The following is from a novel-in-progress titled Text Messages. This is a Chapter called Family At Thanksgiving. The book is largely set in Connecticut, where I lived for nine years. It is about Barry Woods, an author who is divorced but maintains contact with my ex, Lydia who comes each year to be with the Children, their families and their nieces and nephews, the children of Barry’s deceased brothers.
Family At Thanksgiving
Sherry and Brenda both pushed away, figuring their father might at least understand that much of their dissatisfaction. Then each of them exited his study just as Lydia arrived at the doorway. She knocked in due respect for her former husband’s sanctuary. Even though the door was wide open the room was as dark and uninviting to her as it had ever been.
“Come in,” Barry said.
“I prefer not,” Lydia replied.
“Have it your way. You usually do.”
“I’ll not grace that remark with comment.”
“Ah but you just did.”
“It’s a weakness I have.”
“Always wanting the last word. Yes, I remember. Anyway, I’m glad you could make it,” Barry said.
“Mostly I believe that.” She smiled.
“You should because mostly it’s true.”
“Well, you are full of surprises today! This is probably the longest you have ever spoken with your daughters.”
“We used to talk a lot,” Barry protested.
“You spoke to them separately,” Lydia said. “Hardly ever together.”
“It was in the interest of self preservation. They’ve always ganged up on me whenever they had the chance.”
Lydia laughed. “They are my daughters, too.”
“Is it instinct or did you teach them? Hell, for all I know you might have even put them up to it this time around.”
“Who me? You know that’s not my style.”
“You’re right. You’re more about direct confrontation. You never needed a proxy.”
“Whatever is necessary whether I enjoy it or not.”
“Anyway, I used to read to them. They were together in the same room then. So it wasn’t like I was always treating them separately. I used to read to Tim along with them. Then after he’d nodded off I scooped him up and carried him to his room and tucked him in.”
“When they were really little. After Tim was in school you handled him separately.”
“Was that a mistake?”
“Maybe it was. I know you made up stories to tell the girls. I don’t think you ever did that for Tim.”
“I did it for all of them. But the types of stories were different. A father and his son have distinct bond but a man and each of his daughters has a relationship. I didn’t want to reveal any secrets about one to the other.”
Lydia smiled. “That’s good. It’s a lot of bullshit but it’s sounds pretty good.”
“I’m glad you approve.”
“I didn’t say I approved.”
“Oh, there it is!”
“Oh, yes. The dreaded shrug,” Barry said. “I’d almost forgotten how much it irritates you.”
“I doubt you forgot except for maybe how much you enjoy doing it. So, how are my two beautiful daughters doing? I’ve barely talked to them all year.” She shifted the subject to avoid further confrontation.
“They’re fine,” Barry offered. “They’re always fine. How’d you sleep?”
“Actually, I slept very well. I was honored that I got to sleep in my old bed.”
“I changed the sheets and comforter,” Barry said. “I even dragged your favorite pillow out of storage and washed it especially for the occasion.”
“Your daughters and I were just talking about some things, the past and all that.”
“Well I wondered where everyone was,” Lydia said. “I saw Tim and Cindy in the hallway upstairs. Billy called me Gram. That was irritating but I guess it’s to be expected. His hugs are worth allowing him to call me that.”
“Where are the others?” Barry asked.
“The smokers are where they usually are this time of day, puffing away on the back deck. But I sort of expected to find my daughters in the kitchen amending the caterer’s recipe for mashed potatoes.”
“Actually I should probably do that before he serves.”
“I think the girls will handle it.”
“So, where all did you look. You had to expect the girls would be talking with me?”
“Well this should have been the first place I looked. Apparently your daughters have learned to look here. It has always been your sanctuary, ‘the room’ as they call it. More like ‘the tomb’. Why does it need to always be so dark?”
“I’m no fond of the sun, unless I’m outside. That’s where the sun belongs. In fact, when Sherry came looking, that was where I was – outside.”
“Whatever for? It’s frigid.”
“Your blood has thinned living in Phoenix.”
“You haven’t taken up smoking again, have you?”
“No. I just needed to clear my head. The cold helps.”
“I really think I should check on things.” He brushed past his ex-wife to immediately exit ‘the room’, growling a little in the process.
“What was that?” she asked but he didn’t respond. Instead of answering he continued on his way, pausing first with the caterer’s staff to inquire when dinner would be served, then briefly checking the amendments his daughters were already in the process of making to the trays of mashed potatoes, something they did every year and it always required a handheld mixer toward the end.
One of the caterers began to protest but Barry halted him. “It’s fine,” Barry said. “It’s a good thing. You should ask them for the recipe.”
“Perhaps I will,” he said.
“Have a taste when they’re done,” Barry said over his shoulder as he departed the kitchen, passing the dinette and opened the French doors to exit out to the redwood deck, joining the smokers of the family. He nodded to each as he said hello to one and all then individually by name, impressing a couple of them that he even recalled as he rarely talked to any of them, only on the sporadic occasions when he called his daughters were not home.
“Aren’t you cold?” Brenda’s husband Roscoe asked.
“Not at all,” Barry said. “Are you?”
“Is it, now? Then why are you out here? Oh yes, the need to smoke. How insane is that?”
Roscoe stared at his father-in-law, mostly wondering what could possibly be wrong with him. Was he playing tough guy again, seeming impervious to the elements.
“It’s all in the mind,” Barry said looking directly at him, giving him the eerie feeling once more than Barry could read his mind. The wry smile then turned to a hearty laugh as he leaned over the deck railing, appraising the blanket of snow covering the backyard, pointing to tiny tracks left by squirrels and rabbits.
Almost in unison, the others suddenly decided to extinguish their butts. None of them wanted to deal directly with their father-in-law or uncle as the case might be.
“No coals on the deck,” Barry warned. Even though his back was turned to them. “Against the shoe soles.” Each of them responded per instruction and then, butts in hand, they began looking for a can.
“It’s at the end of the deck,” Barry directed. “Behind the kitchen alcove. I should have put it out where everyone could find it but I guess I was hoping that all of you would have quit the nasty habit by now.”
“That’s actually pretty damned creepy, Mr. Woods,” Winston, Sherry’s recently newlywed husband said as he passed by en route to returning to the warmth and comfort inside. “Are you a mentalist?”
Barry laughed as he turned to face his youngest son-in-law. “I’m a writer, as you know. We’re often accused of being mental but hardly ever mentalists. It’s a trick.”
“I see. “
“And actually, since the wedding you’ve been allowed to call me Dad. You’re soon to be the father of one of my grandchildren. That gives you permission automatically.”
“Dinner is served,” The lead caterer held opened the door for his announcement prompting everyone to begin filing inside.
“I’m starving,” Winston said, bowing his head but quickly moving away from what was a most uncomfortable encounter with his father-in-law. He was headed for the washroom to rid the smell of nicotine from his fingers before eating.
As he arrived he had to wait on first Roscoe and then one of the cousins who had forgotten that the house had five bathrooms and three washrooms. Winston had an excuse, at least. This was his first Thanksgiving with the Woods family.
Barry chuckled to himself as he remained on the deck. He might have even been amused if he had followed behind Winston. He could have made him even more uncomfortable standing behind him as he waited just as needlessly in line to wash his hands.
“Dad, what is wrong with you?” Tim asked as he poked his head out the door. “It’s cold as Hell!”
“Have you ever explored the irony contained in that expression? By other accounts Hell is pretty damned hot.”
“Well, you never know. There are levels, right? At least one should be extremely cold.”
“I suppose it’s all according to which torment would best suit you for eternal condemnation for your sins against God…but not Mankind.”
“Why not Mankind? Do you think we are somehow more forgiving?”
“No, certainly not; not at all. With people I think it’s more about apathy. Sin is nothing special where people are concerned. We do it without thinking, much like breathing. Forgiveness is the alien concept. Even when you figure that out and fully intend to forgive it doesn’t mean you forget so whenever you are reminded of the transgression the previously offered forgiveness instantly vanishes.”
“Not to get all bogged down in another discussion of philosophy and religion with you but don’t you think that a sin against Mankind may actually at least irritate God?”
“You may have a point.”
“But, Dad, honestly! You are out here contemplating sin and forgiveness in a silk shirt and jeans! It’s well below freezing.”
“Around ten degrees, give or take.”
“That’s my point.”
“Look at it this way. At least I’m dressed,” Barry said as he passed by his son to stand just inside the door as Tim closed it, shutting the cold air outside where it belonged.
“Everyone else is probably piling food on their plates waiting in great anticipation of whatever it is that you want to tell us before we all dig in.”
“Tell them to enjoy the moment and wait on Winston.” He pointed. “He doesn’t know where the other washrooms are.”
“You could have at least told him.” Tim nodded in acknowledgement as Winston turned to see why his name was being discussed.
“So could Sherry. She knows the secret.”
“You have a point there.”
“See, now who was cruel to him, me or his own wife?”
“She probably didn’t think to tell him. Marriage is still new to her. And she’s distracted, you know – seeing everyone again.”
“You’re probably right. They haven’t been married long enough for her to have intentionally omitted telling him something useful. Are you coming?”
“Right behind you. I’m starving.”
“Uh, Winston. Follow me.” Barry grabbed his son-in-law’s sleeve in passing. Winston obeyed. “There’s a private washroom in my study, two sink bowls and a toilet. I never understood the need for two washbowls until the first Thanksgiving that we had in this house for more people than just Lydia, the kids and me.”
“I got the one in the garage,” Tim excused himself. “Oh, and Winston…by the way Dad is being an horrendous smart ass today. It’s not just you.”
“Yeah, I sort of got that.”
“He probably likes you.”
“Now you’ve destroyed everything I’ve been working on up to this point.” Barry shook his head but then patted Winston on the back as he ushered him toward a bookcase that was directly behind the large oak desk, “You have to slide out ‘War and Peace’ at the same time as ‘Sirens of Titan’,” Barry revealed the secret. “The books are alphabetical by author.”
“Odd combination, Tolstoy and Vonnegut.”
“It was close enough for the books to work with the concealed latch.”
“Does everyone know?”
“Tim does,” Barry said. “He’s a guy so I had no problem with him leaving the damned toilet seat up. And your wife knows. She discovered it on her own. I have no idea why she wanted to pull all the books on that shelf at the same time.”
Winston chuckled. “How old was she?”
“Ten, I think. You know why men don’t like to squat to pee in a toilet, right?”
“Uh, it’s unnatural?”
“No, the water’s too damned cold,” Barry said.
“Too deep too,” Winston added.
“I’m beginning to really like you, son.”
“I’d hope so. It’s been several months.”
Tim lingered outside the door of Barry’s study, having washed his hands he thought it might be best to wait for Winston and Dad. When Barry emerged he faced his son, “Are you ready to eat?”
“Yeah, just I need to talk to you about something important. It can wait though.”
“Okay,” Barry said as he focused on his son’s face and read concern. He even knew what it was about, largely anyway. Then Barry turned back to gather his youngest son-in-law. “Come on, if you delay too long with this crowd you’ll have to stop somewhere on the way home to pick up something to eat.”
“It’s not that bad,” Tim said to Winston as the two young men followed Barry into the dining room. “There’s always leftovers.”
“And more mouths to feed,” Barry said as he glanced around the table. “Isn’t that right? I’ll have to get a bigger table soon.”
“Jeeze, Dad. I don’t even know how to respond to that,” Brenda said.
Barry paused at the head of the table. “I love this time of the year. Thanksgiving is really the only time we are all here together as a family and test whether our bonds are stronger than our dysfunction.”
“We have other family ties,” Tim said. “Sometimes it hard for us to be here and not there.”
“And I get that. I appreciate your coming here and honoring my request because I know you have other options. But I figure at Christmas time you can spend time with the other side of your families.”
“What do you do for Christmas?” Winston asked.
“No! Why did you ask?” Tim cringed.
“I’ll tell you later. Everyone’s waiting to eat,” Barry responded.
“Let’s eat, then!” Tim added.
Winston smiled in response but he reserved the right to still worry about his father-in-law even though Sherry had told him in complete confidence what Barry did every Christmas Day since Lydia moved out. He even thought it was perhaps one of the more endearing qualities and the fact that he did it anonymously gave his children and their spouses more cause to love and respect the patriarch of their extended family even more. He didn’t play Santa but instead became a surrogate.
Barry waited for everyone to be seated at the table before he began. “And here we are again, all of you.” He paused long enough to meet the eyes of everyone around the table but his eyes finally focused on Tim who was seated between Cindy, his wife, and Sherry, his baby sister. Then he glanced toward Winston who was seated to Sherry’s right on the other side of little Lydia, Brenda’s daughter who was using a booster chair but insisted on sitting close to her gram, finally old enough to eat at the ‘big people’s’ table.
Suddenly a cup scooted across the floor and Winston scooped it up and handed it to Brenda who begged forgiveness of her daughter exuberance.
“It happens. She’s excited, as well she should be,” Barry said. “I know I’m excited and very grateful for this day of thanks and sharing everything about our great and constantly growing family. I know and appreciate the personal sacrifices involved in assembling us together for another year here in my home. Once again Tim and his wonderful wife Cindy have brought their family here from the west coast to join us, making their effort the greatest distance. I really do appreciate all of you being here. I have always wanted for this to be about us. We are missing a few usual members of the gathering. Let us not forget to remember Kenneth and Bart who are serving in the United States Marine Corps. May God protect them and bring them home to us soon.”
He paused for several moments while everyone, even the children, reflected on his words.
“I know there are some hardships in coming here year after year.”
“Mostly, it’s cold here,” Tim interrupted to complain.
“But here you can dress for it,” Barry said in response as he smiled at his only son. “California is another matter entirely. It’s far too cold there in many places during the summer. It’s just people from the rest of the country don’t realize it until they get there.”
Tim glanced at his wife as she slipped her hand into his. She had never been comfortable with being singled out every year at the family gathering but she still appreciated everything what Barry had done for her, even those few times he had sent her some money to pay bills or buy things for the kids, unbeknownst to Tim.
“I know everyone’s hungry,” Barry said. “That’s some of what this holiday’s about. But I think it’s mainly about being together and being thankful in knowing who you can count on when you can’t count on anyone else.”
Barry looked around the room. Every eye was focused on him to a person except for some of the youngest ones of the Woods tribe. Each of his children and his nieces and nephews knew full well that without his nudge and support at times they would have struggled more often and failed many more times. Still Barry never once asked them for anything in return except flying or driving to Connecticut each year at Thanksgiving so he could see the ever-burgeoning assemblage of his and his two deceased siblings’ progeny.
“I guess I need to tell you that there is no one in this room that I don’t love, admire and adore. I’m very thankful for having the privilege to know each one of you. I mean that from the bottom of my heart and depths of my soul. We are truly blessed to be together on this one day and I thank God for the gifts of this life we share.” He paused as he looked around the table at all the faces and bright eyes, some of them welling tears. “Other than that just eat until you can’t eat anymore! There’s always enough for everyone!”
Brenda and Sherry smiled as their father sat down, they each took the hands of their chosen partners in life and were gratified when Barry made eye contact with first one and then the other, including their spouses.
Each of them waited in anticipation that maybe this was the first time in a long time that their father would eat dinner with them. But then he stood up and walked around the table, ensuring that everyone was satisfied with the quality if not the enormity of the spread. Then he excused himself from the room, just as he always had for the past few years.
But for the first time it was Tim who stood up, not the usual suspect in condemnation of Barry’s inexplicably consistent behavior. In passing Tim leaned over and whispered in his mother’s ear. “I got it, this time you can stay and eat.”
#family #thanksgiving #dysfunction #writing #story