The Wednesday before Thanksgiving
“Hi, it’s Margaret. From Match.com.” I’m whispering into the phone in my mother’s kitchen, volume and timidity left over from high school, thirty-two years and two husbands ago. I’ve been home three hours, and already I’m looking for a way out.
“I can’t hear you,” a man’s voice says.
I can hear him clear as a bell. “It’s Margaret,” I say, using my stop-traffic voice. “From Match.com.” I sound like I’m calling 911.
“Oh, hi. Say, can I call you back? I’m in the car. I’m with my kids. They’re home for Thanksgiving. Can I call around ten?”
“No,” I say. “Everyone will be asleep. Everyone is practically asleep right now. I’ll call you back another time.”
I hang up feeling rejected by all the inhabitants of the known world.
I stand in the dim light of the kitchen with my mother, eyeing the miniature turkey she bought today. “Just in case everyone is sick tomorrow and we can’t make it to the restaurant for Thanksgiving,” she says.
My mother went to bed at 8:30. Now she’s up again. My two teenage sons have gone to a movie, so it’s Mom and me.
“Do you think this turkey would feed eleven people?” my mother says.
It’s the size of a large pigeon.
There’s noise out front, and my two young nieces burst into the kitchen, followed by my brother Ed, who ducks as he walks into the room, though his height hardly warrants the nod. His wife, Hannah, and their two older boys follow, weighted down with what appears to be all their earthly possessions.
“Sorry we’re late,” Ed says. “The car caught on fire.”
He always has some excuse.
“Hi, it’s me again. Margaret. From Match.com.”
Hi. It’s me from your geometry class, from church, from college. . . . I was your roommate for four years. Your first wife.
“I know who you are. I’m so happy you called. I thought you said you’d be asleep.”
“Well, I’m glad you called.”
Thursday, Thanksgiving Day
I, who usually start the day one down, am clothed and caffeinated, cloaked, and out the door before any of the family have begun to dream the dreams that ring the borderland of consciousness. I, who stood in the pantry this morning in the peaked light of dawn, just as long ago my father must have stood on chilly mornings, all alone . . . my father, dead these twenty years.
It’s cold outside, in the way that makes a person feel resourceful. It’s spitting rain. I’ve got the whole town to myself, the only person in ten neighborhoods who’s up and out. The Pilgrims won’t be grateful for another seven hours; no NFL tight end’s tendon will tear till hours after that.
I round the corner by Fred Bird’s house. “Red Fred,” we called him, for uninspired reasons. I head down Washington Avenue, and walking toward me is a little boy, third-grader size, with a ceramic mug in one hand and a jar of Coffee-mate in the other. He’s wearing soft-looking flannel pajamas. I can’t make out the pattern, but in the drizzling mist he looks entirely warm and right.
“Morning,” I say. “Where are you off to?”
“I’m going to my grandmother’s house,” he says. “We always have breakfast together on Thanksgiving.” He, who has been alive for only eight Thanksgivings, nine at most; he, who has (I hope) been drinking coffee far fewer years than that . . .
“Could I go with you?” I say.
“Sorry,” he says. “If it wasn’t Thanksgiving —”
“No, no. I just meant could I walk with you there?”
“I can’t think why you couldn’t.” He points out his destination.
“How’s your life?” I say. It’s a question I usually wait to ask people, one I work up to, but his grandmother lives only five houses over. There isn’t time to first ask what grade he’s in and does he like school — a sorry-ass question under the best of circumstances.
“My life is good,” he says. “I have my own room now. They moved my sister to the attic. My fish died, but he was ready to go. I’m going ice fishing with my dad once the pond freezes. And today is Thanksgiving, and I’m going to have coffee with my grandma.”
I stand and watch him go up the walk, but I turn away quickly as he frees one hand, just before he opens the front door.
I walk into my mother’s house to find the whole family buzzing about Brian, the teenage hooligan next door. It seems last night he took a sharp turn on wet leaves — that counterfeit of ice — and smashed into the guardrail, totaling his mother’s car.
My father long lamented that his life had amounted to nothing. I think of this refrain as my two stunning nephews, fruit of the fruit of his loins, sit singing hymns in careful harmony. My absent brother has a son off in seminary and a daughter who’s a hospice nurse. And at the dining-room table two golden girls with braided hair and plastic-sandaled feet are choosing real live ducks and pigs and goats, schoolbooks and inoculations, from the Save the Children catalog, to buy with money they have saved all year.
Let God decide whose life amounts to nothing.
We park the car, and I walk with my two boys toward the nursing home.
“Take me out and shoot me, but don’t ever put me in a place like this,” I say to them.
We walk into the vaulted visitors’ room in the Day Villa Manor, where we have come to see my aunt Flornie. She’s ninety-three and only recently arrived here herself. She fell and broke her hip, the ticket of admission. The rest of the family are already in attendance, including my sister. I notice my mother’s hearing is much better here. At home she’s practically stone-deaf. Here I whisper a swear and she frowns and shakes her head at me.
My brother spots a piano over in the corner and signals to his wife, who sits down on the bench and starts to play. We sing. It’s easier than shouting inane questions at our aunt. We sing hymns, all five verses, the words burnished on our brains back before we had any say in the matter: “Just as I Am, without One Plea.” “The Old Rugged Cross.”
The Silbermans, in matching wheelchairs in the corner, mark the beat.
“Do you know ‘Hava Nagila’?” I ask Hannah. She can play anything.
“Hum a few bars,” she says, and she is playing with me by the third line.
Ed jumps to his feet and grabs my mother, who stands planted in place as he whirls around her. The six kids join the dance. Even my mother starts a goyish stomp. The Silbermans are beaming.
“ ‘Hava Nagila’?” My sister frowns. There is nothing she cannot disapprove of.
We all comb our hair and shave or put on lipstick and then head to the village restaurant for turkey. We take four cars. No one in our family thinks anyone else in the family is safe to ride with.
I’m not saying anyone is wrong.
The place is on the bleak side, but the food is magnificent. The gravy is worth the trip the Pilgrims made. In steerage. My sister says they make it from beef drippings. She lives one town over, so I figure she knows. We have all begun to eat when my niece Patricia stage-whispers in her dad’s ear, “I have to puke.”
“Hannah,” my brother says to his wife, and mother and daughter run from the room.
“I’ll take her home,” Hannah says, running back in and grabbing her coat.
“Happy Thanksgiving!” my mother calls over her shoulder, then takes another bite.
I see two fat people pass down the buffet line heaping stuffing and mashed potatoes into two of those lidded styrofoam boxes, and I ask the waiter if takeout is available. It is: $17.95 per box, and no one but God will know if you stuff the entire thing with turkey or with mincemeat pie. I tell Ed he should take a dinner home for Hannah.
“She won’t want it,” he says.
“She will,” I say, unless she’s eaten herself senseless on tea and toast at home. “I’m getting two so we’ll have leftovers, but you should get her one. She’ll want it.”
He says no for the second time.
I gather up a carload of sons and nephews for the ride home. Once they are belted in, I drive them to the cemetery where our people have been buried for two hundred years: Osbornes and Mackenzies. The oldest nephew, maybe twelve or thirteen, whips out a fancy camera and runs around in the now-fading light, taking snapshots of rocks and trees and tombstones. I take a peek at his camera’s little screen. The stones in his photographs all read “Macintosh,” not “Mackenzie.” He has a hundred pictures of the wrong dead family. If they were daguerreotypes or Kodak color prints, he would be required to figure what to make of that. As it is, he hits delete.
This isn’t right. It should not be so easy to delete the photographs you take. It should be costly, wasteful. You should hesitate to rip them up, and then only after you have saved them twenty years and come across them in a bureau drawer and studied them awhile, wondering, and trying to remember.
At home Hannah says she’s eaten scrambled eggs and Raisin Bran.
“I told Ed to bring you a meal,” I say. I slip the four-pound styrofoam containers of turkey and mashed potatoes slathered with beef gravy into the back reaches of the fridge. Later I’ll steal cold nibbles when nobody’s in the kitchen. I’ll be damned if Ed will get any. By evening I’m offering heated samples to the children, then my mother and my sister, but everyone says no; they’re sending out for dinner because Ed wants ribs.
Hooligan Brian next door has been saying all day that the car crash happened just before eleven last night, but now it seems that it was really 4 A.M., and he can’t tell the police because he was driving after junior curfew. Ed goes next door to make him go to the police and confess. We have been beating confessions out of people for generations immemorial. Our ancestors were Covenanters in Scotland in the 1700s who swore oaths not to eat until they’d murdered every English Christian who was not in avowed agreement with their incipient-Presbyterian theology. There is no record that one of them died fasting.
“What happens to this house when Mother dies?” I ask Ed. He’s only forty-six; he doesn’t know how high the stakes are. We have finished surfing every channel on the new TV my buying sister hoped would tame the winds and waters of our mother’s long descent. “What will happen to the house?” I ask my brother again, as though he had been assigned the deciding. My sister would tell me that I’m being morbid, a dismissal she’s been using since the day she learned the word in junior high school. That’s what vocabulary words are for: to distance you from other people.
“Sell it,” Ed says. “I could use the money to put the kids through college.” As though this house, where I was brought home as a baby, might be offered in the marketplace. I’d thought we would be keeping it so that one day, years from now, I could stand and look out the back kitchen window and see the scene my father saw beyond the shadows every morning just before he headed off to work at 4 A.M.
“I always thought we’d keep the house,” I say.
“Who would live here?”
Dad, I don’t say. Nor do I say that maybe I will buy it from the siblings and tear it down and build a small, oddly situated park, or give it to some poor young family, who might raise four other children here.
We just heard that the police came to arrest Brian next door. Turns out it was not a guardrail but a house he hit.
“Hey, it’s me,” I say. We’ve gone from Match.com to this in one day’s time.
“Hey, how are you? I called you earlier. Your mother answered. She called me ‘sir.’ I don’t think she likes me.”
At least he’s not stupid.
“Say, could you call me tomorrow night on my cell?” he says. “I’ll be driving to a party then, and we could talk on the way. I told my friends I’ve met somebody. They all want to meet you.”
“Don’t you want to meet me first?”
A person can move in lock step through the hours of a day, but it can take so long for life to tie up all the pieces.
I once read a list of probabilities. It said the chances of a person knowing in advance where and when and what kind of catastrophe will befall him is 1 in 112 million. It also said the chance of nothing major and terrible happening to you or your family or your friends in one calendar year is nil.
My mother’s house will be struck by lightning in a couple of years. It was struck once before, back in 1969. Lightning does strike the same place twice. Make a note. The house will burn to the ground. No phoenix from the ashes this time.
The children will grow up — except, that is, for the little boy walking in the misty rain in his pajamas, carrying the Coffee-mate. He will be buried by his grandmother a week before his eleventh birthday.
Brian the outlaw next door will die in bed when he is old, when he is very old.
I will end up almost marrying the Match.com-met man, but will think better of it in the end. I will not regret my decision. And I will.
And later, years from now, my brother Ed will say, Remember that Thanksgiving? Everything was perfect. He will be referring to this Thanksgiving, with its car accidents and nursing homes and cemeteries and families and turkey and mashed potatoes — like the batch in the styrofoam container that will be discovered in the far back reaches of the fridge near Christmas, a little green and very dry.
You don’t know anything is happening while it is going on. You can stop the clock a hundred times a day, but when you wake up the next morning, it will still be 7:45, and there will be an odd tapping on the roof, and you’ll be late before you’ve even gotten out of bed.
The Friday after Thanksgiving
The phone rings. I answer. No hello, just “Margaret, tell Mum to come up to the Wal-Mart parking lot to give me a jump-start. The car is dead.”
It’s Ed. He expects our mother, at the age of eighty-seven, to hop into her little Mercury before she’s had her oatmeal and Lipitor and come to rescue him. A natural consequence, I like to think, of serving her son breakfast in bed every single morning for all four years of high school. (Let the record show that this same woman claimed she had no interest whatsoever in getting up to watch me eat a piece of toast — this when I weighed ninety-four pounds soaking wet and walked two miles to school in sleet and rain and snow. Et cetera, et cetera.)
“My car is dead,” Ed says again, in case I had forgotten, which I sort of had.
“Of course it’s dead,” I say. Ed’s car caught fire driving here on Wednesday out on Route 80. As his wife tells the story, first smoke came from beneath the hood, then flames, and children jumping from the car. The fire burned itself out in a matter of a few wild minutes. “I’m pretty sure that’s fixed it,” Ed said, and he got the kids back in and drove two more hours to Mom’s house.
Right. An electrical fire in the engine corrected the problem. This is what comes of growing up in our family: a person thinking that a good fire sets things right.
I figure, even in a car that didn’t have a very recent engine fire, car trouble’s what you get for going shopping at 4 A.M., which Ed and Hannah and three of their four children did.
“It’s your favorite,” I say and hand the receiver to my mother.
Everyone is packing up and leaving. Brian, the home wrecker from next door, is out on bail, and Ed has decided to take him home with his family to New Jersey.
“I can’t imagine prison is likely to improve his personality,” Ed says, and he tells Brian to duck down in the back seat on the way out of town.
It is the sort of thing people in my family do. My mother slips a thin roll of dollar bills into Brian’s hand. “In case you get thirsty on the way,” she says.
My younger son, David, wants to drive us all the way home today. Eleven hours. He’s had his license about fifteen minutes. We’re zooming down Route 80 at eighty-seven miles an hour. It doesn’t seem that fast. I glance over as we pass a car. A 1960 Buick. It’s a maroon color they don’t make anymore, a maroon they never should have made in the first place. I look more closely, and there he is: my dad. He’s driving, and my mother is complaining at his side. At any moment she could slide in his direction, or the skinny children riding in the back — I, their chief — might go flying over the front seat if my father hits the brakes. No worry. He hardly ever brakes. We are safe as houses. The whole family is headed for the beach. We’ll have to drive all day to cross the whole of Pennsylvania and the barren southern strip of New Jersey. We won’t get to the darkened rooming house till after nine, but there will be a breeze coming through the unscreened windows in the upstairs bedrooms. It will lift the curtains. It will tell you even in the dark that the ocean is not two blocks away. And those children will hear the sound of waves upon the beach and smell the salt air at unexpected moments off and on down through the years.
David steps on the gas, we pass the car, and in the back seat Josh starts singing, “Hava nagila. Hava nagila. Hava nagila.”
Hey. Hey. Hey.
Everyone in the world is asleep but me. I forgot to call the Match.com man. I’ll call him in the morning, move on to that phase. I check my e-mail, then look up hava nagila on Google. It means “Let us rejoice and be glad.”
Hey means: “Well, goodness gracious, mercy sakes alive, will you look at that!” And it means “Enough!” And “Look at me!” And “What a surprise! I never would have seen that coming in a million years.” Or, in country dance, hey is “a choreographic figure in which dancers move in and out amongst each other, circling, touching, moving far apart, then moving back to touch again.”