My mother also, however, has a blind spot where certain people are concerned. She doesn't seem to get that sometimes there's a very good reason why some people have no place to go for the holidays. The reason is that they are unpleasant freaks.
We’ve had a parade of freaks for Thanksgiving dinner over the years, and for some reason that is entirely unclear to me, they usually wind up getting upset with me. When I was in high school, my mom invited the old guy who yelled at me for being ungrateful because I didn't want a scoop of turnips. Then in college a couple took turns scolding me because I dared to say something nice about Bill Clinton (this was pre-Monica Lewinsky even) in the middle of their Reagan praising. Oh, and they had also brought their son along because they wanted to set me up with him. Their Republican son who said he hated books but really loved football and his snowmobile. We were a match made in heaven.
We also had the freak couple from my parents’ church over a couple of years in a row. The first year, Ernestine brought sweet potatoes made with chunks of canned pineapple and told me all about dancing at her church, as she’d heard that I was taking belly dancing lessons. Wouldn’t I like to join in? The following year her husband Dick tried to get me to watch a missionary video with him about growing vegetables in Central America with prayer (I happened to work for a nonprofit at the time that worked with farmers in Central America to help them grow vegetables with SEEDS). I politely declined to watch the video with him, but no matter. He told me all about it over dinner and seemed gravely concerned that I didn’t want to watch this video with him. He and his wife were also bickering because he’d gone hunting that morning, and he wasn’t wearing clean clothes.
After the miracle vegetable Thanksgiving I told my mom that I’d had enough. Either she was going to stop inviting freaks over for dinner or I wasn’t coming home for Thanksgiving anymore. My dad hadn’t enjoyed the day much either, so he said that he thought that it was a good idea. Begrudgingly my mother relented. “OK,” she sighed. “I won’t invite anyone to dinner next year. Thanksgiving is supposed to be about friends and family, but I guess we will just be on our own next year.”
Phew. Relief all around.
The following Thanksgiving I drove up to New Hampshire after a four-day conference for my job. It was the first one I’d been to, and I had been non-stop nice to hundreds of people, shaking hands, hosting a cocktail party, making connections, smiling, smiling, always smiling for days on end. By the time I’d gotten in the car to go to Thanksgiving, I hated the human race. I comforted myself with the thought that this year, there would be no freaks at our house.
I arrived home, and my mom and sister were in the kitchen making pies. I gave them both big hugs, and my dad and brother-in-law joined us in the kitchen. We started catching up. I told them about the conference, and I thanked my mom again for not inviting anyone strange to dinner. “I’m so happy that it is just going to be us. After that conference, I don’t think that I could be trusted to hold my tongue with the likes of Ernestine and Dick.”
My mother looked down at the apples she was slicing. Off to the other room went my sister and brother-in-law. My dad looked pained. “You didn’t tell her,” he said.
I sucked in my breath. “Didn’t tell me what?”
“Well, honey, I did invite someone. A couple. The Brunts. They have no place to go; I guess Donna’s daughter doesn’t want to have them over for Thanksgiving, and they were telling me just how much they missed Thanksgiving with other people. What was I supposed to do?”
“Oh, I don’t know, change the subject?” I said. “Come on, Mom. For the past ten years, we’ve had nothing but a steady stream of freaks. None of us ever enjoys the dinner, and someone almost always yells at me. Or tries to set me up with their freak son. Or tells me how to grow vegetables with prayer.”
“You liked Mrs. Emerson and Ed.”
“Yes, I did like Mrs. Emerson. I’m sorry she died. Ed is a hoot. Why didn’t you invite Ed? Who are these people?”
“Well, they are nice. She’s a little strange. She wears a head covering. They have a Chihuahua who will be coming with them.”
“They are bringing a yippy dog to Thanksgiving?”
“Well, yes, I said they could. The dog’s name is Nugget, and Donna has a little playpen for him. You’ll like them. They are nice. He seems normal enough. They run a camp in the summer.”
There really wasn’t much I could do at that point. She couldn’t really call them up and tell them not to come. I was pissed off, but I gave my saintly mother a hug and promised that I’d be good. She kissed my head and said that I always was.
Thanksgiving Day came, and we were busy getting everything ready. I had just put The Stuff (spinach and artichoke dip) in the oven and was setting the table when the doorbell rang. Wiping her hands on her apron, my mother headed for the door. She opened it and…
WHOOSH! In rushed this stout woman in her late fifties, wearing an Amish head covering and carrying a Chihuahua in a red jacket. Right behind her was a man in his early seventies. He was carrying a playpen and a quilted photo album. The woman didn’t stop to say hello, nice to meet you, the usual. She yelled, “I have to set up Nugget’s playpen that I got for $25 at the Goodwill!”
She yanked the playpen out of her husband’s grasp. Slap, slap, slap, up went the playpen. Off with the rodent’s little red jacket, and plop, the Nugget was in the playpen. “Yip! Yip! Yip!” went Nugget. I could hear Daisy, my parents’ dog, whining and scratching at the family room door. This made me hate Nugget. Why should our dog be in jail when this rodent got to be the star of the show?
Donna then grabbed the photo album out of her husband’s hands and motioned me over. “Here’s Nugget dressed like a princess. Here he is dressed as an angel. Isn’t he just precious?”
She continued to flip through the photo album. My, my, you are a strange bird, aren't you? I thought but didn't say. Instead I said, “Cute. I think I have to go check on something in the kitchen.”
Thank the good Lord for The Stuff. I got it out of the oven. My mother was working on the mashed potatoes, and she looked at me. I rolled my eyes at her and brought The Stuff out to the living room. I was alone with the Brunts. My sister was doing some cooking thing, and my father and brother-in-law were outside getting ready to fry the turkey.
Yet one more reason why I’m happy to be a vegetarian. My brother-in-law’s sister lives in the South, and one time she raved about fried turkey. So excited was my brother-in-law about fried turkey that my mother agreed to try it—ick
“Can I get you something to drink?” I said to the Brunts. Unfortunately there’s no booze in the house, my parents having converted to teetotaling Christianity in my youth. I certainly needed a drink right about then. “We have some punch, or I could get you some eggnog.”
They wanted punch, so I served it up. How in hell did I get stuck being the entertainment committee? Meanwhile the woman kept talking a blue streak, mostly about the dog. “Nugget has a healing ministry with the elderly.” A what???? The husband seemed to be fine with this talk, so I just said, “Oh?” and she went on to describe how Nugget was nice to old people. Nugget, meanwhile, was yapping away in his playpen, and I couldn’t see how he could minister to anyone but his rodent self. “Yes, he goes to them, and he sits with them, and plays with them, and the old people are so blessed.” She went on and on about how wonderful the dog was, and she got him out of his playpen so that I could get up close and personal with the rat. I smiled wanly and petted Nugget.
My mother and sister finally came out of the kitchen, and my dad and brother-in-law came in too. Donna regaled the rest of the family with the Nugget photo album and stories of his miraculous healing powers. Meanwhile the man said not a word. I don’t even think he said hello. He just sat on the couch and drank his punch and ate The Stuff. He was, however, kind of glaring at me. Perhaps he sensed my disbelief in the healing powers of Nugget. I wasn’t the only one, though. Dad and Brother-in-Law looked shell shocked by Donna’s chatter, and my sister was trying very hard not to laugh.
A bell dinged and my mother got up to go back into the kitchen. Donna followed, so I stayed in the living room. Daisy, our dog, somehow got out of the family room and ran into the living room to see what had taken over her turf. It was then that we learned that Nugget was not neutered.
Now Daisy is a small dog, a Jack Russell terrier. Normally she is out-sized by just about every dog on the planet. Not Nugget, but he didn’t let that stop him. He tried to mount Daisy, and Daisy then tried to kill Nugget. She turned on him and growled. Nugget tried again. I grabbed Daisy just before she went for the dog’s jugular (damn!) and put her back in the family room. I stayed with her a long time.
This is Daisy. She's cuter than Nugget
I could hear Donna babbling on in the kitchen, so I got my coat and went out to the back yard to join Dad and Brother-in-Law. “Holy crap,” I said. “Who are these people?” The oil was nearly hot enough to start on the bird.
“Perhaps we could deep fry Nugget,” my father suggested. We laughed nervously. How were we going to get through this dinner? Was she ever going to shut up?
I went back inside and helped bring things out to the table. When everything was ready, we sat down and my father said grace. Donna’s husband finally spoke. He told us the long, sad story of how his first wife died of diabetes some twenty years before. He was officiating someone else’s funeral when she died, and so he wasn’t with her. “I still feel bad about that,” he kept saying. My family expressed some condolences, and he continued with further details about her death over the mashed potatoes. “Yip yip yip” went Nugget, in an attempt to heal the situation.
I hadn’t said anything and was focusing on my dinner, but my Thanksgiving luck was still holding. This guy had it in for me. “Light cannot fellowship with darkness,” he decreed at the end of his story, staring pointedly at me. He was preparing a sermon; I could see it in his eyes. Here we go again. Why me? Is it so wrong to not have faith in dog healing?
So not only was this the most depressing Thanksgiving dinner ever, but I was also about to be yelled at again. The thing is, most people really like me. I’m warm, friendly, and I’m really good at masking what I really think. So I really cannot understand why every Thanksgiving guest we’d ever had wound up lecturing me or yelling at me. Is it because I’m a vegetarian? I thought, desperate for a theory. So I don’t eat turkey! I don’t make a big deal out of it—I’ve never once gone on about American meat-consumption habits or the treatment of animals. No one likes self-righteousness, and I really don’t care what other people eat. No matter, it still doesn’t meant that I’m going to hell. I’m not the one talking about my long-dead spouse to strangers on Thanksgiving. I steeled myself for the inevitable lecture, resolved to take it politely and not yell back at the guest.
But I was saved by Donna. With Mr. Brunt’s first wife now safely dead, she didn’t miss a beat. She carried on with the death theme, telling us all about her first husband, forty years her senior. “I met him when I was sixteen and working at the diner. He was fifty-six. He had a glass eye when he was younger, because he had played with knives. He learned not to do that.”
She married him a year after she met him, chattering on like it was the most normal thing in the world to do to marry someone nearly old enough to be your grandfather when you are seventeen. Because he thought that women should cover their hair, she started wearing the Amish thing after they were married. “He died of cancer. When he died, I had to get him a suit to burry him in. He’d never had one while he was alive.” Blah, blah, blah, blah... more about wife’s long-dead first spouse… blather, blather, blather.
By this point, my family and I were all staring at each other in something approaching awe. What, exactly, had happened? Here we were having Thanksgiving dinner, and our guests were talking about their long-dead spouses—in great detail. We even knew what kind of clothes they were buried in. Their Chihuahua was in a playpen in our living room, yipping away. Clearly this wasn’t normal.
Donna was still chattering away about old-man hubby, and no one else had said much of anything. Somehow, all this morbid talk began to strike me as very funny. My sister and brother-in-law were on the same wavelength, because I looked over at them, and they were both smirking and staring down at their mashed potatoes. Dad was eating very intently, and my mother had a nervous look on her face, like something was about to happen.
Donna meanwhile was going on and on about some story or other about the one-eyed husband, when she all of the sudden exclaimed, “Oh yes. That’s when the quadriplegic dwarf moved in with me after his wife left him for another man. He lived with us for four years.”
Come again? Dead spouses and cuckolded quadriplegic dwarves? I feel horrible saying this, but that did it. The bizarre scales had tipped. I started coughing and laughing into my napkin. I shot up from the table, and nearly knocking my dad over, I ran into the family room and shut the door. I was doubled-over convulsing with laughter. My sister was right behind me. We were both shaking our heads, tears streaming down our faces. “Dead people?” we gasped. “Nugget! Haa haa haa haa! Why did she mention the dwarf? What’s happening? I’m scared! Ha hahahahaha!”
My father soon joined us, looking stern. “Girls,” he said in his “I mean it” voice to his adult daughers. But his face cracked and he laughed too for a couple of seconds, doing this really funny little hee hee dance, kind of like the Twist. “OK,” he finally whispered. “Get it together.”
Deep centering breaths all around. Pursed lips. Don’t laugh. I went back in first, followed by my sister and Dad. “Sorry about that. I just needed to blow my nose.”
“Me too,” my sister said. My brother-in-law had his face in his hands, and he wouldn’t look up. My mother had a twinkle in her eye and mouthed the words “quadriplegic dwarf.” I looked at her imploringly, and she made her face stern. Donna’s husband looked a bit perturbed, but Donna didn’t seem to notice that anything had happened. She was still talking away.
After dinner, we cleared away the dishes, and I made coffee. My mom served the pies. Donna was still talking about the one-eyed dead husband. She was blathering on and on and then burst out with, “Oh! That’s right! I wanted to show you all something!”
She ran into the living room and came back with her purse. “Where is it?” she muttered, digging through her bag. “Oh here it is!”
Out came a vinyl change purse. She reached in and pulled out a grey-green glass eyeball. “This is my first husband’s glass eye! I keep it in my change purse! He keeps an eye on my money! Isn’t that great?” She started passing it around.
“WHAT?” A bite of pie fell out of someone’s mouth. There was no decorum—we had lost it. “This is your first husband’s glass eyeball?” I gasped incredulously. “Really?”
“Yes,” she said, beaming.
“Get out! That’s really it? That’s your first husband’s glass eyeball?”
My sister was laughing so hard that she was almost in tears. Brother-in-law was staring back down at his plate, and his shoulders were shaking. "Shoot," he said at one point.
“OK, Donna,” said her husband, looking annoyed with us. “I think they’ve had enough. Why don’t you eat your pie?”
Donna put the glass eye back in her purse and ate her dessert. We went out to the living room, and she started to talk again. She told us several more stories, including one about her niece falling into an old well. How much worse was this poor woman’s life going to get?
Right when everything was getting rather maudlin, with the niece in the well and all, Mr. Brunt suddenly got out of his chair and started dismantling the playpen. “I think it’s time we be off, Donna,” he said sternly. Donna looked disappointed but gathered up Nugget, still telling us stories. She put on Nugget’s red jacket and picked up her photo album. My mother went into the kitchen and came back with plates piled high with leftovers for them to take with them.
And just like that, they were gone.
My mother plopped down on the couch and sighed. We just all looked at each other.
“What was THAT?” I shouted, and we just started laughing. It was the most bizarre Thanksgiving ever.
“Nugget” was all anyone needed to say, and the laughter would start up again.
“That really happened. She showed us her dead husband’s glass eyeball. Oh my God. His EYEBALL! At dessert. On Thanksgiving.”
“Oh hee hee hee…”
“That’s IT!” I said when the laughter died down. “We aren’t doing this again. Ever. Right, Mom?”
“Yes. That’s it,” she sighed before laughing again. “Oh dear.”
Thing is, for her it wasn’t really it. Right around the next Thanksgiving, she said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about inviting so and so over…”
“NO!” we said. And that was that. We had a peaceful dinner that year, free of freaks.