freedom

'Freedom from Want,' Norman Rockwell.

A THANKSGIVING TALE

Finally after what seemed like days, maybe weeks, but the van’s clock showed had only been a little over four hours, the family reached their exit. “Over the River” had ended several miles ago.

Now the youngsters were deeply involved in a battle of “he’s on my side; she’s on my side,” which made little sense since each child had a bucket seat of their very own in the van.

But the bucket seats and seatbelt straps seemed unable to contain small youngsters from dripping, and drooping, and leaning until they had some how managed to place their heads, shoulders, arms and torsos on the child sitting next to them. And each one dripped and drooped, back and forth, from the oldest to the youngest, and each one yelled, “Get off me! … Get off my side of the seat. … Mom, Dad, tell (him or her) to get back in his or her seat and leave me ALONE!!!”

The father with his eyes darting back and forth from the rearview mirror to the road, occasionally blurted out for what seemed like the millionth time on this never-ending journey, “You kids, cut it out or I’m gonna pull this car over …” But he never pulled the car over, never even slowed down. In fact, he usually pressed the accelerator a little harder whenever he said this, and the van moved a little faster since the traffic had lightened. “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go … as fast as we can” seemed to be the tune the father’s foot tapped on the accelerator.

Through a bit of what had once been woods when the mother was a child but was now mostly a tree here and there in a landscape of suburbia, the van arrived at grandmother’s street. The van faced a gauntlet of vehicles parked on both sides of the street, a street which was really never intended for cars to park along it, but since it was Thanksgiving, the street had been invaded by sedans, hatchbacks, SUVs, jalopies, pick-up trucks, Jeeps, luxury cars, fuel-economic cars, with enough license plates representing almost every state along the Eastern seaboard. Driveways for each house contained three to five vehicles. A few vehicles were parked in lawns. And grandma’s house was no different. Cars lined the street in front of her house. Cars were wedged in the driveway. Cars were angled and backed and catty-cornered upon her lawn. The van creeped past grandmother’s house at 1 mile per hour as the father searched for an extra inch to park the van. Making an inventory of each car parked at grandmother’s house, the mother shook her head, noting, It looks like everyone’s waiting on us. The father knew without it being said that he needed to find a parking spot as in Right Now, as in We Should Have Left Two Hours Earlier, as in Why Dear Did You Turn Off The Alarm Clock. Dad finally wedged the van into a spot about four blocks from grandmother’s house.

We’ll be glad we have this walk when we’re full of turkey and pie later on this evening, the father said, pasting a smile upon his face. No one smiled back.

Walking along the street, which had no sidewalks, dodging slow-moving cars of more people desperately seeking a space, Dad carried the middle child, Mom carried the youngest, and the oldest child walked behind them carrying the cooler filled with Mom’s famous Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, and Mom’s must-have Thanksgiving deviled eggs. On top of the cooler, a box containing Mom’s piece de resistance, her Thanksgiving apple pie, slid back and forth as the oldest son worked to walk, carry the cooler and keep the pie balanced. The pie slipped to the street. It landed upside down. But it stayed in the box, the oldest child sighed. Before he could lower the cooler, another slow-moving car ran over the pie, flattening it and the box with a rumpled squish. What was that son? Nothing, the boy answered, shoving the box into the cooler which immediately smeared run-over apple pie onto the yellows of the deviled eggs.

Opening the front door, the family was greeted by the sights, sounds and smells of Thanksgiving. Uncle Bob and Aunt Lola along, with their seven children which no one not even Bob and Lola could keep straight, were all dressed in matching sweaters and slacks. Their seven children and the army of other children were everywhere screaming, playing “Red Light, Green Light,” whining about grandmother not having video games, crying over someone taking someone else’s toy, battling for dominance in a family where the battle for dominance would continue for years to come into the adulthoods of each child as it had and would continue doing for generations. Mom and Dad’s kids soon joined the blur, blending into the cacophony of cousins and siblings.

Dad told the oldest son to take the cooler to the kitchen before joining his siblings and cousins. Did you leave the pie in the van? No, it’s in the cooler. The oldest child disappeared into the crowd, heading in the direction of the kitchen. Despite the chaos and noise, smells of turkey, pies, cakes, corn, buttered rolls, sweet potatoes, and so many other foods filled the air to quickly be replaced by the smell of perfume, aftershave, makeup, clothes softener, garlic breath, Listerene breath and numerous other odors as members of the family greeted Mom and Dad at the door. They are peppered with voices, questions, commands. … Put your coats in there! How was your trip? Which way’d you come up? Hard to believe it’s been a year already. Did you bring the deviled eggs? And the apple pie? Your oldest sure is getting tall. What kinda mileage you get on that van? You drive a van, I remember when you had that Camaro, a van, ha, oh man … Mom and Dad were kissed on the cheeks by aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, as children swirled in and out of the adults’ forest of legs. Cousin Lou crushed a beer can in one hand and then nearly crushed Dad’s fingers in the other in a handshake that never seemed to end.

Mom soon disappeared to the kitchen while Uncle Lou kept shaking, crushing Dad’s hand leading him to the living room where numerous men crowded the couches, recliners, easy chairs. Uncle Lou led Dad to a wooden kitchen chair perched in a corner of the room that faced away from the TV. The television broadcast the conclusion of one of the network’s coverage of a big-city parade. The parade was on for the kids. Only one small child watched the parade which was ignored by the other children despite their mothers constantly asking, Wouldn’t you kids enjoy watching the parade? NO.

The men talked football. Well, actually, they argued over which football game to watch throughout the coming afternoon. Some wanted to watch this team play that team while others said they wanted to watch that team play this team ... and What do you think? Dad answered, Well … Then he’s cut off and the argument started again. There’s Garfield, the one child said to Dad who was the only person facing the child on the floor. A niece or distant cousin that Dad had to admit looked familiar but he can’t place. There’s Garfield, the child repeated. A giant Garfield cartoon float filled the TV screen. Dad could see the TV by twisting his upper body and neck into a pretzel. Yep, that’s Garfield, he said and quickly relaxed back to a sitting position on the hard kitchen chair. There’s Snoopy, the child said, Look, Snoopy. Yep, that’s Snoopy, Dad said, his neck again contorted into an unnatural position.

In the kitchen, Mom quickly became a member of the Woman’s Acrobatic Thanksgiving Cooking Team. Within the small confines of grandmother’s kitchen, aunts, sisters, nieces, daughters from the teen-aged newcomer of 17-year-old Lucy to grandmother herself were slicing, dicing, peeling, basting, stirring, seasoning, tasting, dipping, boiling, baking, frying, microwaving, transferring from Tupperware to good china, rinsing, washing, etc., etc. They glided in and out of each other without knocking one another over. They avoided the sudden opening of the oven and the stooped person testing the bird.

They did not spill a drop and dared not miss a beat of family news or gossip — though with the whole family gathered under one roof, the gossip was kept to a minimum. They moved with the efficiency of a machine, with the grace of a troupe of ballerinas. They were unstoppable, indomitable, they would not be found failing in any of their prepared recipes which would be judged by how empty the bowl returned to the kitchen following the dinner. At this moment, young Lucy opened the cooler sitting on the floor by the refrigerator. Oooooo, Lucy said in such a way that stopped every voice in the kitchen, grabbed attention away from every pot and pan. What happened to your food? Lucy lifted the crushed box containing a more-crushed apple pie which had smeared all but three deviled eggs with apple and dirt. Well, at least, the cranberry sauce was saved, said Great-Aunt Martha, shaking her head and instructing Lucy to throw everything else in the trash. Red-faced, Mom smiled a plastered smile and thought dark things of her oldest son.

The oldest son had entered that age when he was too young for half of his cousins and too old for the other half. He didn’t want to be around the younger kids and the older kids didn’t want him around. So, he played with the younger children because even though he didn’t want to play with them, they would play with him. Of course, since he was older and there were so many children who were younger, the young ones mostly pestered him. Noticing him looking at a girl in another yard, his young siblings and cousins taunted, You gotta girlfriend, You gotta girlfriend. Embarrassed, he watched as the girl next door run inside and his little sister suggested that he should be the red light for Red Light, Green Light since his face was so red.

Finally, finally, the family gathered at the tables. There was the adult table, which was populated by the eldest members of the family. There was the adult-child table, which was reserved for the grown-up children and their husbands or wives, who were all in or nearing middle age, but still weren’t allowed at the “official” adult table because there was no room; this is the table where Mom and Dad were squeezed. There were the children tables where actual children were seated, with mothers hovering over their young, asking what they wanted to eat, preparing to cut flanks of turkey and ham into smaller pieces.

At the main table, one seat remained empty though a place had been set. This was the first Thanksgiving without grandpa. And the sight and silence of that empty chair silenced each table chair by chair and person by person as its one-time occupant had silenced them all in the past with his toothy smile and clank of a fork upon his glass of sweet tea. In times past, he’d say the prayer, the smile gone from his face, his eyes downcast in humble reflection. He said his prayer of thanks then half lifted his head, his eyes gleaming more as he let them move across each occupant of each table. The smile returned to his lips, and he’d say, “Ladies and gentlemen … Start your engines.” Then, the battle would be joined and dishes swapped and butter passed and food devoured in that crazed feasting of the Thanksgiving meal. At the sight of that empty chair, despite all of the well-prepared food covering nearly every inch of table and table cloth, no one knew exactly where to begin. No one knew how to start their engines. Out of respect and remembered sadness, they sat waiting though uncertain what they were waiting for.

Grandmother cleared her throat and said, Let us pray. We thank you Lord for all who are here. We thank you, Lord, for your grace and for this food and for the fine fellowship you have given us. We thank you for this family. We thank you for family and all of the joys and troubles that come with it. We thank you for all of these things. Oh, Lord, in Jesus’ name, we pray.

Amen.

But grandmother did not raise her head from prayer. She sat motionless for a few seconds. Not moving. Not seeming to breathe. From the children’s table, a small voice asked, Is Grandma sleeping? Shhh, sounded the lips of dozens of adults at the table. But the child’s question broke grandmother’s stony stillness. Her eyes opened and she began looking at each person, at each relative, in each seat, around each table. And as grandmother’s eyes moved around tables, Mom and Dad held each other’s hands, as hands were squeezed at several places along the tables. Tears rolled down a few cheeks and other cheeks wrinkled with widening smiles. Grandmother let the drama build until she could hold it no more and a smile spread across her face, too.

She rose from the table, grabbed her napkin waving it like a flag as she yelled, Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!

Happy Thanksgiving, to one and all.

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