I sit on a barstool at the kitchen island, swinging my feet and staring off into space while the influx of family milled around me, chatter rising and falling in volume, punctuated here and there by laughter. I can smell the turkey cooking, and the pecan pie sits on an oven mitt in front of me, covered by tinfoil. Even though I don’t like either of those foods, I’m not a heathen. I can still appreciate the smells. After all, for as long as I can remember, those have been the smells of family Thanksgivings, just like the loud murmur of voices has always been the soundtrack for everything the holiday has to offer, good and bad alike.
The good years mostly happened when I was a young child. Back then, before Mom and Dad found Jesus and Dad found a girlfriend, we had happy Thanksgivings with lots of family coming into town to join us. My cousins and I played football in the yard, we wrote things we were grateful for on paper leaves, and we didn’t talk about family or national politics.
The bad years mostly happened in my teens and now they continue into my admittedly short adulthood. After my parents found Jesus when I was in Junior High and started enacting strict rules on everyone, Thanksgiving started to feel more like a prayer service here than a family celebration. The cousins stopped coming around, and then the other extended family made excuses, and then Dad had an affair with Janine from three blocks down and that kind of ended any chance of a reunited happy Thanksgiving, if it wasn’t ruined already. Personally, I’ve always held that things started going downhill the last year Aunt Irene visited, which was the year I was fifteen. No one has seen her at any family events since, and I don’t blame her, especially now that I’m facing down the same family that rejected her that year.
The debacle involving Aunt Irene and her unofficial expulsion from the family is a bit complicated, but in a nutshell, it came out that old-unmarried-and-assumed-to-be-spinster Aunt Irene was in fact gay, a fact which shocked everyone and was decidedly not okay with Mom or Dad. Naturally, they voiced these opinions loudly and firmly, with lines like “not around our child” and “Jesus wants you to repent.” This didn’t go over well with Irene, who looked to the rest of the family for support, only to find them silent and nervous. Aunt Irene, after a few more moments of bearing insults and receiving no support, took her handbag and departed. Upon her exit that Thanksgiving, no one in the family had been able to reach her.
Lately, I keep thinking about the incident, because it turns out that Aunt Irene is not the only one of our family to have an “abnormal attraction” to the same gender, she has me for company.
Recently I even wrote her a letter, explaining the situation I am in and asking for her advice. She never replied, so I’m on my own now, sitting on a barstool in a crowded kitchen and breathing in the smells of Thanksgiving that also remind me of the horrors that await me if my family finds out about my inclinations.
“Dinner’s ready!” Mom chirps, oven mitts on her hands and apron askew. There’s a surge of migration to the table. Aunt Lila organizes everyone into their assigned seats like a principal, Aunt Jodie passes around the plates, and Uncle Richard bears the turkey to the table to begin to carve it amidst the chaos. All this is new because this year, unlike the last several years, Thanksgiving is being held and Uncle Richard and Aunt Lila’s house because Dad decided that he wasn’t comfortable bringing Janine to his ex-wife’s house and this was the compromise.
“Nicolas, aren’t you going to sit at the table?” Mom tilts her head at me, clearly meaning it as a direction and not a question.
“Coming,” I tell her reluctantly. I slide off the stool and make my way to my seat at the table. When I turn back, she’s smoothing her hair and taking off her apron and smiling that fake smile of graciousness that she uses almost exclusively on family as she makes her way to her place. Across from me, Dad is holding Janine’s hand and makes an effort to smile at me, but I don’t respond. I’m beginning to wonder why I came today anyway, wishing now that I’d made some excuse instead of believing for some inept reason that it would be different this year.
Uncle Richard finishes carving a large portion of the turkey and lays down the knife.
“Let’s pray and give thanks,” Mom says, and again it’s clearly a command, no argument will be tolerated. Everyone begins to hold hands around the table awkwardly, some of us glancing at each other.
“Why don’t you say grace for us?” Mom instructs Uncle Richard, voice far too cheery to be authentic.
Uncle Richard bows his head obediently and clears his throat, but before he can start, there’s a loud knock at the door.
Aunt Lila shares an odd look with Aunt Jodie and says quickly, “I’ll get it.” She disappears towards the door.
Mom looks about. “Are we expecting anyone else?”
No one answers.
It’s a tapping sound on the kitchen floor that breaks the silence. We all look up to see Aunt Lila returning, and then everyone stares, because Aunt Irene is behind her, her walking stick tapping the floor harshly with each step. She’s drawn up tall, chin held high, and while she looks older, the lines on her face seem to accentuate the set of her jaw instead of weakening it.
Mom looks both confused and annoyed. “I didn’t know she was coming,” she says, looking pointedly at Aunt Lila, who ignores the look and the comment.
“I wasn’t going to come,” announces Aunt Irene, her mouth pinched into a sharp line. “But I decided it was time to make an appearance.”
“Humph,” Mom says eloquently. Aunt Irene glares at her.
“I invited her,” Aunt Lila informs all of us calmly. “I think it’s high time the past became the past.”
“Humph,” Mom intones again. Aunt Irene’s jaw tightens.
Aunt Jodie rises to her feet suddenly, runs around the table, and embraces her sister tightly. As if on cue, Uncle Richard rises as well and puts an arm around each Aunt gruffly. Aunt Lila looks on approvingly, and when they release Aunt Irene, she embraces her sister again.
“I’m glad you came,” she says, and her voice is shaky. Aunt Irene brushes away a tear.
“We owe you an apology,” Aunt Jodie says sincerely, putting her hand over her heart as if to calm it. “We are your siblings. We should have supported you, and instead we stood there and said nothing and then did nothing afterwards for years. We were all too stubborn to apologize, but we’re trying to apologize now.”
“I hope you can find a way to forgive us,” Aunt Lila says tearfully. “It’s never mattered who you love, we were just all too proud to admit we’d made a mistake.” Uncle Richard nods in agreement, putting an arm around his crying wife.
Aunt Irene coughs in an effort to stifle emotion and clears her throat repeatedly before speaking. “I forgave you a long time ago, of course, girls.” She coughs again. “I wish we would have done this years ago.”
Aunt Lila sobs harder, and Aunt Irene clomps over to her and hugs her again, pats her on the back, and says something we can’t hear.
A few of my older cousins join them and give hugs to Aunt Irene, who by now has lost the fight with her emotions and is crying silently.
I glance over at the only sister who hasn’t joined them, and I’m not surprised to see that my mother not only hasn’t moved, but also remains unemotional.
Aunt Lila and Aunt Jodie walk Aunt Irene to her seat, and as she is leaning her walking stick against the table, my father stands up across from her and extends his hand. She looks at him for a moment before she shakes it.
He says awkwardly, “I apologize as well. I said some things that were unkind the last time we met.”
“Thank you,” Aunt Irene says courteously, and she nods at Janine without malice, something most of the family can’t bring themselves to do. Seating herself imperiously, Aunt Irene looks about, everyone still silent, and when her eyes reach me, she stops.
“Thank you for your letter,” she says.
“Letter?” My mom breaks in, eyebrows raised. “What on Earth is she talking about, Nicolas?”
“God have mercy,” Mom continues, and I see that she is in full pearl clutching mode. I slump down in my seat, curling over a bit and trying to shrink, cringing inside for myself, for Irene, and for everyone else. “I don’t know what’s come over you two!” My mother scolds Aunt Jodie and Aunt Lila, rising indignantly from her seat to look around at all of us. “Really, Jodie, apologizing for not supporting her immorality? You can’t be serious. And you, Lila, saying it never mattered who she loved. It certainly matters to God, or did you forget about him in your rush to please our sinful sister?”
Everyone is in a state of semi-shock, and my mother uses the moment of stunned silence to turn to me again. “And you, Nicolas Joseph Sutton? What did you write to her? I tried to keep you away from her influence, and now I find out you wrote her a letter? Explain yourself, please.”
I gulp. She’s looking down on me, eyes fixated on me expectantly.
“Ahem,” says Aunt Jodie nervously. “I do apologize for keeping your nephews and nieces away for so long.” She looks at Aunt Irene.
My mother looks like she might have a heart attack.
Aunt Jodie looks at her timidly. “Eleanor, you know we mean you no harm. Irene has been isolated for far too long, don’t you think it’s time we all made amends?”
My mother makes no reply, but her pursed lips make it clear what she thinks about that idea.
Aunt Lila tries her hand at diffusing the situation. “Listen, Eleanor, you don’t have to stop believing what you believe. All we’re asking for is a little Thanksgiving kindness and courtesy and some fence-mendin’. At least try?”
But my mother is ignoring her in favor of looking more intensely at me. “Nicolas, I asked you a question,” she repeats, her eyes dangerously narrow.
I squirm uncomfortably. Despite my adult status, twenty-two-year-old me still feels the same reaction to Mom’s anger that twelve year old me felt. And now, in front of everyone, I might even feel that anxiety even more so.
“Um,” I say, and then I stop. I’m going to lie, that much is certain, but I’m still trying to settle on a working falsehood.
Aunt Irene’s lips are firm lines again as she looks at me a bit too intensely. She’s searching my eyes, and I’m not sure what she sees there, but she sees something, because suddenly she takes her stick in hand and raps it on the floor loudly. Everyone stares at her.
She straightens her spectacles and suddenly points a bony finger at my mother. “Eleanor, sit down.”
My mother looks around to make sure everyone is seeing how she’s being treated, but she sits.
“He’s gay,” Aunt Irene announces, finger still jabbing the air in my mother’s direction. My mother gasps and acts like she will say something.
“You shut your mouth. I’m not finished,” Aunt Irene orders her, and I could almost swear that, even in my panicked state of mind, I see Aunt Jodie smothering a smile. “Nicolas is gay, and if any of you have any ideas about treating him the way you’ve done me all these years, ya’ll need to have a good think. You don’t want to be inviting Nick over in a few decades trying to make up for lost time like you’re doing now.”
Aunt Irene smiles at me, temporarily resting her hand on the table again. “You’re a good boy, Nick. I’m glad you wrote me. It helped convince me to come down here today.”
I just nod and smile, because I can’t help feeling proud to be a part of this reunion, even if it does mean I’ve finally been exposed. To be honest, though, it’s more of a relief than it is frightening.
I look back to Mom, and she’s frozen in shock. The room is silent as she opens her mouth and closes it several times, looking wildly from me to Irene and back.
Suddenly, she seizes her purse from the back of the chair and stands up again. “I need some time,” she mutters, stumbling away from the table. We all sit in silence as the front door slams and we hear her car pulling away.
“Well then,” Uncle Richard breaks the silence. “Who wants some turkey?” There’s some awkward laughter, but I’m not hungry anymore.
“I think I’ll take off as well,” I say, trying to smile apologetically at the Aunts. But before I can stand up, Aunt Jodie has come over and put her arms around me from behind, my nose inhaling the sweet scent of the Avon perfume she’s always worn.
“We love you, Nicolas,” she says before she lets go. Aunt Lila pushes past her and pats my shoulder comfortingly. “Don’t go, Nick. We want you here. I’m sure Eleanor will come around and it would be a shame if you left when we hardly ever see you anymore!”
There’s a murmur of assent to that, and when I look around, everyone is nodding. My cousins smile encouragingly.
I look at Aunt Irene, and she nods at me, ever so slightly, and if she can do it, I can. It’s not a year to leave. It’s the year Aunt Irene is finally back. I can’t spoil that. Besides, I’m overwhelmed by the kindness that I didn’t expect after the announcement of my inclinations. I feel welcome.
I glance at my father, who hasn’t said a word this whole time. He’s just looking at me blankly, but when he sees I’m looking at him now, he jolts out of his stunned headspace and ungracefully gets to his feet and gives me a hug as well. It’s cautious at first, maybe nervous, but after a moment, it becomes firm.
“I didn’t know, I guess you never seemed...but I don’t mind, of course, I love you,” he says clumsily, trying to string his thoughts into a coherent sentence.
“It’s okay Dad,” I tell him. I imagine it will take a lot of explaining later on, because my father is the most dense person I know, but in the end he’ll be all right.
“You’re always welcome around here,” Uncle Richard booms from the head of the table, nodding at me in his normal gruff manner. “Now, if all the shocks and surprises are out of the way, I would like to suggest that we eat some of this lovely food before it’s all cold.”
Aunt Lila smacks him playfully with an oven mitt as she returns to her seat. “Fine. I suppose you’re right.”
“Of course I am,” Richard says gruffly, earning him another playful smack. “Not now, I have a knife!” He complains, but a smile is hovering on his face.
The food is good. It’s better than I remember, even the turkey that I always swear I’ve never liked. This year, it’s not so bad.
I play football in the backyard with the cousins and stain my jeans, but it doesn’t matter.
Dessert is served and I try the pecan pie. It’s actually not as terrible as I remembered.
Aunt Irene sits down beside me while I’m eating it and smiles at me. “I thought you didn’t like pecan pie,” she remarks slyly.
“It’s not so bad,” I say, even though it’s not so good.
She laughs. “It’s okay, you don’t have to like it.” She leans over and covers her mouth with her hand to whisper, “I never did, but don’t tell.”
I snicker to myself. She winks.
Aunt Lila passes out paper leaves for us to write down what we’re thankful for this Thanksgiving, and for the first time since I was a child, I write down family on one of mine.
When I leave, Aunt Jodie and Aunt Lila tell me I’m welcome anytime, and Aunt Lila gives me some dinner leftovers, and Aunt Jodie gives me some dessert to take. I hug them both.
Aunt Irene is out having a cigarette. She doesn’t give me anything except a piece of paper with her phone number on it. “You call if you need anything, you hear?”
“I will,” I promise her.
She winks at me. “Don’t be a stranger.”
“You either,” I retort, and she chuckles.
When I get into the car, I feel a slight pain when I acknowledge that Mom never did come back. But, as I look back to see the Aunts waving from the driveway, I know I don’t need to worry. Thanks to Aunt Irene, I’ll never need to worry about being the black sheep of the family. I’ll always have a place where I’m welcome.