Mom tried to lay down ground rules at Christmas this year because respect couldn’t be counted upon to intervene.
“Come in, come in.” Dad pecked cheeks and swung kids to the foyer ceiling while Mom and Grandma wrestled with the turkey in the kitchen. “I’ll take your coat. You’re so tall! What grade are you in now?”
The kids barreled into the living room to inspect the name tags dangling on carefully wrapped boxes guarded by the twinkling tree. My aunts and uncles piled in after them, leaving Dad staggering under a mountainous armful of winter wear. He peered around to see if anyone was watching, and upon confirming that Mom’s keen eyes were otherwise occupied he shoved the pile into the front closet and shouldered the doors closed.
“Right,” he said, clapping his hands and eyeing those of us of voting age with a grin. “I’ve been told to tell everyone wanting a slice of Kate’s pumpkin pie today that it will be withheld if there is any talk of politics.”
“That includes you, Jack!” Mom’s warning rode through the house on a warm wave of sage and was met with appreciative but slightly tense laughter. Dad was well-known for pushing all the right buttons to orchestrate symphonies of rolling eyes, waving hands, and bulging veins. Feelings were still speckled with bruises from the Thanksgiving debate turned debacle. I had prepared to spend the day tiptoeing through the lingering carnage.
“How about a drink Jackie boy?” Uncle Bart boomed from the couch, already sunk and settled into its soft embrace until dinner. "Whiskey?"
“Wine for me,” Aunty Helen said, perched on the armrest next to her husband like a little finch. “White.”
“I’ll have the same,” Aunty Susie added.
“Whiskey, wine, coming right up!” Dad gave me a pointed look, then turned to his brother. “What about you, Walt?”
Uncle Walt scratched his gristly cheeks. “Just a beer’ll do Jackie.”
“What about everyone else?” I asked, clapping to get the kids’ attention.
“BEER!” They shrieked together, parkouring from couch to couch.
“Beer it is,” I said, and headed down to the basement bar to pour two whiskies, two wines, a beer, and three ginger ales.
I was on my way back up with the tray of orders when the front door was flung open once more. My cousin Meg stomped in, scowling at the bitter breeze and her non-negotiable attendance at today’s dinner.
“Tequila?” she asked in greeting as I passed, kicking off her snow-crusted boots and shaking ice pellets out from her shaggy mane.
“Help yourself,” I waved down the stairs.
“Hallie!” Uncle Bart saluted me with his whiskey, ice tinkling in the tumbler, as I handed out the drinks. “No ring yet?”
“No boyfriend yet,” I stretched out a smile. Meg reappeared at my side and handed me a cup. I took it gladly and couldn’t help but tack on: “Or girlfriend.”
Aunty Helen clucked and fidgeted uncomfortably, but Uncle Bart simply belched out another thundering laugh.
“Come on girls,” Aunty Susie, ever the peacemaker, shuffled us and our red solo cups away before any more could be said. “Why don’t we go help in the kitchen?”
“Because clearly none of the men on the couch are capable of helping,” Meg grumbled, rolled her eyes at her mother, and tossed back a swallow of straight tequila.
“Don’t start,” Aunty Susie admonished as the conversation at our backs turned to real estate and interest rates.
An hour later, once the hard work of chopping, whipping, glazing, basting, stirring, pouring, and serving was done—and once Uncle Bart made a great show of carving the turkey—we settled down at the red-clothed table to clasp hands, sing thanks, and tuck in.
It was among the cacophony of clattering cutlery and satisfied sighs that Dad picked his moment. He turned to Meg and casually asked through a mouthful of stuffing and whiskey-warmed cheeks, “So, how was your rally last weekend? I saw it on the Facebook.”
“Jesus Christ Jack.” Mom glared over the lipstick-stained rim of her wine glass.
“What? It’s not politics!” He waved his fork, accidentally flinging little drops of gravy into Aunty Helen’s chardonnay. “Oops, sorry sis. Hallie will get you a new glass. Anyways, it’s not politics, it’s the environment!”
“Same thing!” Mom also handed me her glass for a refill as I wriggled my way out of my seat and around the table without complaint. It was not the time to protest my designation as family barmaid.
“It was great!” Meg interrupted boldly. “Lots of people showed up.”
“People who rode their bikes there and wore nothing but natural, recycled, handmade clothing, I’m sure,” Dad said.
“That’s not the point.”
“Oh, it’s not?”
Uncle Bart slammed a fist next to his plate, sending a tidal wave of floral-stamped china rattling across the table. “If you want it all shut off, let’s shut it off! See how you all actually get along without heat and gas and phones and pens and jobs—”
“We won’t be getting along at all if we keep it up!” Meg shot back. “Our house is on fucking fire!”
A chorus of shocked giggles rang from the kid’s table.
“You watch your tongue,” Aunty Susie said, narrowed eyes threatening Meg’s mouth with a soap scrubbing.
“And besides,” Aunty Helen gratefully accepted her fresh glass of wine and scooched in to give me space to sit back down. “You have no understanding of just how devastating the economic fallout of the proposed policies would be…”
“More devastating than the extinction of the human species?” Meg demanded.
“Don’t be dramatic, dear.”
Meg looked at me with a plea for help. I shrugged and crammed a forkful of potatoes into my mouth. It was a hill I’d finally recognized as futile, and we were beginning to toe the line we’d crossed at Thanksgiving.
“If only our country wasn’t run by a complete idiot,” Uncle Walt spoke up, much to Mom’s chagrin. “Believing nonsense like that, giving handouts and apologies and promises left right and center. Let me tell you, nothing we do will make a difference, except in our taxes. Mark my word, the next generation—you and your kids—you’re going to pay for it all.”
“At least this Prime Minister’s not terribly hard to look at,” Aunty Susie whispered conspiratorially to the general table.
“He does have nice hair,” Aunty Helen offered, stiffly acknowledging the attempt to lighten the mood. “But really, Walt is right...”
“He’s just trying to fix the mess that your generation left us!” Meg spat.
The vein in Uncle Bart’s forehead finally popped and pulsed, and I knew we were at the point of no return. “What does that man know about what’s right?" He growled. "Matter of fact, what does that man know about anything at all? Full of hot air if you ask me. All our generation did was make things better and give you ungrateful lot a comfortable life!”
“Communists, the lot of you,” Grandma chimed in cheerfully.
I choked down the rest of my tequila and welcomed the burn.
Dad leaned back in his chair and chewed idly on a toothpick to hide his grin.
Mom stood, threw Dad a look that nearly had him pushing daisies, and left the table.
The pumpkin pie was still strewn across the frosty front lawn when we hugged everyone goodbye.