It’s usually when you’re being smug and satisfied and thinking that you have the world by the balls that you end up in a world of hurt. The spaghetti clinging to the walls of my childhood home and the meatball on the chandelier proved the point. Somehow, in the midst of my father’s birthday party, war broke out. The remnants of Nana’s Jell-O salad; something she always made but no one ever ate, and the green leafy salad cousin Marie made, were comingled on the sideboard, a strange goopy looking alien with mini marshmallow eyes and tufts of baby red lettuce for hair. One lone carrot clung precariously to the wavering edge of bright green Jell-O. I won’t even mention the chocolate cake.
To understand how a family celebration can turn into an all-out war you’d have to understand that big families have a way of forming very subtle but no less powerful hierarchies in their little kingdoms. The oldest is the leader. The youngest the baby. But those kids in the middle, they shuffle for power and attention like lions on a carcass. While all that jockeying for position is going on there’s usually one kid that become the favorite. It’s never spoken out loud, but it’s there in the little things. The extra cookie, or the meal made just for them. Real or imagined this favoritism cultures a certain amount of animosity and undercurrents of jealousy.
My father was the so-called favorite son. So much so that after Papa passed away Nana slapped a for sale sign on her house, packed all her belongings without telling a soul and moved halfway across the country to be where my father was. Which suited me just fine. I loved having Nana around while I was growing up. She made the best homemade donuts in the world, which would always be sitting on a plate waiting for us when we got off the bus every Friday. When I was little I didn’t understand the animosity of my dad’s siblings. A few of them even moved to New England after Nana did. Although, they moved to Revere, so we didn’t visit them, they visited us.
It wasn’t until I was older, and my younger brother Mikey moved to UCLA that I began to understand the favorite child syndrome. He became the one we planned family gatherings around. If Mikey couldn’t be there, the date was usually changed.
I’d moved back into my childhood home after my mom passed away, the dutiful daughter. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to do it. I love my father and the house. She’s a beautiful monster. A true old New England Victorian with five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a parlor and sitting room. But don’t let that fool you. The pipes leak, the plaster is falling off the walls and there isn’t a level surface to be found. Oh, and last year, Nana moved in. She’s ninety-eight years old, and still a feisty old gal but her eyesight is going, and she fell in her driveway during a snowstorm. We’d been asking her for years to move in with us. When Mikey heard she’d fallen, he suggested she move in with us. She moved in a week later. She drives me bonkers, but she still makes donuts on Fridays so it’s totally worth it.
There we all were, twenty-seven adults in the dining room, assorted children at card tables in the parlor. I was feeling pretty superior, I'd managed to pull off another stunning family gathering. Admittedly Nana did most of the cooking but it was still pretty awesome. I was stuffing butternut squash raviolis in my face when the war started. Just a little artillery fire over the otherwise neutral zone. Nana had come out of the kitchen, pushing a shiny metal food cart, a gift from Mikey. It did make her life easier, but Aunt Mary had offered to get her one the year before. Nana had snapped at her and said, “I can still carry food Mary!”
Then Mikey had put his hand on her shoulder and said “Nana, it’s a good idea, we can go get one together.” She agreed. Right now, that cart was covered with four different pasta’s, a huge, beautiful salad with gorgeous orange carrots, juicy tomatoes, and perfectly toasted croutons. And then there was the warm cheesy garlic bread…oh carbs how I love thee. It might look innocent, but that cart is the symbol of jealousy and envy of Nana’s favoritism.
Aunt Faye fired a shot. “Tony and I want to have Thanksgiving at our house this year. We’d be happy to host,” (Faye is married to Uncle Tony, the oldest son, so by default she has a little more say in family matters). She’d been butting heads with Nana since she the day she married into the family. She had the audacity to look at Nana, “That way you don’t have to do so much cooking mom.” Oh-oh baby, I said to the little one growing inside me. The one my husband and I haven’t told anyone about. Girl, Auntie Faye is asking for it.
“Faye dear,” kiddo, if she ever calls you ‘dear,’ just RUN. “Who is the head of this house?” Nana’s tone was one that should have told Faye to shut up immediately.
“Mommy,” said Faye, “why can’t you let someone else host once in a while?” Nana didn’t have time to answer.
“Seriously Faye,” Sara interrupted, lobbying to be the favorite. At second to last child with a plain face, she always tried too hard. “Let Mom have her family here. After all, how many years do we have left with her?”
I’m pretty sure I heard Faye mutter ‘too many’ under her breath but she smiled in feigned acquiescence and let it go. “Fine, fine, we’ll keep coming here.”
We settled into second helpings, Dad was in his glory, I don’t think he meant to supply ammo to the enemy troops. “Mom would have loved this.” he said, looking misty eyed. Many an eye shifted toward Mikey. The prodigal son who hadn’t come home when we’d called and said mom had taken a bad fall, that she wanted to see him. Mikey ignored the looks. In truth he couldn’t have known the fall would cause a clot that led to her stroke, but she’d asked for him and he hadn’t come. The rest of us had been there. Uneasy silence followed
The Revere cousins were in rare form. They’d been nipping at flasks they’d brought as well as doing their part to deplete my well stocked bar. The hyena cackle of one of them caused the rest of us to turn their way. “Oh nothing, nothing.” They said in unison but the word, freeloader, was distinctly heard. Most of us couldn’t help it if we looked down the table toward Cousin Tammy. She scowled but remained silent.
Her father set down his cup hard, wine sloshed out. He was getting on in years, but he still scared me. The Revere cousins never were the brightest bunch.
“Watch it boys” he looked each of them in the eye. “Tammy’s just getting back on her feet.” She’s never gotten on her feet baby, but that’s another story.
The Revere idiots held up their hands “Okay okay,” they said again in unison. I think they share one brain but don’t have a brain cell among them.
Someone asked Nana if there were any more meatballs. Nana’s face lit up, she shuffled her cart toward the kitchen. “I’ll get it Nana,” I offered, I hadn’t seen her sit down yet and she deserved a rest.
“No Bethany, I can get it.” She was about to push past me, but Mikey spoke up.
“Nana, let Bethany get it, you sit down and eat some of this delicious food you made.” Uncle Mikey’s a kiss ass kiddo.
Nana sat down at the head of the table, laid her napkin in her lap and looked expectantly at Aunt Mary. Aunt Mary is nervous around Nana to begin with, she twittered and wiped her mouth. Nana looked aggravated that Mary couldn’t read her mind. “Well,” Nana snapped, “are you going to sit there all day or are you going to pass the salad and raviolis?”
“Oh yes, I’m sorry Nana.” She shoved the salad at Nana, then dropped the pasta bowl by accident. Two raviolis plopped out of the bowl onto the white lace tablecloth. “Nana I’m sorry.” That tablecloth was Nana’s pride and joy. I’ve never understood a tablecloth. I’d rather wipe up sauce off a wood surface then scrub it out of delicate lace. But that logic was lost on Nana.
Nana clenched her jaw but said nothing. I wheeled the cart past my oldest brother and clunked into his chair. Diverting attention. “Oops my bad.” I said in a voice a bit too loud. Tensions were rising, I could sense the undercurrent gathering power. He smiled, sensing it too.
Bill and his wife were talking in low voices and glancing at me. “Bethany,” Janine said in her nasal voice, “maybe you’d better skip dessert. You’re getting a bit thick.”
I tossed out my own little bomb. “You’re right Janine, maybe if I get a little thicker, I can borrow your clothes.” I smiled in triumph as she gave a wicked hiss. Bill laughed. Janine slapped his arm. The smack sent a ripple of smirks down the table. More weapons were being gathered. I decided a peace-offering might settle the lines being drawn. “I’m sorry Janine,” I said, settling my hand over my belly, “I am getting thick. By April I’ll be quite fat.” The aunts crowed with delight; my father smiled his slow sweet smile. Nana pushed herself up and put her hand on my belly. She closed her eyes. Everyone held their breath. “A girl.” She declared. Cementing the gut feeling I already had. Nana had been right about every child born to the family except one.
One conflict avoided, but The Battle of Jell-O-burg was about to commence.
For the next twenty minutes we talked about the upcoming holiday, who would bring the side dishes. No one ever tried to say they’d do the turkey. Nana did the turkey. Since The war of where had been fought and won, the rest should have been easy as pie. Not today sir. Not today.
“Nana, you don’t need to make that Jell-O monstrosity, no one eats it.” The monstrosity in question was directly across from me on the sideboard, a wobbly visitor listing ever so slightly to the left, reminding me that my floors weren’t level. Nana pursed her lips. She’d been making Jell-O salad since nineteen-forty. Every one of us pretended to eat it.
“Nonsense.” Nana snapped. “Everyone loves it.” Sara, the silly twit that had dared speak against the Jell-O salad opened her eyes wide as if to say, ‘what did I say?’
If Mikey had just kept his mouth shut, we might have made it to dessert. “Don’t be hating Nana’s Jell-O.” He shook his head at Sara. The rest of us diverted our attention, we’d never tell Nana that we hated that salad. We were dutiful. We’d spoon it onto our dessert plates as she watched and spoon it into the trash when she wasn’t looking.
Full nuclear detonation.
Uncle Fred spoke into the uncomfortable silence. His words, meant to divert attention from Sara. “So, Mikey, when are you going to marry the mother of your child?” He’d meant to be funny. But Uncle Fred’s idea of humor is rude mixed with sarcasm. Mikey’s girlfriend, Sally, blushed deeply and ducked her head.
Mikey was ready with his own nukes. “Well Fred.” I knew this was it. This was bad. Fred seemed oblivious, he sat there with a chimp like grin on his face, tearing bread from the loaf Nana had wheeled up to him. “Perhaps I’ll marry her when you stop screwing your daughters’ nanny.”
“Mikey!” One of my cousins scolded. “We don’t know that for sure.” But uncle Fred’s face went red with shame and the unconfirmed rumor seemed to be holding water.
I didn’t feel particularly bad for Fred, he was my least favorite relative and that was saying something, I have cousins from Revere. But Nana shouldn’t have heard it. He was her son after all.
She stunned us all when she said, “Frederick, I told you to stop bobbing that girl months ago.” I’m not sure which was worse, that Nana knew Uncle Fred was bopping a twenty-four-year-old or that she’d used the word bopping. She backed the food cart away as he was reaching for another slice of bread. Oh baby, did you see that? That right there is food warfare!
We tried to make small talk, anything to cover the unease of the past few minutes but no one missed the furtive glances between the aunt’s or the exchange of cash between the cousins from Revere. Bill had made out like a bandit. He stuffed sixty bucks into his pocket, licked his lips and asked Nana what flavor the Jell-O salad was this year. We tried to get back to the topic of Thanksgiving, and it should have ended there.
If only my family believed in waving the white flag.
“I wish mom was still here,” my oldest brother said, “she made the best stuffing.” Mom’s stuffing recipe went to her grave with her. We mourned it every Thanksgiving. For the love of all that is good and holy shut up! I screamed inside my head. I knew it was coming.
“Well, if someone had come home, maybe she’d still be here.” It was muttered from someone in the area of the bar. The Revere boys were there with Uncle Fred. Oh God baby. Hide! Eyes flicked to Mikey, then away.
Mikey was swift and sudden when he stood, he’d had enough. Dad stood with him, cutting off anything Mikey might have said. “Get out of my house.” He’d shouted, waving his arm toward the offenders.
“Oh sure, defend your little boy, can’t fight his own battles.” This from my youngest brother who up until then had little to say. I swiveled my head at him in bewilderment.
Then there was chaos.
I heard Tammy screech at the Revere boys. I heard one of the aunts ask another if it was true, was Fred really bopping the nanny. I heard an uncle swear at my father. I heard my husband call Bill a son of a bitch. I heard myself tell Fred to screw himself. And then Tammy-the-freeloader heard someone call her a whore and the food started flying. Pasta grenades were launched from one end of the table to the other, the salad bowl was flung toward Bill and clanged off the wall by the sideboard. The cake, that poor cake was debauched. The children came running from the parlor to stand in the doorway, wide eyed and stunned. We were a train wreck they couldn’t help but watch.
“No! Not the bread!” I’d shouted, as it was hurled toward the bar. Oh, baby, the bread. Raviolis scattered the table, plates broke, wine spilled, and Aunt Mary was crying.
“STOP THIS AT ONCE.” Nana shouted, standing to get attention. No one listened. My dad saw a meatball out of the corner of his eye. He ducked. Nana didn’t. It smacked into her face and sat her down hard in the chair. Twenty-seven adult asses hit their chairs. Silence, interrupted only by the drip-drip-drip of red wine leaking onto my creaky wooden floors followed. Nana held the edge of the table. She wiped her glasses clean of sauce and popped a nitro. No one moved. The Jell-O mold had even stopped wobbling.
The carrot that had been clinging to the Jell-O fell; clunking to the floor and Aunt Mary, bless her skittish heart, jumped a foot. My father’s face turned purple as he tried to suppress a laugh. Mikey bit his lip as his eyes filled with mirth. The meatball that had been hanging in the chandelier splatted onto the table. Dad couldn’t help it. A long ppppfffft escaped him as his laughter could no longer be contained. Nana glared. Mikey rolled his eyes and licked his fingers. The room erupted. Gales of laughter surrounded us as we looked at the food carnage we’d created.
“I have never, never,” said Nana when we’d quieted, “seen anything like this. I worked all day to make this meal. And you,” She looked around the room hoping to see contrite faces, but we couldn’t manage it. “You hooligans have destroyed it!” Her eyes got misty, and she used her napkin to dab her eyes. Don’t fall for this kiddo, Nana hasn’t cried since the Pat’s lost to the Giants in twenty-twelve. “I will never cook for you people again. You don't appreciate my love."
“Oh Nana,” several people said at once, “don’t say that.”
“No. I won’t.” She shook her head and hid her mouth behind her napkin. The old gal is playing girl. “My mind is made up.”
“But nana," my youngest sister whined, “you said you’d make the cake for my baby shower…”
Nana slapped her napkin onto the table. “I said no! It’s clear you don’t care about the love I put into this food.”
Mikey went to stand behind her, hugged her and spoke into her blue hair. “Nana, we’re sorry.” He kissed her ear. “You have to cook again. Sal and I are getting married on New Year’s. It was going to be a surprise, just a little wedding right here and we thought you’d make the cake.”
Christmas lights don’t light up as bright as Nana’s face did. “Of course, I’ll cook for you Mikey.” I don’t think I imagined that she stressed the word you. “I’ll make a prime rib and Caprese-chicken with roasted white asparagus and stuffed squash blossoms….”
The war continues.