by Deanne Wilsted
Starter –Toasted Family Topped with Disappointment Tapenade
As Boston blew its icy November wind through the double paned windows in Cynthia Madison’s downtown apartment, she wrapped her faux cheetah throw around her shoulders and snuggled deeper into the soft suede sofa by her fireplace. The crackling flame threw off heat, but not enough to offset the chill of panic that had come to rest in Cynthia’s body. She stared with unseeing eyes at the calendar in her lap and wondered how Thanksgiving had snuck up on her this year.
Glancing at the nearby phone, she considered her choices. Was there anyone available who might invite her to join them for the holiday? Her mind was empty of options. All of her friends were travelling, and she was currently between boyfriends; something that was unusual for her in general and absolutely so during the holidays. Usually she depended on using her boyfriend as an excuse to avoid the very dilemma she now found herself in. Annoyed with herself for having forgotten to plan better, she contemplated her only option other than staying home alone: This year she would have to accept her sister Erin’s invitation to their family Thanksgiving. Typically, she avoided her family like the plague.
Her younger sister Erin spent all of her time flying around the world for work. So much so, in fact, that when her husband used the term colleague she didn’t realize it was with a very different definition than you’d find in Webster’s dictionary.
Meanwhile, her father had to actually check through his carry-on bag simply so he could bring along his own gallon jugs of vodka.
Her opinionated grandmother spent all of her time commenting, in the most ungracious terms, on the state of the world and her family.
And finally, there was Cynthia’s older sister Isabelle, the one person in the family Cynthia had always relied upon to keep things in perspective for her. But she knew this was no longer an option. Isabelle had struggled simply to manage her own life and her five year old twins for two years now; ever since her husband’s death.
Family time in this environment would have been overwhelming to anyone. But for someone who insisted on an ordered life, it required a double martini to get through. Rather than turn out like her father though, Cynthia had preferred to simply avoid all family occasions. She’d been rather good at doing this for years now. So it must have been a very strong cosmic force that was bringing her to the Thanksgiving table this year.
She picked up the phone to call Isabelle. The only good part of attending the family Thanksgiving would be getting to see her, even if she was pulled in twenty other directions at the same time. It wouldn’t be enough to make up for the angst that lingered long after spending time with her family, but it was better than sitting in her condo eating a microwave turkey dinner alone.
Pallet Cleanser – Sorbet of Three Kinds of Confusion
Having only just arrived at Erin’s home, Cynthia watched the chaos already kick-off right in front of her. Isabelle lunged for her son before he could skid into a large cloisonné vase Erin must have picked up on her last trip to China.
“Sam red light! Red light!”
Moments later Isabelle’s other child, Lily, almost completed her twin’s averted destruction. Closing her eyes, Cynthia waited for the crash to come, knowing it would create the first of many arguments about child rearing between her sisters. Strangely, the sound never came.
She peeked through spread fingers to see what had happened and found herself staring into deep grey eyes framed by long black lashes. The eyes belonged to a scruffy looking guy who could have stepped off the pages of GQ magazine. He was about Cynthia’s age and held her niece, Lily, under one arm like a piece of luggage. His tall frame stood at least four inches over Cynthia; a feat considering she was five-foot-nine. Cynthia guessed if not a model, he was probably a professional snowboarder or maybe a Wall Street investor, even a college professor; and certainly a Roman God. Lily’s short five-year-old legs dangled four feet off the ground. He flicked his head to throw back the unruly brown curls that had fallen into his long face and smiled, first at Cynthia and then over at Isabelle.
“Another disaster averted,” he said with a laugh. Isabelle smiled back at him, and making sure her son was stationary, let go of his hand.
What was going on? Her sister hadn’t mentioned she was finally dating someone. She raised her eyebrows in silent question but her sister smiled enigmatically and shook her head.
“This is my sister Cynthia,” Isabelle introduced.
Tanned, long fingers released Lily carefully, placing her on her feet with a pat on the head, and then extended out toward Cynthia. “Very nice to finally meet you,” he said.
“Yes.” For once in her life Cynthia was at a loss for words.
“And this,” Isabelle told Cynthia as his strong, warm fingers engulfed hers, “is our new nanny, Jack.”
Main – Roast Chaos Stuffed with a Mélange of Stress, Humor, and Hope
By the time Cynthia had stored her stuff and made it to the kitchen twenty minutes later, the cooking was already in full swing. She found a corner where she could prop herself and allowed the activity to flow around her.
“So, I told the Prime Minister that time was too short to worry about whether the moon was waxing or waning.” Erin was entertaining the room with her latest international exploits.
Cynthia tried not to roll her eyes. Erin’s bragging affected her in multiple ways; one part of her wanted to laugh at it, while the other part couldn’t help but feel inadequate in comparison. She thought of her own last business meeting, a torturous thirty minutes in a stuffy boardroom arguing about the merits of using the word sweat in an advertisement for ladies underwear.
“Interestingly enough,” she heard Jack interject from his spot across the kitchen, “some researchers believe the waxing and waning moon can indeed affect emotions, mental capacity and even fertility.”
He stood at the sink snapping green beans like Gordon Ramsey in Hell’s Kitchen. Cynthia scanned the cold, metallic, sterile white kitchen. It was a perfect backdrop to his endeavor. He could have easily been a world famous chef there.
Lost in her internal world as usual, Erin didn’t seem to hear what Jack had said. But Cynthia found the comment intriguing. She had never imagined a nanny would be so articulate and worldly.
“That’s hogwash.” Her nana’s authoritative voice cut in from the doorway. “The only thing that affects fertility is a little hoo ha. That’s what I’ve been telling Erin. How’s she ever going to have kids if she’s never home to have sex?”
Ouch! Nana certainly knew how to go for the jugular. Cynthia desperately tried to come up with an escape for Erin, but it turned out to be Jack that saved her.
“Ha… but that’s assuming her trips are all business. For all we know, she might be having plenty of fun on those trips of hers.” He winked at Erin. It was just enough humor to break through Erin’s tension. The irony of it being Erin, rather than her husband, having an affair, wasn’t lost on Cynthia’s grandmother who doubled over in laughter.
“Too bad I’m not a little younger,” she told Jack when she could speak again. “We’d make a good pair.”
Nana took her iced tea, which even from across the room had a distinct scent of whiskey to it, and left; probably to find someone else to plague.
It became clear, a few hours later, that dinner was still a loooong way off. Cynthia wasn’t sure why, but Erin’s meal planning apparently hadn’t counted on having a drunk father and grandmother, who each took turns destroying whichever dish they insisted on helping with.
At one point, Nana had decided the sisters knew nothing about making gravy and pushed them aside to “show them how it was done in the olden days”. Unless historic recipes called for whiskey spilt from the chef’s drink, Cynthia couldn’t imagine it was an accurate representation.
It didn’t take much coercion to convince their grandmother to pour herself a new drink, allowing Erin and Cynthia to sneak back over and try to fix what they could of the gravy. No matter what they tried, however, the gravy at this point would not thicken. Corn starch? Nope. Flour? As if!
Erin and Cynthia were at a loss and wanted to ask Isabelle. Unfortunately her hands were full keeping track of Lily and Sam, who having finished their quiet time, seemed determined to hold their mom’s attention by any means necessary. Most recently this had resulted in four green bean pods being pulled from Lily’s nostrils where her brother had stuffed them before getting caught.
Cynthia was impressed by Jack’s quick thinking when he stole a bunch of the runny brown gravy and gave it to the kids. He let the kids go at it in a bowl, providing all kinds of random ingredients from the pantry. They might have been starving, but at least they were now amused.
Meanwhile, Dad was determined to carve the turkey. Isabelle must have noticed Cynthia’s panicked expression when Erin prepared to hand over the sharp carving knife to someone who had just polished off four large martinis. “Jack, would you do the honors,” Isabelle asked, intercepting the hand off.
Undaunted by Jack’s obvious carving skill, not to mention pointy knife, their dad stood over him, directing every slice.
“Do you smell smoke?” Erin asked, her voice climbing an octave.
They all stared at the oven where smoke was leaking into the room like dry ice from a Halloween cauldron. Cynthia opened the oven door and jumped backward to avoid the billowing cloud that erupted. Inside the oven, a pan of yams with marshmallows on top looked like a beach bonfire.
Adding insult to injury, the smoke detector began to wail as if the whole house was ready to burst into flames. Pandemonium erupted as Jack and Isabelle pulled the kids from the room and Erin began fanning the smoke detector with a dishtowel. Apparently glad for the chance to take over carving, her dad ignored the mayhem and picked up the knife with the hand not holding his drink.
“Oh my God! Nana, are you okay?” Cynthia realized she was the only one to have noticed her grandmother fall in the doorway.
“Get away, you’ll ruin it,” Nana shouted as Cynthia leaned over to try to help her up. “I want the firemen to give me mouth to mouth.”
Heat rose in Cynthia’s cheeks as she realized Jack had heard Nana’s excuse. What must he think of her crazy family? The glimmer in his eye gave away that it wasn’t what she’d expected.
Go for it, he mouthed.
The dare took hold. Cynthia lay down next to her grandmother and smiled over at her.
“You’ll have to share,” she told her.
Sides – Mashed Fingers, Whipped Courage, and Sweet Flirtation Sauce
Cynthia watched her sisters’ kids chase each other around the perfectly set family Thanksgiving table and blinked back sudden tears. God! What if she’d missed this family holiday like all the others?
Her eyes found Jack’s steady, happy gaze and the argument Erin and her dad were having faded away. Her brother-in-law’s attempt to play footsie under the table disappeared. The burnt turkey, curdled gravy, runny cranberries, and lumpy mashed potatoes lost their history and floated into a collage of colors rather than mistakes. The nanny’s gray eyes should have reminded Cynthia of the storm around her, but instead reflected his calm and humor. They shared the knowledge that in a world of lunacy, life could still be fun. Her day hadn’t started that way, but this Thanksgiving Cynthia had found a well-spring of gratitude she hadn’t even known existed.
What on earth had ever made her restrict herself to dating guys with advanced degrees? It had been a very specific rule she’d made for herself, and now as she watched Jack pull Lily over to his side and wipe her mouth before she made another lap of the table, Cynthia couldn’t imagine why.
Jack neatly caught her grandmother’s wineglass, which she’d drunkenly placed on the edge of her plate, before it spilled a drop on Erin’s handmade Italian lace tablecloth. Meanwhile, he diverted the conversation to soccer, something her father followed but wasn’t passionate enough about to cause any fights. Only a circus juggler could have been better at keeping so many disparate balls in the air. Cynthia’s shoulders relaxed even as butterflies played hockey in her stomach.
At the head of the table, Cynthia’s brother-in-law, Steve, eyed Jack suspiciously. The fact that all of the women, including the colleague that he’d invited, were paying more attention to Jack than to him must have been driving him crazy.
Ignoring the girl’s attempts to flirt with him, Cynthia felt Jack’s eyes fasten on her. He answered Cynthia’s questioning smile with a teasing wink, giving her confidence to make her own move.
The next time her brother-in-law’s foot accidently found its way up her thigh, she aimed her stiletto heel and got him in the calf.
Dessert – Gratitude Pie
Dinner was over and the drunks and children had gone to bed. Her brother-in-law had left to drive his colleague home, and Erin and Isabelle were in the living room debriefing over Irish coffees. Like soldiers left standing, Cynthia and Jack were trying to put Erin’s kitchen back to its original pristine order.
“I have a good idea,” Jack said handing her a pot to dry.
“Hmmm,” she answered distractedly. Alone at last, there was so much she wanted to find out about Jack, so much she wanted to tell him, that Cynthia felt overwhelmed. His humor and easy-going interference had allowed her to actually appreciate her family for the first time in many years. Her fingers ached, not only with the need to touch him, hold him, but also with the desire to physically reach into him and extract answers about who he was… why he was.
“Don’t you want to hear it?” he asked with a wicked grin that lit Cynthia’s insides like an Olympic torch.
It was on the tip of her tongue: Yeah, I have a good idea, too. Let’s live happily ever after. What came out of her mouth though was a cautious, “Yessss?”
“Yep,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows. “How about we finish these dishes, then go outside and play fireman?”
Something loosened in Cynthia’s chest and wound its way through her body, along her arms and into her hands which suddenly felt purposeful in a brand new way. She sought to identify the feeling rushing through her. It felt like honesty. It felt like hope. It felt like love. But most of all, it felt like Thanksgiving.