by Laurice LaZebnick
Note: Laurie is one of Clark Lake’s published authors. Stay tuned–her latest book, Minnie’s Potatoes, is coming soon. Watch this website for details!
Today the folks who make me feel safe in my world are coming to celebrate Thanksgiving at our Clark Lake cottage…my family.
It’s noon. I can see my mother from our kitchen window. Her withered frame is leaning into the passenger door of the VW. It looks like she’s unsnapping my father’s seat belt. Her grey hair is dyed red now. At one time it was a deep auburn brown. She waves when she sees me at the window and stands back while my husband helps my father from the car. They walk towards the cottage, Dad pushing his aluminum walker, Mom stepping slower and less sure than she ever has. This is a woman who partnered with my dad in his farm implement business fifty years ago. These are the people who molded me.
I’ve planned this holiday so it will be flawless, not like last year’s with heated political arguments, lumpy potatoes and the bacon-wrapped wild turkey that was so tough even the dog refused the breast. I spent yesterday setting the table…all silver and glass. The flower arrangements set low so the guest’s sight lines are not blocked. I found individual chocolate turkeys for each place setting. I even polished the water spots from the glasses.
I can hear my sheepdog’s claws clicking on the wood floor behind me. Zelda skids around the corner panting in expectation. She’s heard a familiar car door close.
I pull the front door open to a blast of cold air and a troubled look on my mother’s face. “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 and grins when our dog jumps to her side and licks her hands. I grab the animal’s collar so the big beast’s enthusiasm won’t knock her over. “Yes Zelda, you still are my favorite dog,” she says and cups the dog’s head between her palms. Mom looks up at me with a scowl. “Your dad didn’t come home last night.”
My husband is holding the walker for my only father. He had volunteered to fetch my parents from their assisted living apartment while I scoured the blackened saucepan that would have held the turkey gravy for today’s celebration.
I had boiled and drained the russet potatoes, pressed through a ricer while they were still hot to make them fluffy, and then added sour cream and minced garlic. I was adding potato water to the hot turkey drippings to make gravy when the liquid explodes. I slap a lid on the pan to smother the fire. Grease-spattered, I step back and notice a cloud of gray smoke puffing from the lip of the lid. Damnation…my divine punishment for forgetting to make a roux with the hot oil and flour before adding the liquid. And, I just ironed this blouse.
I fork the turkey that is resting under a foil tent. The bird’s flesh falls from the bone…overdone. I am cranky. My husband will do anything I ask to get out of the house and away from me.
“Mom, who is Jerry?” I say, and motion Zelda to sit. She does. I tell her stay. She lies down at my mother’s feet.
Mom hangs her coat on a hook by the front door and says, “I smell smoke. Did you scorch something?” She runs her palm over the dog’s head 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?”
“Sure, cut the mincemeat 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 front door next pushing what he refers to as his Oldsmobile. “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 right now, a tall glass.” He drops his hand and strokes the head of the dog that is nudging his leg.
“Zelda, down,” I say. The dog dismisses me with a look and walks into the lake room.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Dad,” I say and pour him a water tumbler filled with wine. He will be 90 soon. By me this man can have anything he wants.
My husband follows my father inside and stops to whisper. “I told your mom I saw the surgery scars under your dad’s shirt and that I was certain he is not the imposter. She does remember your dad has scars.” He hangs my father’s coat on a hook. “Maybe she’ll be all right today.”
“Did you buy more wine?” I ask.
He nods. “Your father had me smuggle this empty wine bottle out of their apartment. He said there were more, but couldn’t remember where he hid them.” He removes the brown bottle from his jacket pocket. “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 fresh Amish turkey had been brining in the refrigerator with salt and apple cider vinegar for 24 hours and has been roasting in a slow oven since 6 A.M. Its fragrance fills the cottage.
“We will eat around two. Will some garlic-roasted pecans hold off your craving for turkey until then?”
“I’m not hungry,” Dad says. He sets his tumbler on the counter and skids his ‘Olds’ 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 just like chickens do.”
“I feed them cracked corn each day at dawn so they don’t wake my partner with their squawking.” I don’t mention that my husband sleeps until ten or eleven. That information would lay an egg with this old farmer.
My father chooses a straight-backed armchair by the window. He strokes Zelda’s shaggy head and watches the ducks float under the curly willow branches that dip into Clark Lake.
The doorbell buzzes. I can see my brother through the light in the entry door. He’s holding a pumpkin pie with pastry maple leaves on the top. Behind him is 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 Zelda with a growl and zips to her toy box, removes my dog’s squirrel and places the stuffed animal in my father’s lap. Dad throws the toy. The dogs scramble. I can hear their toenails scratching skid marks in the soft pine floor.
I welcome my sister-in-law with a hug and take her arm full so she can remove her coat. I peek. One covered dish contains fresh greens for salad. The second is a corn relish with red and yellow chopped peppers and fresh tomatoes. “Looks good.”
I kiss my brother and whisper that Mom is even loonier 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 pie, and dodges Gertie who is retrieving the squirrel Dad has thrown again. “Gertie, here!” He points to the hard stone tile. The black dog slinks to his side and flops down at his feet. She clenches the toy between her teeth. “Stay,” he says, and she does.
Zelda races up. “Easy, honey,” I say and grab her by her beard so I can look into her eyes. I kneel and explain to the excited dog that Gertie is company and she must share her toys. My dog isn’t buying it. She squirms, jerks her head free, and scurries away.
“I see Zelda is still running this house,” my brother says. “When I die I want to come back as one of your dogs.” He sniffs the air. “I smell turkey.”
“I’m done with the pies,” Mom says. “Do you want the bread and butter pickles in this dish? Oh, hello there.” She gives her son a long hug.
“See this?” he says as his arms wind around her. He reinforces the 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. I see you’re using the linen tablecloth I gave you.” She’s still wrapped in my brother’s arms when she asks him, “Have you seen your father?”
“Not yet,” he says. When Mom steps away my brother whispers, “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. I hope no one sees me opening the can.
Mick follows me. “What’s this?” He lifts the tail feather cover off the porcelain turkey gravy boat and smirks. “Cute.” He sets it back in place.
The doorbell buzzes. My sister-in-law is dressing her green salad. I can smell the garlic. My brother wakes our father who has fallen asleep in the lake room. I can hear them talking about Dad’s Ford tractor. I can see my niece and her husband through the kitchen window.
My niece warned me they were bringing a puppy rescued from the pound, “a playmate for Zelda,” she said. 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 dogfights grabs Zelda and pulls her to the floor by the nape of her neck. I can hear Zelda’s head thump. I freeze. I can’t breathe.
My knees unlock so I can pull the animals apart by their collars. I recall how impossible it was to get a handhold on the slick leg hair of the last pit bull that attacked one of my sheepdogs. “So, this is Rosie?” I say, with-holding my horror. My niece is another childless woman who worships her dog.
“Don’t get your hand near her mouth,” her husband says. “She’s got quite a grip.” He hands me a peach pie.
“Isn’t she sweet?” my niece says and places a pot of magenta-colored soup on the counter that was made with beets from her garden. “I smell turkey. And garlic. Lots of garlic. I love garlic.”
I turn to find Zelda lying on her back, submissive. Rosie is biting her throat. I pull the dogs apart again. Zelda escapes to the lake room. “How old is she?”
“They didn’t know at the pound, but we think she’s about a year,” he says. “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 there,” Mom says to her grand daughter. They hug. “Want me to slice your pies? Oh, you made peach.”
“Sure, Grandma.” This tall, coulda-been-a-fashion-model beauty is the creative director of an ad agency in Kalamazoo. She wraps her long arms around her only surviving grandmother, and offers to help her in the kitchen. She heats her soup and gathers bowls from where she found them at last Thanksgiving’s meal.
My husband, 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 red wine into the family and find Rosie biting Zelda again. Hands reach for the crystal goblets as the dogs wrestle nearby. I gently pull the dogs apart. Rosie growls. Zelda escapes into the kitchen. Gertie ignores Rosie and continues playing fetch with Dad.
“Don’t worry, Aunt Laurie. All puppies play rough like this,” my niece says. I grimace. She attaches a leash to Rosie’s prong collar and appoints her husband responsible with a knowing nod.
“Thanks,” I say. “I don’t want Zelda to become aggressive.” As I loop a soft leash over Zelda’s head back in the kitchen the doorbell rings. I hand the rope to my husband. The dog ducks her head, squirms from the rope leash and heads back to the action. I see her crawl under my sleeping father’s legs and look out from between his feet.
My brother’s youngest daughter arrives next with her husband and their two boys, aged two and four Their boys wear big-boy jeans and are magazine-cute until the 5K Marathon begins.
Skating through the front door they race through the kitchen, around the bar and out into the lake room. They scream their way around the Thanksgiving table. Their screeching fades as they explore the second floor, but crescendos as the dogs chase them down the steps. Their parents relax, sip wine and catch-up on family news.
“Be careful,” my sister-in-law tells the children who are bounding up the slick pine staircase again. I see her roll her eyes. “I’m going to have a heart attack,” she says to me, and clutches her chest.
I’m approaching heart failure too and consider gulping a goblet of chardonnay, but can’t chance botching this simmering batch of canned gravy after the last fiasco. One drink and I might spill the gingered-butternut squash soup from the miniature pumpkins I’d carved like little bowls to set before each plate. “I need some help carving this bird,” I call to our guests. My husband has been resisting this job for the past forty years.
My nephew volunteers and carves the bird while both his little boys race through the kitchen. It occurs to me these urchins may be on a drug we used to call ‘speed.’ I wonder if they are normal children. At least Zelda knows not to run through the kitchen while I’m putting hot food on the table. The clever animal stations herself beneath the table and waits for scraps. That’s normal behavior.
The noise decreases after the little monkeys climb the staircase. I stiffen when I realize I’ve left my computer on, my watercolor brushes soaking in a can of water and my sewing machine plugged in. I hear serious stomping. Can two little boys make that much noise? They sound like an army marching down the stairs. I listen for the sound of army trooper’s bodies thumping down the slippery steps. But the troops land upright and the marathon resumes. Their parents sip Pinot Noir, oblivious to the storm.
“Dinner in five minutes,” I announce, and grab a glass of the aged red juice. This well-planned day is out of my control. I down the wine like my father did. Mom is carrying the pies to the table. “No Mom. No room on the table for these,” I grab the pies and head for the kitchen. “They will be safer out of reach of the animals.” I meant to say the children.
“You mean the boys, don’t you?” she says.
I grin at my co-conspirator. “Here Mom, will you set the corn relish on the table?” The boys have become silent. I’m a little dizzy from the wine, but investigate upstairs and find both boys jumping on the beds. “Downstairs, boys,” I say and lead them to the stairwell. I wonder if military schools accept boys this young? “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 followed by Gertie holding the squirrel.
“No running, boys,” I say.
The smaller boy has boundless energy. He flips lamps and light switches on and off with glee, climbing his great-grandfather’s Oldsmobile to get to the toggle buttons. I gather the wiggler in my arms and drop him into his mother’s lap.
“Aunt Laurie, these potatoes need more salt,” my other niece says from the kitchen. “You’d better taste them. I’ll set the soup-filled pumpkins on the table.”
Mom is carrying the cranberry sauce and places it next to the last of her homemade bread and butter pickles. She adds serving spoons to each bowl. The oven buzzes that the sweet Bourbon corn pudding is done. The boy’s mother appears in the kitchen chaos. “Do you want me to open more wine?”
My sister-in-law hands a flat dish of steamed broccoli to Mom who heads towards the bedroom. “That goes on the table, Grandma,” she says as she mounds a mountain of mashed potatoes into a serving bowl. My nephew places the platter of sliced turkey on the table and makes room for the broccoli. The children’s parents find comfortable armchairs and call their spawn. I take the folding chair next to my brother.
When everyone is seated my husband 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.”
Serving platters advance across the table in formless chaos, backtrack, crisscross, and change position. Somehow everyone’s plate is heaped high. “What’s in this cranberry sauce? Fresh oranges? Is it Mom’s recipe?”
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.”
I poke my brother. “Did you know your life began in the parking lot at Worth Tavern?” My brother beams me a grin and shakes his head. He refills Dad’s glass with wine. We all toast Worth Tavern. Dad empties his first.
Mom is not smiling. She shakes her head and continues chewing her turkey with the few remaining teeth in her mouth. “I wish your father were here.”
“Daddy, peel this for me,” says the four-year-old and hands my nephew the apple, sausage and kale stuffing I had baked as individual muffins. The boy drips gravy from his spoon on the way to his mouth while he waits. Gertie, stationed under the table, stands to lick the goop pooled on the floor, and returns to her posting at my brother’s feet.
“Stop screaming,” my niece says to her youngest son. “You do too like broccoli.” All conversation stops until the child representing the fourth generation of our family is quiet. Flanked by his mother and my husband, he energizes his end of the table by splashing water from his glass with a spoon.
My man looks desperate. He mouths the words, “Save me!”
“May I have some more of that red wine?” Dad says from his end of the table.
The two-year-old 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.
“I ate too much.”
People stagger to their feet. Dad has fallen asleep in his chair. Mom provides an endless supply of sticky dinner plates to my husband who rinses them. I load the dishwasher while my oldest niece makes each family a carry-home bag with leftovers.
I suggest a walk outside to make room for dessert. My niece leads Rosie along the lake road. This pit bull does such a perfect heel by her left knee that the bitch could have competed in a dog obedience trial and won.
Zelda leads me on her leash, careening across the road, creating a tripping hazard for other walkers. 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,” I say. “Canines deserve respect just like humans. No one species should dominate another.”
“Bull s–t,” says my older niece’s husband. She muffles his mouth with her glove. I hear a giggle in my other niece’s direction.
“Some in our family might see you as a bit over indulgent with Zelda,” my older niece says and glares at her husband. 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. “This has been a perfect day…perfect weather, perfect food, a perfect Thanksgiving.”
They all think I’m eccentric. They do. I recognize a hint of obsessive-compulsiveness in my behavior, but I’m far from what I’d call wacky. Are they humoring me, indulging me like we all do Mom by overlooking her brain deterioration?
I rather like them thinking I’m just a tad left of center. It gives me an excuse to be silly. I might serve mac and cheese next Thanksgiving just to watch their reaction.
Back at the cottage I go through the motions: feed the dogs, serve the peach and pumpkin pies and give everyone coffee. It’s after four o’clock. All the canines are stretched out sleeping. My back aches. Dad has passed out on the sofa. My feet hurt. If I were anywhere else, I would go home.
At five I urge my husband 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 football on TV or competing in the children’s marathon run. It doesn’t and we don’t say our goodbyes until seven o’clock. I give them hugs as they finally exit. The little boys each insist on jumping from the car their father has belted them into to give me a hug.
“See you next year, Aunt Laurie. We’ve all had a wonderful time.” My niece offers me a kiss before stepping into the darkness.
Zelda curls into a ball and falls asleep on the couch beside me. My husband drops down on a sofa across from me and says he cannot understand how my side of the family can maintain such ridiculous political views.
“Politics and religion were not to be discussed at the Thanksgiving table,” I tell him. “You promised.”
“We had a short discussion…outside in the yard.”
I am too tired to argue. My feet are numb. I tell him we should be thankful we have any family willing to celebrate with us on Thanksgiving Day.
He guffaws. “I’m changing the name of this holiday to Family Tolerance Day.”
“That’s okay by me.” I drag myself into a hot shower to soothe my aching back. When the room is sufficiently fogged, 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. Why not? I think. This is a perfect end to my perfect day.
My husband hears me scream “ZELDA” and rushes into the bathroom. He laughs when he sees what I’m looking at. Bent with hysterics, he manages to say, “It wasn’t me…today,” 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 with us this way.
He shrieks “ZELDA,” and the culpable animal slinks from the room.
I am laughing at the canine’s response when her shaggy head reappears around the corner. “Is Zelda smiling at us?” I say to him. “If she’s laughing, I’ll cut her ears off.”
“Em, I’ll get the scissors,” he says.