Thursday, November 29, 2007

When my father left for the airport to pick up my sister, he brought two Hershey’s Kisses with him. He ate the first one without incident. The second one, however, shot out of his hand as soon as he successfully removed the wrapper. Upon losing the chocolate, he resumed paying attention to driving. He probably cursed under his breath for a while, but he left that out of the story. As his anger faded, he began to notice that the taste of that first piece of chocolate was still there in his mouth. The more he tasted it, the more he wanted that second piece. Eventually he stole a quick look, but it was almost eleven at night and he was looking for chocolate on the floor of a car with black carpet and upholstery. If he hadn't driven through a well lit area right after he took that first look, he may have given up. He didn't give up. It took a good twenty miles to find it, but find it he did. And enjoy it he did.

Family holidays are a lot like a search for chocolate on the floor of a car you’re driving seventy miles an hour. Or, at least holidays with my family are. Sometimes the search is successful, and sometimes you drive off the road and into a gully.

That we didn't end up in the gully this year was a miracle. My mother and I are the family chefs. This year one of us wasn't arriving until 1:00 p.m. and the other has breast cancer and received her second round of chemotherapy exactly a week earlier. My sister arrived Wednesday night. My sister, while now wonderfully adept at cleaning (this is a newly acquired skill), still can’t make a decent grilled cheese. I’m not sure I’d even eat a bowl of cereal if she prepared it for me. Now, I can’t make a grilled cheese either, but I can make a meringue, a cheesecake, and a multiple course Senegalese dinner. My dad might be able to make a grilled cheese sandwich. He is definitely a very capable, and at select times even eager, dishwasher. My father is also, however, obsessed with his father-in-law’s house. He is finally on the verge of selling the place. It’s been more than three years since my grandpa’s death; three years, four break-ins, and two copper thefts. After the last break-in, dad didn't replace the pipes. He had to replace them the week before Thanksgiving, though. There can be no inspection without them. There can be no sale without an inspection. Without a sale, my father will be denied what he is already referring to as his happiest day in three years. He wasn't too worried initially, because the buyers were in a hurry and it seemed possible that they could close on the house before Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the inspector was sick. There can’t be an inspection without him either. So, the inspection was off until after Thanksgiving, leaving the house fully piped, completely empty, completely my father’s property, and completely dependent on him for protection. Did I mention that even without the threat of repeating a several thousand dollar repair for the third time, nothing drives my father out of the kitchen, if not the house, faster than extensive meal preparation?

It seemed to make the most sense to have me prepare the dinner on Friday with some help and supervision from my mom. It made the most sense to me. Dinner on Thursday meant that my mother would be responsible, at the very least, for the turkey and much of the early prep work. Not only had an emergency buzz cut transformed mom into Sigourney Weaver from Aliens, she was weaker than usual and feverish. She had a few other problems as well, but those qualify as too much information even for me. The decision was beyond obvious. So … dinner was on Thursday. My mother wanted Thanksgiving to be on Thursday. She also wanted to be very involved in making dinner. She generally gets what she wants. I tried to talk her out of it, but I’m not usually very successful at that regardless of the merits of my arguments. Mom, I love you anyway.

I wasn't in love with having dinner on Thursday. It seemed to me that we were risking a wreck at seventy miles an hour. I was wrong, though, because some strange things happened on the way to dinner. First, my mother forgot to bring her Turkey Bucks to the grocery store, so she had to buy chickens rather than turkey. Chickens don’t need to cook as long as turkey, which means that an on-time arrival would have me in the kitchen in time to be involved with dinner from the very start and put it on the table in time for my daughter to eat with the rest of us before she had to leave for bath and bed. Second, our plane arrived on time. We even had an extra seat, which meant fewer struggles for my wife and I and a better chance that we wouldn't be completely exhausted as we entered the kitchen. Third, my wife came with me. She was always coming, so her appearance doesn't qualify as strange. I think it is important, however. She is only a hair better than my sister when it comes to cooking, but she is a superb sous-chef. Besides, I know for sure that she’ll read this, so I need to say nice things about her. I love you honey! Fourth, the full fledged toddler I live with took her regular nap at Grandma and Granddad’s house. This meant that both my wife and I could be useful in the kitchen at the same time. Fifth, my mother’s fever never went over 100, and was gone by dinner time. Sixth, no one decided to try their hands at another porcini rubbed turkey. A few years ago, I decided that we should have a gourmet Christmas dinner. So, my mother, my wife, and I prepared a meal straight out of the pages of Bon Appetit. I woke up with an alarm on Christmas morning, and we had dinner on the table by 9:00 p.m. In between we cooked, argued, and cried. Never again will I participate in that kind of food effort. This year’s Thanksgiving meal consisted of chicken, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, baked sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, squash, dressing, salad, and store bought rolls and pies. Seventh, only two meal related casualties occurred. I didn't make the pies from scratch. This was a miscarriage. I knew that even an on-time arrival left no time for pies. My mother’s baked sweet potatoes were a more unforeseen casualty. The just didn't get in the oven fast enough. Eighth, my dad was back in time for dinner and no one stole his pipes on Thanksgiving.

Dinner was on the table at 6:30, as planned. It looked good, and everyone was seemingly prepared to be pleased with it and each other. I couldn't believe it. It occurred to me that I might be in the wrong place, or the wrong dimension. I sat down for dinner waiting for an argument, a phone call, or an attack of murderous Martians. Instead, a pleasant conversation arrived. The food was good. The cats were relatively well behaved. We laughed at my bald mother, avoided mentioning any of the marital problems facing my sister and absent brother-in-law, and laughed at my daughter’s antics. My dad and sister washed the dishes, my wife put our daughter to bed, my mother laid down, and I sat on the couch and shook my head in wonder.

I was so pleased with the Thanksgiving dinner we saved from potential oblivion that the next day I happily dialed up a good friend. I hadn't talked to this friend in many months, and would have been a little nervous calling him. After the miracle of an enjoyable Thanksgiving, however, I felt no fear. I wished my friend a happy day after thanksgiving with great vim and vigor. It didn't bother me that he sounded like he just woke up. Turns out, he was talking that way because he didn't want to disturb the police. He was also struggling to hold back his tears. That morning he checked in on a friend that hadn't been around for a couple of days. Turns out that my friend's friend was lying dead on the floor. I apologized and asked him how he was. I continued apologizing and inquiring until he said the Police had to talk with him. I said OK. Neither one of us said goodbye. I called two hours later to check in. I tried to invite him to my parents’ house or me to his. He declined my invitation. He may call back before I leave for home, or I may never talk to him again. My call wasn't very successful, but so what? This year’s Thanksgiving lesson is still all about the benefits of occasionally taking silly risks. Silly risks won’t always pay off, but there isn't always chocolate on the floor of your car either.

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