Lydia stood nervously on the doorstep contemplating her options. She could still turn tail and run, but the yard was an obstacle course of inflatable Christmas decorations. Santa waved merrily as the Grinch tip-toed with a sack of presents, but the centerpiece was a giant snow globe with a snowman and a blizzard of swirling snow.
She heard the rattle of the doorknob and realized her time was up. She turned back to the door and hefted her casserole dish, pasting on a smile.
"What are you doing just standing out here like a peeping tom?" her mom asked cheerily.
"Good to see you, too, Mom. I was just admiring your holiday decor."
"Craig still needs to string some lights, but he's happy about the way it is coming together. Let me take that dish."
"Thanks, Mom." She followed her mother into the entryway and started the de-bundling process.
“You can hang your coat in the closet,” her mom motioned with the casserole dish toward the closet that was already starting to bulge with coats.
Lydia heard loud talking and laughter as she fished between winter coats looking for an unoccupied hanger. When she finally found one, she draped her coat on it and tried her best to wedge her coat between the rest.
Lydia’s mother Joanna had recently remarried a nice guy named Gene and left what was to going be her future retirement condo to live in his suburban family home complete with a front yard and pool table in the basement. Gene had three children that ranged in age from college to working on their first divorce, and every year they came together to celebrate Thanksgiving and prepare for Christmas.
Lydia’s mother had warned her of the Christmas activities, which Lydia found blasphemous that they would occur any day sooner than Black Friday, but she wasn’t prepared for what she found when she entered the living room. Gene had a pair of scissors and was cutting red and green construction paper into strips while his 21-year-old daughter Frankie formed them into a paper chain, and his other children 24-year-old Lenny and 26-year-old Danny were stringing popcorn from a giant glass bowl painted with poinsettias.
“Hello, all,” Lydia greeted as she entered. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Happy Thanksgiving!” the happy holiday group replied, not quite in unison.
“Pick a seat!” Gene said. “We’re just getting everything ready for the tree.”
“Joanna!” he called toward the kitchen. “Can you grab a pair of scissors for Lydia?”
“Oh, you don’t have to,” Lydia demurred. “I was actually going to go help my mom with the turkey.”
Joanna came in with the scissors. “We’re not having turkey,” she said, handing Lydia the scissors. “Frankie is vegetarian, so we are having stuffed squash and mushroom stuffing with mashed potatoes and vegan gravy. It’ll be ready in about 20 minutes.”
Frank handed Joanna some of the red and green paper. “I usually just fold the paper lengthwise and cut inch-wide strips,” he suggested.
Joanna nodded and started to do what she was told, but inside, she was wondering who had body-snatched her mother and replaced her with this alien clone. Her mother never would have catered to her whims to become a vegetarian, let alone build a holiday meal around the special needs. When Lydia had mentioned thinking about becoming vegetarian in junior high, Joanna had told her that it was just the circle of life and blah blah blah. And stuffed squash? Why would you stuff a squash?
The television droned in the background as parade floats and giant balloons drifted through some urban canyon. “Sponge Bob is looking a little deflated this year,” she tried for some inane conversation with these near-strangers that were now her family. “Maybe it’s time for a facelift.”
Lenny gave a polite chuckle, and Frankie replied, “I heard they were going to retire him next year. It gets expensive to maintain those balloons.”
“I can imagine. Plus the cost of all that helium! Can you picture the guy who has to deflate the balloons every year? He probably walks around for the next week sounding like one of The Chipmunks!”
Her new siblings just blinked at her and then returned to their chain making.
They worked in silence for a minute, and then Lydia experienced the tickling in her brain of an earworm. “Chain, chain, chain,” she sang the Aretha Franklin song, “Chain of fools!”
Gene snickered, “Good one.” A moment passed, and he started to sing a’la Sam Cooke, “That’s the sound of the men; they are working on the chain ga-a-ang…”
There was more eye-rolling from Gene’s kids, and Frankie let out a “Da-a-ad!” of embarrassment.
Joanna joined in from the kitchen singing The Pretenders, “O-oh, back on the chain gang.”
“How many songs about chains can there be?” Danny asked.
“Chains are often a symbol for slavery and repression,” Frankie chimed in.
“Gee, and I just thought we were trying to keep our tree from escaping,” Gene cracked.
“Dinner is ready!” Joanna called from the kitchen.
Everyone stood and sauntered to the dining table which was laid out with a cream-colored tablecloth and white porcelain plates.
Lydia’s childhood Thanksgivings had usually been at the house of one relative or another and always had paper plates with some fall theme like leaves or a cartoon turkey. She had never seen her mother produce a spread like this.
Everyone settled into a seat, and dishes were passed. Lydia had to admit that despite the lack of turkey, everything smelled great. The stuffed squash held a rice concoction that made her mouth water.
After loading plates, there was a moment of silence, and Gene asked everyone to say what they were thankful for. They each took turns, saying things like school (Frankie), a good job (Danny), and family (Joanna, Gene, and Lenny). When it was Lydia’s turn, she thought for a moment. “I am thankful that my mom found you, Gene. You make her happy and inspire her, and she must love you. I mean, I have never seen this much effort out of her!”
Everyone laughed and dug into their food.
After dinner, Lydia helped her mother while Gene and his children retrieved their tree from the garage and started the assembly.
“So tell me why they are busting out the yuletide on Thanksgiving Day,” Lydia enquired as her mother handed her the freshly washed gravy boat to dry.
“Christmas was really big when their mother was alive, so when she passed, it became even more important. When the kids started going to college, Thanksgiving was the only time Gene had them all home to help with the decorating. They each even have mini Christmas trees that they set up in their dorms or apartments.”
Lydia nodded in sudden understanding. What some people saw as the chore of hanging lights or people like herself saw as the too early sign of consumerism was this family’s bonding and way of remembering their lost wife and mother.
When the dishes were done, Lydia and Joanna returned to the living room to find the tree up and lights and popcorn strung. Gene held out a corner of the chain to Lydia. “Chain, chain, chain… Chain the tree!” he parodied the Aretha Franklin song Lydia had sung earlier.
Lydia took the corner of the chain and started winding it around the tree. “Chain, chain, chain…” she joined in as her new siblings rolled their eyes.