re caught in a time loop, living the same scene over and over. Nothing changes, not even the menu.
Mom samples the greens, smacks her lips, and looks at us with a twinkle in her eyes and says, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?”
Intruder alert! Three pairs of black eyebrows shoot up, six brown eyes exchange quizzical glances, and three pair of shoulders hunch because Thanksgiving dinners at our house are traditionally limited to spouses and children. Spouses, not being blood relatives, are tolerated as social necessities; dates, lovers, and friends are actively discouraged or received with frosty politeness. Who could have wormed their way into Mom’s good graces?
“Merle is coming up to visit her brother in Hyannis,” Mom says. “She’s going to stop and see us on the way.”
Merle Fontaine of the Philadelphia Fontaines is Mom’s first cousin. I’ve always liked Merle. She’s flamboyant, outrageous, and classy. She has an infectiously upbeat attitude you can jump on and ride for miles. I cancel “intruder alert” and relax. With Merle here, Mom will be on her best behavior. Adrienne’s “poor me” stories will cease, and Tony will try to sell Merle on his latest scheme instead of hounding me for money.
The doorbell rings a third time.
“It’s Merle!” Mom sings out. She drops the spoon she’d been using to stir the greens. It clatters against the counter and hits the floor but she doesn’t even notice. She wipes her hands on her apron and trots off to get the door.
Adrienne reaches down, picks up the spoon, and huffs as she puts it in the sink. The three of us exchange another set of meaningful glances. Mom never acts like that when one of us is at the door. For a moment we are united by a collective gloom. It isn’t that Mom is uncaring. She’s done the absolute best she could. She practically raised us by herself, holding down a full-time job as a salesclerk in a drugstore and managing the household alone. Dad was preoccupied with the liquor store and his golf game. Mom ran tired for years. We all knew what the deal was, and we all bear the scars. Tony’s irresponsible, Adrienne is a doormat, and I’m an obsessive overachiever.
Two sets of footsteps trip lightly down the hall to the kitchen. We pull out our company smiles to momentarily eclipse the sadness.
Merle doesn’t walk into a room; she sweeps in. Tall, thin, and willowy. With a swift motion of one manicured hand, her mink coat leaves her shoulders, traces a graceful arc through the air and lands on the stool next to Adrienne. Merle is wearing her signature color, cream, in the form of a lightweight wool pantsuit that clings to slender curves. Her hair, colored a deep mahogany brown, is swept up into a classic ponytail and the sparkle of her expensive jewelry pales before the twenty-four-carat joy in her eyes.
Her hugs, unlike those of my nuclear family, are close, tight, and warm.
Mom is beaming. Adrienne absentmindedly strokes Merle’s coat with a faraway look in her eyes. Tony gives off vibes like a mountain lion ready to stalk newly spotted prey.
I cloak myself in forbearance and hope it will sustain me through the afternoon.
A few minutes later, dinner is ready. We sit in our designated seats. Tony says grace, and Mom fills our plates from steaming bowls and platters then passes them down the table. The kids dig in immediately. Merle’s face is animated. Her hands fly through the air, and she tosses her words in our direction.
“Now, darlings,” she says, “tell me what you’ve been up to. I’m dying to hear!”
Adrienne raises her head from her chest, gives Merle the 411 on Jordan and with a question mark in her eyes asks, “Merle, what do you think about divorce?”
Uh-oh. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Tony’s forkful of greens stop halfway to his mouth. I follow his gaze and see Mom’s eyebrows meet in the middle of a sudden but short-lived frown. Our baby sister has just violated Mom’s rule about airing dirty laundry.
Merle clucks her tongue. “Divorce is a funny thing, dear. It comes down to what you get and what they get to keep.” She reaches across the table to cover Adrienne’s hand with hers. “Now, here’s the tricky part: what they must never get or keep is your self-respect.” She winks. “Sounds to me like you best leave him lay where the good Lord flung him and get on with your life!”
I watch Adrienne sit up a little straighter in her chair. There is firm set to her shoulders, but she looks Mom’s way as if searching for approval of Merle’s advice. Mom’s smile does not reach her eyes as she says, “Marriage vows are sacred. The Bible says ‘Til death do us part.’”
“Things change, Martha,” Merle says softly.
“Not all things,” Mom replies.
Tony jumps into the silence that follows. “I’m working on a business proposition to flip houses,” he tells Merle. She turns to smile at him. Mom’s eye twitches.
“It’s foolproof. Run-down houses around here are a dime a dozen. They’re crying out for someone to buy ’em cheap, fix ’em up, and sell ’em at a profit. I’m looking for investors.” I watch him pause to see how his pitch lands before moving in for the ask I know is coming. Tony is so predictable; this would be high comedy if it weren’t so pathetic.
Merle calmly points out the positives—the certainty of making money if he does most of the work himself—and the negatives, like understanding that older homes often have serious code violations that will be expensive to fix.
Mom silently watches their exchange. I’m waiting for Tony to ask Merle for money. He doesn’t. The smile on his lips is the first I’ve seen all day. He starts taking notes on his smartphone. He looks like a prize dog winning best of show.
“Excuse me,” says Adrienne, getting up from the table. The look on her face tells me she’s going to the bathroom for a private cry. I know she’s unhappy but she needs to suck it up, make a decision about Jordan one way or the other, and spare us the drama. I didn’t drag my friends and family through a never-ending story when I divorced Lenny.
Sydney, Junior, and Chuckie sit mesmerized by Merle’s glitter, chatter, and charisma. She speaks to them on their level, no “my, how you’ve grown” stuff. She asks them about school, what they do in their spare time, and who their friends are. She pays attention to their answers. I’m surprised to learn that Sydney made the honor roll and plans to try out for the debate team. Junior’s face relaxes as he tells Merle about his heavy metal band. They call themselves the Last Wave. Junior plays the drums. I did not know that. Chuckie tells Merle about his chess video game and how his favorite piece is the knight, “’Cause it looks like a horsey.”
Eventually, even Mom’s smile melts from Jack Frost winter to warm summer sunny as she and Merle crack up over silly stuff they did as teenagers: sneaking cigarettes behind Uncle Bob’s garage and playing spin the bottle with their male cousins in the basement during family reunions. “And,” says Merle with a chuckle, “that one time we got wasted on bourbon from Aunt Mary’s secret stash.”
Mom listens to every word, unlike the constant interruptions I get when I try to tell her what’s going on in my life. Adrienne pats Sydney’s shoulder on the way to her seat. I glance over and can almost see wheels turning in her mind. I wonder if she’s made a decision.
By the time Merle asks me about my life, the energy in the room is as light and airy as the whipped cream on Mom’s pumpkin pie. I hear myself telling Merle about my troubles but my mind has moved beyond my midlife muddle to settle on what’s happening in this room right now. Merle seems completely unaware of her effect. She’s getting everything I want to get from my family but can’t.
My eyes watch while my mind calculates and questions, “the paralysis of analysis,” as Clay puts it. The usual family drama is nonexistent—no interruptions or unsolicited advice. No bickering. How is this happening? Why is it happening? And most of all, why can’t it happen when it’s just us?
With my mouth full of stuffing and gravy, I suddenly know. Merle isn’t trying to get anything. She isn’t trying to fix our problems or change us. She is simply giving each of us her full attention and making thoughtful suggestions instead of telling us what we “should” do. Mom doesn’t do that, I don’t think Adrienne and Tony are capable of doing that, and as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t do that either! My heart sinks. I put my fork down and sit stock still as the hard truth hits full force. I’ve got as many “oughts,” “shoulds,” and critiques as Mom does! The only difference is, she says hers out loud. Mine are silent and just as deadly. Oh, my God. I’m one of the demons I’ve been complaining about!
I’m surprised to feel shame. Shame for the mental put-downs and cynicism for dismissing Tony and his schemes before hearing him out or considering their potential; shame for tuning out Adrienne and her struggles without offering help, a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on; and shame for not paying more attention to Sydney, Junior, and Chuckie.
Mom starts to clear the dishes. Adrienne and I jump up to help. In the kitchen we pour juice for the kids and make tea and coffee for us. I catch Adrienne’s eye and smile.
Back at the table I wonder what would happen if I listen, really listen to Mom’s stories of stoic perseverance? What would happen if I really listen to Adrienne’s “poor me” stories instead of thinking, Oh, God, here comes another one? What would happen if I took a more active interest in what my niece and nephews are doing with their lives? What would happen if I really listened to Tony and hear his pain? Maybe nothing, maybe everything, but it might be worth a try.
I feel a rush of love for my slightly dysfunctional, but very normal, family. It fills me up and tunes me in, at least for this moment. I give thanks for the insight. It seems an appropriate thing to do on this day.
An hour later, amid hugs and goodbyes, Merle heads off to Cape Cod, leaving behind the scent of her perfume and seeds for healthy new growth in the bonds between my family and me.
At 6:00 sharp, Clay arrives to rescue me, except I no longer feel the need to be rescued. He notices the smile on my face as we walk to the car.
“What’s up, cupcake?”
I tuck my arm through his as we walk.
“Clay,” I say, hugging my new feelings close to my heart, “guess who came to dinner?”