Today the folks who make me feel safe in my world are coming for dinner…my family. It’s noon. I can see my mother from our kitchen window. She’s leaning into the passenger door of the VW. It looks like she’s unsnapping my father’s seat belt. A slight woman, her hair is dyed red now. At one time it was a deep auburn brown. She waves when she sees me at the glass and walks toward the cottage. Her steps are still as quick and sure as they were when she partnered with my father in his farm implement business forty years ago. This is the woman who molded me.
I can hear my Old English sheepdog’s claws clicking on the pine floor behind me, skidding around the corner, her breathing accelerated. I open the door to a troubled look on my mother’s face and a blast of cold air. “Happy Thanksgiving, Mom.” The sky is gray and overcast behind her with deep purple clouds on the horizon. ..storm clouds.
“Hi Jerry,” my mother says. When Zelda jumps to her side and licks her hands she grins. I grab the animal’s collar so the big beast’s enthusiasm won’t knock her down. “Yes Zelda, you still are my good dog,” she says and cups the dog’s head between her palms. She looks up at me with a scowl. “Your dad didn’t come home last night.”
Bob, my husband, is holding the walker for Bill, my one and only father. He had volunteered to fetch my parents from their new home while I scoured the blackened saucepan that would have held the turkey gravy for today’s celebration. The bird’s flesh had fallen from the bone…overdone. I was cranky. Bob would have done anything to get away from my madness.
“Mom, who is Jerry?” I say, and motion Zelda to sit.
Mom hangs her coat on a hook by the front door and glances into the kitchen. She looks confused. “Want me to slice the pies?” “Mom, I’m your daughter, Laurie. Jerry is your sister. She died last year, remember?” “How many people are coming for dinner?” she says. “Sure, cut the pies…eight pieces from each,” I say handing her a kitchen knife. “Should be ten of us plus three dogs.”
My dad shuffles through our big door next pushing his aluminum walker. “Laurie, my doctor wrote it down in her book that I should have red wine every day at four o’clock to control my blood pressure. I need a glass now, a tall glass.” Bob follows Dad inside and stops to whisper in my ear. “I told your mother I saw the surgery scars under your dad’s shirt and I was certain he is not the imposter. I told her I was positive he is the real Bill. Maybe she’ll be all right today.”
“Happy Thanksgiving, Dad,” I say, hang his coat on a hook and pour him a water glass filled with wine. He will be 90 next month. By me he can have anything he wants. “Your dad had me smuggle this empty wine bottle out of their apartment,” Bob says. He removes a brown bottle from his coat pocket. “He said there were more, but couldn’t remember where they were hidden. He pulled this one from a box of male diapers in the front closet. Where is he getting all this wine?”
“I smell turkey,” Dad says, and finishes his drink. “Where is everyone?” The turkey had been brined for 24 hours and had been roasting in a slow oven since 6 A.M. Its fragrance fills the cottage.“We will eat around two. How would you like some mixed nuts?” “I’m not hungry,” Dad says. He sets his glass on the counter and skids his walker over the polished pine floor toward the lake room window. “You need to feed these wild ducks corn when it gets cold like this, Laurie. Mallards need the calories to keep warm.” “I feed them corn each day at dawn so they don’t wake Bob with their squawking.” I won’t mention that my husband sleeps until ten or eleven. I don’t want to hear what this former farmer would say about that. My father chooses a straight backed armchair by the window. He strokes Zelda’s shaggy head and watches the ducks float under the flexible willow branches dipping into Clark Lake.
The doorbell buzzes. I can see my brother through the light in the entry door. He’s holding a pie. Behind him is Cora, his wife, with a covered dish in each hand. Behind her is their black lab, Gertie. The animal is first through the open door. She greets my dog with a growl, and zips toward Zelda’s toy basket. She removes a soft squirrel that squeals and places the stuffed animal in my father’s lap. Dad throws the squirrel, Gertie’s favorite game. Both dogs scramble. I can hear their toenails scratch the floor. Gertie gets it. Zelda trails the interloper, begging for the return of her squeaking toy.
I welcome Cora with a kiss and take the food so she can remove her coat. One covered dish contains fresh greens, the second a corn relish with colorful chopped peppers and fresh tomatoes. I kiss my brother and whisper that Mom is even more loony today than usual. She thinks I’m her dead sister, Jerry. Let me know who you turn out to be.” He grins, hands me the apple pie and dodges Gertie who is retrieving Zelda’s squirrel that Dad has thrown again. “Gertie, here!” Mick points to the hard stone tile. The black dog slinks to his side, flops down at his feet, but still clenches Zelda’s toy between her teeth. “Stay,” he says, and she does. Zelda races up. “Easy, honey,” I say and grab her by her face hair. I kneel and explain to the excited dog that Gertie is company and she must share her toys. Zelda isn’t buying it. She squirms, jerks her head from my grasp and grabs her squirrel. “I see Zelda is still running this house,” my brother says. “When I die I want to come back as one of your dogs.” Mick sniffs the air. “I smell turkey.”
“I’m done with the pies,” Mom says. “I’ll fill the water glasses on the table. Oh, hello Mickey.” She gives him a long hug. “See this?” Mick says, his arms still around her. He points to Mom to reinforce a joke we have shared since we were teenagers. “She likes me best.” “Stop it, you two,” Mom says, and laughs. “Laurie, your table looks lovely, like you spent hours setting it just so.” When Mom steps away my brother says, “Dad blew up his medicine yesterday.” “How did he do that?” “He has been hiding eye drops from his nurses in the microwave oven. He forgot they were inside when he tried to make popcorn. The nurse that called me said it made quite a mess.” “We better get that microwave out of there,” I say and walk into the kitchen to start work on a new batch of gravy. He follows me in. “Mom wants me to bring her their hot air popcorn popper from up North.”
The door bell buzzes. Cora is dressing her green salad. Mick joins his father in the lake room. I can hear them talking about Dad’s Ford tractor. I see my niece Jenny, and her husband Dave through the kitchen window. I am eager to meet their new puppy, a young, playmate for Zelda. When I pull the front door open a full-sized pit bull bursts into the front hall. The thick-necked, pink-eyed dog bred for dog fights grabs Zelda and pulls her down by the nape of her neck. I can hear Zelda’s skull thump on the wood floor. Jenny’s dog acts like the pit bulls that locked their jaws on the necks of two of my previous sheepdogs. Those bullies would have shook my pups until their necks were broken if I hadn’t intervened. I pull Jenny’s dog and Zelda apart by their collars, recalling how impossible it was to get a handhold on the slick leg hair of a pit bull. “So, this is Rosie?” I say, with-holding my horror. “Don’t get your hand near her mouth. She’s got quite a grip,” says Dave and hands me a peach pie. “Isn’t she sweet?” says Jenny and places a pot of magenta-colored soup on the counter that was made with beets from her garden. “I smell turkey.”
I turn to find Zelda lying on her back, submissive. Rosie is biting her throat. I pull the dogs apart. Zelda escapes to the lake room. “She is a pretty color,” I tell Dave. The dog is white with brown spots…like a Guernsey cow. “How old is Rosie?” “They didn’t know at the pound, but we think she’s about a year,” says Dave. “She was spayed two weeks ago.” “Should we be careful with her…maybe put Zelda in another room? I don’t want her to hurt Rosie,” I say, my fingers crossed behind my back. “Hi Jenny,” Mom says and they hug. “Want me to slice your pies?” “Sure, Grandma.” This tall, coulda-been-a-fashion-model beauty is the creative director of an ad agency in Kalamazoo. Jenny wraps her long arms around her only surviving grandmother, and offers to help her in the kitchen. My niece heats her soup and gathers bowls from where she found them at last Thanksgiving’s meal. Bob, the family’s financial wizard, counts the pieces of pie and announces that Mom cut enough so we could all have three. I hear a cheer from the lake room.
I take a tray of stemmed glasses filled with wine into the family and find Rosie biting Zelda again. I set the tray on the coffee table and pull the dogs apart. Hands reach for the goblets as the dogs wrestle nearby. Rosie growls. Zelda escapes into the kitchen. Gertie is still playing fetch with Dad. “Don’t worry, Aunt Laurie. All puppies play rough like this,” Jenny says to my grimace. She leashes Rosie and makes Dave responsible for her behavior with a knowing nod. “Thanks. I don’t want Zelda to be aggressive,” I say, attach Zelda to her leash and hand it to Dad. She finds a safe place next to his chair while I respond to the doorbell.
My niece Janet, Jenny’s younger sister, arrives next with her husband Kurt and their two boys, Brian, four, and Jason, two. I should be used to this arm of my family by now. They drive up from D.C. every year and every year it’s the same. Janet acts like a hotel guest: doesn’t offer to help with the meal but is ready with notes about a backed up toilet or a TV that doesn’t respond to a remote. She acts like she’s on vacation, not a member of a family that helps one another. Kurt assists when he’s asked. Their boys are blonde, wear big boy jeans and are magazine-cute until the marathon begins. Starting at the front door they race through the kitchen, around the bar and out into the lake room. They scream while running around the Thanksgiving table. When the boys busy themselves upstairs the noise fades, but resumes when the dogs chase them down the steps. Their parents pour themselves wine and catch-up with family news. “Be careful, Brian,” Cora tells the boy who bounds back up the slick pine staircase. I see her roll her eyes. “I’m going to have a heart attack,” she says to me. I’m beyond heart failure and well into the benefits of drug rehabilitation. Both boys must be on crack. I hold my breath and wait for the sound of kid thumps followed by kid screams. Janet and Kurt sit before the fireplace sipping wine and relaxing.
“Dinner in 20 minutes,” I announce, and grab a glass of aged grape juice. “Kurt, will you carve the turkey?” I check on the boys upstairs and find Brian standing on a bed tossing pillows to the floor. “Downstairs, boys,” I say and lead them to the stairwell. Being an adult is tough, I remind myself. Adults never push children down flights of stairs even if they want to. “Are all little boys this active?” I say to anyone who will listen in the lake room. I get glances, but no answers. The boys careen around the Thanksgiving table, Brian and Jason followed by Gertie. The older boy stops to wrap his arms around the black lab. When Gertie bolts, Brian falls to the floor but stands without complaint. “Gertie, sit,” he says, and basks in his power to have the big dog wait until he throws a toy for her to retrieve, a toy which lands on the table top set with our best china. Jason’s energy is boundless. He giggles as he flips lake room lamps on and gleefully charges into our bedroom. When I catch the squirming urchin I carry him to his mother. I wait until she places her goblet on the bar before I can drop my load into her lap. Brian disappears next. When I check upstairs he has destroyed another Martha Stewart pillow museum in another magazine perfect bedroom.
Back in the kitchen, Jenny, Cora and I dish food into serving bowls and plates. Mom takes each platter and places it tastefully on the table. Kurt opens another bottle of wine. He finds a chair for himself next to Brian. Jason chooses a chair next to Bob and Janet slides in beside him. When everyone is seated Bob thanks the family for coming, especially those who brought his favorite foods. He folds his hands and repeats his traditional prayer, “Pass the turkey, please.” Everyone digs in when they aren’t passing a dish of food. “What’s in this cranberry sauce? It’s delicious.”
Dad clinks his empty wine glass and asks for everyone’s attention. “Do any of you remember Worth Road? It’s between Standish and Pinconning.” He waits but no one comments. “There was a dance hall on Worth Road called Worth Tavern. That’s where I met your mother. That meeting started this family.” Someone fills his glass with wine, and we all toast Worth Tavern. Dad empties his glass. Mom is not smiling. She shakes her head and continues chewing.
“Daddy, peel this for me,” says Brian and hands Kurt the stuffing I had baked in individual muffins papers. The boy drips gravy from his spoon on the way to his mouth. Gertie, stationed under the table, stands to lick the buttery goop pooled on the floor, and returns to her posting at Mick’s feet. A sheep dog’s head appears between two diners at the other end of the table. “Zelda, lie down!” She glances at me and returns to her spot warming Mom’s feet. “You are such a good dog,” I say and wonder if I would like kids as much as I love this dog if I had had any of my own. I can feel my family’s eyes on me and wonder if they have read my mind. My brother is shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “Will someone pass the mashed potatoes?” I ask.
“Jason, stop screaming,” says his mother. “You do too like broccoli.” All conversation stops until the child representing the fourth generation of our family is quiet. He proceeds to energize his end of the table by splashing water from his glass with a spoon. He is flanked by Janet and by my husband. Bob looks desperate. He mouths the words, “Save me.” “May I have some more wine?” Dad says from his end of the table.
Jason escapes his broccoli and his mother by sliding under the table. He squirms his way through three dogs and makes a getaway beneath his great-grandfather’s chair. Before bolting up the staircase, he snaps on the lamp behind the sofa.
Most of the family stops chewing about three o’clock, others clear food from the table; Janet and Kurt continue sipping wine. Mom provides an endless supply of sticky dinner plates that Bob rinses and I load into the dishwasher. Jenny makes each family carry-home bags with leftovers. I suggest a walk outside to make room for dessert. Jenny leads Rosie along the lake road. This pit bull does such a perfect heel by her left knee that Rosie could have competed in a dog obedience trial and won.
Zelda leads me with her leash, careening across the road, creating a tripping hazard for Janet and Dave. She stops to sniff a tree, track a squirrel, and mark a bush. I feel the need to defend my pup’s free spirit. “I want Zelda to have fun on her walk. Canines deserve respect just like humans. No one species should dominate another.” “Bull shit,” says Dave. Jenny muffles his mouth with her glove. I hear a giggle from Janet’s direction. “Some in our family might see you as a bit over indulgent with Zelda,” Jenny says and glares at Dave. She wraps her arm around my shoulder. “Some in the family may even see Zelda as a bit undertrained. No one cares that you have gone off the deep end with your dog, Aunt Laurie. We all still love you.” She gives me a hug.
Does my Christian family think I’m eccentric? I recognize a hint of obsessive compulsiveness in my behavior, but that’s normal. Maybe I’m not as beautiful as Bob says, or as sensible as Mom tells me I am, or as responsible as Dad holds me to be. Could it be that I’m not special to anyone but my dog. Is my family humoring me, indulging me like we all do Mom by overlooking her brain deterioration?
Janet chatters about her work in Washington D.C. as we walk. When asked about the recent East coast earthquake she says she had been working on the 10th floor of the Securities and Exchange building, had evacuated down a central staircase, but had learned later she should have crawled under her desk. She says new government buildings are being designed for natural disaster or terrorist attack.
I tell them that in Israel security shelters have been integrated into construction codes for years. Buildings are routinely built with a fortified central staircase accessible by every floor. The stairwell leads to an underground shelter kept stocked by building tenants. Janet says, “They build that way because everyone hates Israel.” I am stunned. I wonder how this girl with such an inquisitive mind morphed into this adult woman with such a narrow world view and opinions so counter to mine? Politics and religion are forbidden topics at our family gatherings, forbidden by me. I am too offended by the anti-Semitic edge to Janet’s remark to respond. I keep moving, unwilling to spoil the day, unwilling to create a wedge inside what I have always considered to be a close-knit, near-perfect family.
Back at the cottage I go through the motions…feed the dogs…serve dessert. It’s after four o’clock. My back aches. Dad has passed out on the sofa. If I were anywhere else, I would go home. At five I urge Bob to transport my parents to their assisted living apartment. I send a full bottle of wine with Dad. Mom extends her goodbye hug long enough to whisper in my ear, “If your dad shows up tonight, ask him to come home. I miss him.” “Okay, Mom,” I say.
Their exodus should spark action by the remaining family members now reclining, watching TV or competing in the Thanksgiving Day derby around the lake room. It doesn’t and we don’t say our goodbyes until seven o’clock. I give my family hugs as they finally exit. Janet offers a kiss before stepping into the darkness. “See you next year, Aunt Laurie.” I wish Kurt a safe drive and say goodbye to the boys who don’t appreciate kisses from women, yet. Kurt and Bob open the door on the forbidden topic as the families load into their vehicles.
Kurt is a staunch republican, a former chief of staff for a congressman in D.C., and the kind of guy who reads five papers a day, every day. He’s also a UM graduate in law. Bob is a liberal who openly states his negative opinion about the former representative as well as any controversial topic that comes up. My husband follows my nephew to his car. While Kurt is belting his children into their car seats, Bob explains to him how he should listen to other views…and not be so closed minded. Kurt loses the control he has honed from years of handling hecklers on the campaign trail. He blasts Bob with what he sees are the facts, gets behind the steering wheel and closes and locks his doors and windows. I can hear all this from inside the cottage.
Zelda curls into a ball and falls asleep on the couch beside me. I am doing yoga deep breathing exercises when Bob drops down on a sofa across from me. He says he cannot understand how such a brilliant young man could maintain such ridiculous political views. My feet hurt. I’m too tired to argue. I tell Bob we should be thankful we have any family willing to celebrate with us on Thanksgiving Day. Bob guffaws. “I’m changing the name of this holiday to Family Tolerance Day.” “Okay by me.” I drag myself into a hot shower to alleviate some of my fatigue.
When the bathroom is fogged sufficiently with hot steam, I turn off the faucet and reach for a clean white towel. My first step outside the stall lands in a pile of soft sludge curled round like a long brown sausage. It’s warm and squeezes up between my toes. My husband hears my scream and rushes into the bathroom. His laugh turns into hysterics, yet he manages to say, “It wasn’t me…today.” That’s another old joke. He takes a step back and notices he’s standing in a pool of liquid. “Laurie, the shower is leaking.” “Don’t be too certain you’re standing in water,” I say and remind him our dog communicates her dissatisfaction. Bob shrieks “ZELDA,” and the culpable animal slinks from the room. I am laughing at the big canine’s response when her shaggy head reappears around the corner.
“Is Zelda smiling at us?” I say to Bob. “If she is, I’ll cut her ears off.” “I’ll get the scissors,” Bob says.