Contest #226 winner 🏆

72 comments

Coming of Age Holiday Fiction

8:45PM Thanksgiving Day – GLOVES OFF:

My mother, Mary, and her sister Alice were engaged in a wrestling match on the dining room table. Aloysius – my father - and Alice’s plus one; Jack, attempted to pry them apart, but both women had locked themselves into each other’s hair with vice-like grips, despite both their hands being splattered with custard trifle remnants. All I could do as an observing teenager was sit with mouth agape while holding my new Super 8mm silent movie camera, recording the whole scene. It was typical behaviour at family get-togethers of old, but this year, this Thanksgiving, was meant to be celebrated as a reunion several years and many miles since the previous family sit-down dinner.

My plan was to document the long-awaited family reunion – five years after we emigrated to Boston; however, I quickly found myself being caught between being a neutral documentarian and unwavering loyalty to my mother.

“Will the two of yous, please stop!” I yelled to deaf ears. “This is my favourite part of the year and you’re ruining it! I hate family reunions! They always end up the same way!”

The hypocrisy acted out by the two sisters - writhing around atop a table full of food, initiated a memory flash of the day we left Ireland. The tears of Aunt Alice and my grandmother waving goodbye alongside other heartbroken dockside relatives of migrating family members, touched my young emotional wellbeing. At the time, I imagined those left behind in the Emrald Isle, were desolately pondering if they would ever hear from or see their loved ones again. To those onboard, a ship sailing into the sunset is the beginning of an adventure, the onset of a journey. But to some of those left to grieve the departing, it can feel like the end of their own journey, leaving them to pick up the remaining pieces of a fractured family.

That’s why I chose to get this day on film, because it would be saved for posterity-sake to be sentimentally viewed time again in the future with fond recollection of days gone by.

The Sixties was a time of expensive long-distance phone calls where you competed with the crackling static on the line trying to have a conversation, so the choicest form of communication was the cheaper method using the written word and a postage stamp. It wasn’t instant news or timely updates, but it was something tangible that could be saved and re-visited at a future time. However, with the passage of time, weekly letters can easily fade into monthly correspondence, then drift towards a lazy twice per year, finally receding like distant memories into forlorn remembrances spoken around an open fireplace and a warm glass of stout.

Did you hear from that one?” Would be a commonly asked question. “I must write to them, soon.”

Laziness turned to habit, and that letter never got written. Then, as if by magic, all past disagreements were forgotten, like time and distance had cured all the ill feelings and jealousies, wiping the slate clean.

“If only me sister were here,” my mother would lament. “Why did we ever leave Ireland?”

“Remember, Mare,” my father would say. “We came for a better life.”

“Sure, tis better to be amongst family poor than lonely and rich,” she would argue.

“Aye, my love,” my father would empathise. “But are we not better off, now? Sure, don’t we have each other?”

“Can’t even get a daycent cup of tea in a city famous for its tea party.”

My father would laugh at the innocent quips my mother often entertained him with. Being born into abject poverty in a damp, wet land with little job prospects; schooling – although a necessity – was not always convenient for families that needed wage earners to heat the home, put food on the table, and pay the inflated rents of slumlords. So, like many others of her time, my mother had to find early work in button factories and other menial and repetitive jobs, where unsolicited education accompanied canteen breaks relayed from the tip of every Irish Biddy’s tongue eager to stretch truth beyond recognition.

My Seamus saw it with his own eyes and told it to me as I tell it to you, now,” would justify a story’s authenticity.

Daft as a donkey’s arse that one is. Sure everyone knows the man upstairs was Jesus’s real father.”

In a Catholic country, to question authenticity, is to spit on the word of God.

The priests have the knowledge you seek. Sure, why do you need to listen to all that rubbish on the radio? Nothing but filthy lies told by dirty heathens!”

Gaining the trust of the Irish has always been a difficult proposition. Suspicion and a lack of acceptance of outsiders is engrained into the indoctrinated embodiment of every child of Irish soil.

Tis the God’s honest truth!” The liars would always finish with.

Catholic hypocrisy knows no bounds. Random expressions of gossip fuels an ignorance that turns folklore into fact, and fact into suspicion, distrust, then finally, ostracization. It was the latter that forced the decision to rip us from the familiarity of immediate family and sail across the Atlantic to a foreign land with foreign ideas and foreign food.

But time seemingly forgot the ignorance of the devout, so we found ourselves reluctantly assimilating into what we deemed American culture – and the uniquely American Thanksgiving was one of the holiday traditions that converted this young filmmaker into a free young man.

 

8:42PM – PRE-EMPTIVE STRIKE:

“Mam’s death is on your shoulders,” Alice coldly stated, as she took her seat at the table. “She was never the same after ye’s left.”

Aunt Alice had just downed another glass of false courage, before raising her voice to my mother.

“I was never her favourite,” my mother replied. “You made sure of that.”

“Now, Mare,” my father tried to intervene, when hearing raised voices. “Tis not the way to welcome family. Sure, they’ve only just arrived in America.”

“Yes, fresh arrival, but with stale memories of spite,” my mother pointed out.

My father had been in the middle of enough encounters of similar ilk between the two sisters back in Ireland, to know when hostilities were about to kick off.

“She can feck off back home for all I care,” was Mary’s conclusion.

No sooner had the words trailed from my mother’s mouth, a lump of custard flew across the dining table and filled the void her words had just vacated.

 

8:40PM – CALM BEFORE THE STORM:

I was panning the dining room with my movie camera, documenting the pre-dinner chit-chat, while in the adjoining living room, the coal fireplace glowed, spreading much needed warmth on a cool evening. My father and Jack clowned for the camera, pretending to be old Irish women by draping table napkins over their heads, while singing Irish songs of hope, rebellion, and the forty shades of green pastures they once roamed. The silent camera captured the tomfoolery but missed a roaring chorus of Mother Macrae. However, the camera didn’t fail to capture two pairs of male eyes tearing up from the words of the emotive song. Jack – another displaced Paddy had met my Aunt Alice on the ship coming over, and an immediate attraction blossomed, causing wedding bells to ring loudly in an expectant air of matrimonial coupling.

Like many Irish immigrants to the USA, Jack also left a grieving mother behind, so any songs about Irish mothers solicited the same response in distant sons. Melancholy to the point of tears.

The strongest emotion displayed in that touching moment was from my father. My grandmother on his side had passed away during our voyage to the new world. Some said it was her time, but other bitter gossipers said she died heartbroken after her son uncaringly sailed away. Having neither the funds nor the time to get back for her funeral, my father went on a drunken three-day wake through the Irish pubs that Boston provided a taste of home to those mourning souls pining for the Auld Sod they left behind in search of a better life. His pub crawl of self-pity ended when my mother tracked him down and ordered him out of the pub, then marched him home by his ear – much to the amusement of his fellow drinkers.

Since that day, my father has mellowed in his emotional reactions, and found a respectable job in a post office sorting facility, where he enjoys a camaraderie of fellowship with similar tales of Irish woe to share in a pseudo psychotherapeutic counselling environment. Well, that’s what he calls the after-work drinks at the pub. My mother calls it the pub of woes.

 

 

8:35PM – STAND WELL BACK:

“Will ye put down that thing and come sit, please, Sully,” my mother addressed me using my nickname. I was a serious child of Eireann for my young years. The constant bickering and in-fighting of the family of my childhood, had left little room for frivolous youthful normality. Instead, it created an introspective sullen personality, where I used art as an escape, and filmmaking as an expression of my true opinions.

“Ye are so sullen,” she would say. “That, I’ll call ye Sully.”

It stuck and most of the family would address me by my nickname. I didn’t mind. Having a nickname was a sign of respect and admiration, so I gladly accepted it.

“I’m capturing the moment, Mam” I replied. “It’s going into my documentary.”

“Make sure you get my good side,” Aunt Alice mentioned.

“That’ll be the back of yer head, then,” my mother quippingly followed, causing my father to halt his conversation with Jack and throw a disapproving glance toward my mother.

In one innocuous moment of flippancy, my mother had unintentionally lit the touch paper to the subsequent eventful evening.

 

8:15PM – A CAREFUL REMINDER:

“Yous should have been there,” my Aunt Alice said to my mother. “Family from all corners of the globe attended.”

“Families with money,” my mother tried to justify her absence from her own mother’s funeral. “We were barely scraping by. I couldn’t leave my job. Not so soon after starting. I would have surely lost it to someone else.”

“We just thought that you and Aloysius had started your own trend of missing funerals. Too busy to remember your own - back home.”

“Mare?” My father attempted a distraction. “Have a sip of the black stuff and let’s get everything on the table. I’m sure we’re all hungry to sample your fine cooking.”

The condescending smile from Alice’s lips suggested the topic was not closed. Not by a longshot.

 

7:45PM - REUNIFICATION:

My mother and Aunt Alice sat on the living room sofa sifting through the photo album Alice had brought with her across the sea. They giggled at photos of them together holidaying in Ballybunion, gasped at the photos showing the hand-me-down St. Vincent De Paul’s charity clothes their mother used to dress them in, and silently blessed themselves whenever they came across a photo of their late parents.

The initial news of her sister’s emigration had excited my mother. At last, she had her sister close-by to confide in. Momentarily forgotten, were the sibling disagreements, the vociferous arguments between family members of the generation that preceded them, and the hardships they had endured living under the roof of parents who were always late to rise, late to work, late to build any self-esteem in their two daughters, but always early at pub opening times – then, late home after closing.

For the first time in a long while, I glimpsed a moment of happiness creep across my mother’s face, and I was so ecstatic to capture that moment on film.

 

7:30PM - ARRIVAL:

My Aunt Alice ruffled my hair as I greeted her at the front door.

“Don’t look at the camera, Auntie Alice,” I directed. “I’m making a documentary. Just act natural.”

My directing debut lacked the commitment to control. This was demonstrated by Aunt Alice curtsying while raising her skirt above her knees.

“Ye shameless harlot,” my mother said in passing.

“I hear short skirts are all the rage these days,” Alice pointed out. “Lucky I can sew. I’ll have new hems in no time.”

The disagreement in opinions didn’t prevent the two reunited sisters from hugging each other warmly. For my mother, this was indeed a day for thanksgiving.

“This is all so new to me, Mary,” Alice confessed. “I feel like I went to sleep in Ireland and woke up in heaven. Such opulence, wealth, and friendliness. We stopped to ask directions to your house, and the policeman went out of his way to accompany us to the corner. Ask directions in Ireland and you’ll get the reply, Who’s askin?”

“Well, you’re here, now,” my mother reassured her. “At long last. Tis the fourth Thursday in November and the first day in your new life. That’s a lot to be thankful for.”

 

7:25PM – LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION:

“I hope there’s film in that thing, son,” my father asked. “Your mother has prayed for this moment for so long. Having her sister living near us, will be a godsend. No more pining for home when everyone’s in the same spot, hey? Would ye like a song to start things off?”

“Sure, Dad.”

I hadn’t the heart to tell him there was no sound recording in the cine camera, but his antics at the piano made up for that - as he played and sang a version of Molly Malone at the top of his voice. With every high note in the chorus section, he comically raised his seated posture, then dramatically flopped back down on the piano stool to begin a new verse. The festive air of the Thanksgiving holiday had been set. Music, a warm fireplace, and the smell of my mother’s cooking pre-empted the arrival of real family to our humble Boston dwelling. It was an opportunity for me to use my birthday present to document the beginning of a new chapter and the anticipated emotional reunion between estranged Irish sisters in their new land of opportunity.

My mind drifted to imagine that across the country, families and friends alike were giving thanks to a time in the past when the pilgrims shared their harvest with the natives of a land they would soon displace, but I was too young to recognise the irony. However, across the centuries, Thanksgiving has evolved into a time for families and friends to share stories, food, and drink in a welcoming and friendly atmosphere, so I had high hopes for the success of the rest of the evening.

 

7:24PM – ANTICIPATION

It’s the fourth Thursday of November. The table is almost set, there’s a sparkle in my mother’s eye that hasn’t been there in a long while, and I’m excited to get this all on film. When Aunt Alice arrives, it’s going to be great seeing family back together again…

 

 

November 27, 2023 13:34

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72 comments

Edward Roberts
14:56 Dec 09, 2023

Hi Chris! The reverse chronology was a big hit, and I am also on board! It reminded me of the Seinfeld episode, when they all go to India for the wedding. It was my favorite episode just because of the reverse chronology. Being from the Boston area myself, I really enjoyed reading a story set around my home. I am drafting a manuscript that begins in Boston (1715). If you are local to the area and would be interested in forming a writing group or share some works for feedback, I’d love to hear from you. BTW… my favorite line: “In one inn...

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Chris Campbell
03:34 Dec 10, 2023

Edward, Thanks for the great feedback. I live in Oz, but spent 20 years in the USA. UK born to an Irish family, I know a lot about the Irish emigration to cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston, and here - of course. I chose Boston so I could use the tea party quip. So glad you liked the format.

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M. M.
11:59 Dec 09, 2023

Wow what rich descriptive telling and tone, beautifully done with 'hitting to core' style and nicely woven family fun feuding. Whenever i read works that have this much quality it makes me want to work harder. I think this should be a winner for sure.

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Chris Campbell
03:36 Dec 10, 2023

Thanks, M.M. Being able to bring moments of my own family's feuding into this story, helped me paint the scenario into a more colourful story.

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Nina H
12:23 Dec 09, 2023

Congrats Chris!! 🎉

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Chris Campbell
03:34 Dec 10, 2023

Thank you, Nina.

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Hannah Lynn
03:59 Dec 09, 2023

Congrats on the win!!! 🎉😊

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Chris Campbell
03:36 Dec 10, 2023

Thank you, Hannah.

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Story Time
22:01 Dec 08, 2023

Congratulations, Chris. A well-deserved win. The small details along the way really heightened the narrative.

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Chris Campbell
03:56 Dec 10, 2023

Thanks, Kevin. I approached the story as if I was watching the scenes unfold through the viewfinder of a cine camera. In a sense, that's what memories of my family are like. Scenes from life.

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21:29 Dec 08, 2023

Well written, congratulations on the win Chris! Our family was English rather than Irish but the side, (snide) comments, reminders of past injuries etc. are not just from one culture, are they? I enjoyed this and the format.

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Chris Campbell
03:59 Dec 10, 2023

Thanks, Maureen. When I first moved to the USA, I realised my family's squabbles were pale in comparison to some American families. However, the memories are there in my head, and find their way out at times onto the written page. Family feuds are indeed cross-cultural.

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Calvin Kirby
18:47 Dec 08, 2023

Chris, congratulations on the win! You surely are deserving. I loved how you put together the timeline of the story in a reverse order. It was very unique to most stories I have read. You have a real writing talent. Keep it up and looking forward to seeing you Monday.

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Chris Campbell
17:25 Dec 09, 2023

Thanks, Cal. The reverse timeline drove this piece from concept to finish. So glad it worked.

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Martin Ross
18:22 Dec 08, 2023

Congratulations! Thanksgiving is so multipolar — love and gluttony and subterfuge and raw release and family and hidden resentments and chaotic fun. And you did it beautifully, wittily, and poignantly. This is a great prompt to discover the writer’s origins and worldview. Thanks!

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Chris Campbell
17:24 Dec 09, 2023

Thanks, Martin. Irish families, hey? They provide such vivid memories.

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Martin Ross
17:50 Dec 09, 2023

U.S. families, too! Reedsy should do an anthology of just these Thanksgiving stories! So much illumination into domestic intigue and holiday conflict and compassion. And your story would be a great lead-off!

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Chris Campbell
03:29 Dec 10, 2023

Thanks, Martin.

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Paromita De
18:21 Dec 08, 2023

I love the detail of the environment and setting in this story. It is carefully articulated and helps with setting the tone really well! Love the breakdown of the timeframe as well!

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Chris Campbell
17:23 Dec 09, 2023

Thanks, Paromita. I wanted it to feel like these scenes could be replayed again and again forwards and backwards through a movie projector.

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Michał Przywara
21:45 Nov 29, 2023

It's indeed a story of fun family chaos - and lots of bitter, sad undercurrents, about harboring old slights - but like others mentioned, the reverse chronological order really makes it shine. Particularly so, since we've dealing with a documentary, which lends itself to dissecting and studying a topic. I love the little first signs of trouble we get to witness - innocuous at the time, but truly the spark that started the blaze. Thanks for sharing!

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Chris Campbell
00:38 Nov 30, 2023

Thanks, Michal. You understand it well. I placed snippets of things I witnessed as a teenager within my own family. It never took long for old feuds to bubble back to the surface - no matter how long ago they started. Forgive and forget with mine was interpreted as "Never forgive and never forget." Thanks for your great comments.

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Michał Przywara
21:46 Dec 08, 2023

Woo! Congrats on the win!

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Chris Campbell
03:29 Dec 10, 2023

Thank you.

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Blód Jerome
02:12 Dec 26, 2023

The writing is so compelling.

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Chris Campbell
03:02 Dec 26, 2023

Thank you, Blód.

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RebaAnne Buckner
05:02 Dec 19, 2023

Congratulations on your well-written, heartfelt story told told with beautiful, succinct, profanity-free language. Reminds me of some of the holidays of my youth in Louisiana that often started off with everyone happy and smiling and ended with occasional fist fights. Looking forward to reading for future works.

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Chris Campbell
05:10 Dec 19, 2023

Thank you, RebaAnne. There are stories that require an element of profanity, based on the characters. However, this story did not require that. It just required to be told. Families are not always the anchor in our lives that a lot of stories talk about. Throughout my life, I have often found friends to be more reliable and caring.

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Jeanine Rogers
04:31 Dec 14, 2023

I like how you jumped in time and how you told your family history. Also how you started the story with a fight was brilliant.

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Chris Campbell
05:22 Dec 14, 2023

Thanks, Jeanine. A bit of action at the beginning captures the reader. At least, that's what I've read. 🤣

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Kaoli Chona
05:00 Dec 13, 2023

Congratulations on winning. As an African I am amazed at how well you write. I am also learning what reverse chronology is all about and writing styles. I enjoyed reading your story line. I admit in certain places I got lost but re-reading helped me find myself. I promise to print it and re-read. I have entered this writing competition but with skills like yours I don't know if I will ever win. Congratulations

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Chris Campbell
05:41 Dec 13, 2023

Kaoli, Thank you for your great feedback and very kind comments. My advice to you is to keep writing one story each week. It took me 111 attempts to win one of the prompts. Looking back at some earlier stories, I can definitely see the improvement in my work, so just keep writing and you will grow as a writer. Winning a weekly prompt is an enigma to me. There have been weeks where I thought I had material worthy but didn't win or get shortlisted. Sometimes, the content and the telling of the story catches the judge's attention. We can alw...

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18:45 Dec 12, 2023

Woah, love this! Great read, keep it up :)

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Chris Campbell
00:09 Dec 13, 2023

Thanks, Wafflez.

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David McCahan
14:31 Dec 11, 2023

Just a phenomenal story. Your dialogue is brilliant. Love when I can hear the voices in my head when I read. That’s when you know an author is spot on. Richly deserved win.

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Chris Campbell
19:24 Dec 11, 2023

David, Thanks for your great feedback. Having an Irish family has certainly aided in bringing rich characters to life. For all their faults, they have provided a wealth of voices to use in my stories.

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Philip Ebuluofor
06:55 Dec 11, 2023

Congrats. It sure looks and sounds like a blog post, fine work.

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Chris Campbell
12:32 Dec 11, 2023

Thank you, Philip.

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03:27 Dec 11, 2023

Congratulations on your win, Chris.

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Chris Campbell
03:57 Dec 11, 2023

Thank you, Phyllis.

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Graham Kinross
01:02 Dec 11, 2023

Congratulations Chris. I like that you told the story backwards to show the reader the action first and then we get to see how everything went to hell. I reminded me of Memento except I got to the end of that film still confused about what was going on. Well done on the well deserved win.

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Chris Campbell
02:48 Dec 11, 2023

Thanks, Graham. I wanted to create the scenario of watching the events take place through the camera's lens, then being able to play it back through the projector. A kind of post-conflict analysis to be studied later. Whether lessons were learned or not is another story. Thanks for the great feedback.

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Graham Kinross
03:43 Dec 11, 2023

You’re welcome.

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Zoe C
09:52 Dec 10, 2023

Loved the perfect balance between humour and heartache. Congratulations on the win 🥇, very well deserved.

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Chris Campbell
17:31 Dec 10, 2023

Thanks, Zoe. Typical Irish story balancing humour and heartache. So glad you liked it.

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