The casserole dishes are half-empty. The gravy has grown cold. We polish off the seconds and thirds, more slowly now, taking our time. We are not ready for this meal to end.
This dining room is too small for six adults, plus a highchair. But we’ve squeezed ourselves in, folding chairs bumping against the wall, my leg uncomfortably positioned to avoid the table. Minor inconveniences that fade in comparison to the great comfort of being here, at this table, with these people.
“What are you thankful for?”
Count on Aunt Rosa to ask this every year. Technically, she’s not my aunt. She and Mom were the best of friends. Aunt Rosa peppers my childhood memories, never the main event, but always there—washing dishes after the holiday meals, on the porch speaking in a hushed voice while Mom swallowed tears, in the waiting room with me and Joe, playing cards while Mom was in surgery. And after, washing dishes after the funeral, on the porch speaking in hushed tones with me and Joe, while we let our tears fall.
“You first, Aunt Rosa,” I say.
“Well, I’m thankful to be surrounded by family here today. And I’m thankful for those adorable toes!” She leans over to jiggle the big toe of the fat toddler in the highchair “What are you thankful for, little one?”
Graziela is not really so little. She’s very plump for a two-year-old. “Peas!” she yells and smooshes another palmful into her already full mouth. Then she laughs, open mouthed, peas falling in wet globs to her plate.
“We are thankful for our daughter, Graziela,” Paul says.
“No matter how long or short of a time we have with her,” his husband says, “we’re thankful the state placed her in our home.”
Technically, Graziela is not their daughter. They’d like to adopt her but are also torn. The adoption will only go through if Graziela’s birthmother fails to meet the custody requirements. Paul and Ricki’s dreams only come true at the dissolution of another’s. They’ve been grappling with this for months.
“Peas!” Graziela adds.
“What are you thankful for, Marian?” Aunt Rosa asks.
“I’ve been waiting to tell you all.” Marian meets our eyes, one at a time, her secret ready to burst. “I got a job offer yesterday, and I’m going to take it!”
The table erupts in congratulations and questions. Marian beams through the answers. New company. No relocation. Better title. Better pay. Smaller team. Everything she’s been working for.
“I’m proud of you, little sister,” Ricki says.
Marian is not really his little sister. She’s his best friend’s sister.
During the clean years, when Burt can hold a job and a conversation, Ricki and Marian support him and prop him up, cross their fingers and hope he’ll stay. During the other years, like this one, Ricki and Marian cling together, united in their love for someone incapable of being a part of their lives.
I sneak away to the kitchen for a minute, put my hands on the sink, and take a deep breath. I’m genuinely happy for Marian and hate this flush of envy surging through me. I can’t hide it well, I know that. So I remove myself for a moment, to let it dissipate. It’s not like her life is perfect. Or like Paul and Ricki don’t face their own struggles. But seeing the happy marriage and prosperous career growth and all that abundance is like looking into a funhouse mirror, reflecting exactly that which I long for but can never seem to find.
I start of a pot of coffee brewing and pop the pies in the oven to warm. Might as well make myself useful while I hide.
“What are you thankful for, Lisa?” Aunt Rosa asks as I return.
“Joe is safe. That’s what I pray for every day and every night. He has a few days leave coming shortly, and then I will be thankful he’s home. And I’m thankful that his new position allows him a few days home every couple months now.”
“Nothing else?” Aunt Rosa asks.
Lisa turns red and looks at me.
I give a subtle shake “no.” I didn’t tell her.
She looks back to Aunt Rosa and stammers, “Well, I’m thankful for many things.”
Aunt Rosa makes her all-knowing face. “If that’s how you want to play it, alright. I’ll pretend you’re not glowing. I’ll pretend you’re not drinking sparkling grape juice. I’ll pretend I see nothing.”
Paul, Ricki, and Marianna stare in astonishment. I look at my plate.
Finally, Lisa grins. “Nobody tell Joe! I want to tell him in person. I just need to wait two more weeks. But who wants to see the ultrasound?” She passes her phone around and we all comment on the black and white images, so lifelike and alien at the same time.
When the congratulations have quieted, Aunt Rosa turns to me. “What about you, Jamie? What are you thankful for?”
The room grows hot as I search from something decent to say. I consider lying, but they’ll all know it for a lie. No promotions or pregnancies here. My measly paycheck at my customer service job barely covers rent for an apartment I share with an inconsiderate roommate. I’ve gained another ten pounds of flab. I’m unwillingly single and suspect I may be forever. I cycle through the basic adulting checklist and fail to find even one checkbox to share.
I cast my eyes around the table.
Aunt Rosa, warm and loving with a door always open for me and Joe.
Graziela, with a child’s ability to love easily and quickly.
Paul and Ricki, enamored with their child and kind enough to truly struggle over her birthmother’s heartache.
Marian, whose own destructed family pushes her here, with us.
Lisa, waiting for my brother’s return, when she’ll present him with news that will make him cry with happiness.
My adulting checklist may be a mess, but this family-not-family of mine is perfect. Even if it hurts to be with them sometimes. Even if my envy chokes me. Even if, every year, their lives grow while mine stagnates. Even so, this family of not-family is the best thing in my life. This cramped dining room table is where I find comfort. It’s my home.
“I’m thankful for you guys.”
It’s my truest answer.