Families can be fiery places, sometimes bringing out the worst in us. Ours is no exception. There were usually feisty arguments, heated discussions, and even a few insults. A newcomer to the family might be intimidated, afraid, or terrified by certain conversations, which, for our family, is table talk. Some of it is negative, but not meant to be. Grudges, while extant, are the exception.
“I am glad you are going with me to our family Thanksgiving,” I told Kayden the evening before. I made bread and potatoes for the gathering, a tradition that extends decades. Some of the attendees, adults now college age or beyond, could not remember a time when I didn’t bring bread, or make cheese ball mashed potatoes.
“I am glad, too.” She was sitting at the kitchen table reading. “My family is small, so for Thanksgiving it was just my parents, my two siblings and me. I don’t remember that it was a big deal.”
“You mean, there were no aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, nephews, nieces and a pack of spouses?”
“No. They didn’t all get along well enough to make a gathering worth it. Some had to travel hours, somebody had to host it, and it seemed like a lot of work.”
“Well, just look at me,” I said. “I have twelve loaves of bread, and tomorrow before we go, I need to make mashed potatoes.” I hung up my dishtowel and went to sit beside her. The dishwasher was running, the last four loaves were cooling, and I was tired.
“I need to go over this list we made last week. You have three siblings, your parents have so many siblings, and there will be an army of cousins.” She slid a sheet of notebook paper out from under other materials she had on the kitchen table.
I put my arm over her shoulder. “You don’t have to worry about that too much,” I assured her. “There will be lots of people there who don’t know who you are, you will not be the only one who comes for the first time, and some of the older folks, like my parents’ generation, will not know who a lot of people are, even the ones in our family. We only get together three times a year, not everyone comes every time, and the kids grow up so fast it is hard to keep track of them. Then there are those who bring friends, fiancés, or spouses. Put this in your pocket, though, so you can figure out who is who that you want to remember. Take your phone and exchange numbers if you want.”
She looked at me with a strained look. The last time I saw that look was the night before she had her knee operated on, about three months ago. It was only a few weeks after we met. I didn’t know her very well yet, but I took her to the outpatient surgery facility, waited while she had her arthroscopy, and took her home afterwards. At that time we weren’t living together, so I slept on the couch at her house, the first time we had spent a night together. Not exactly the way I envisioned spending the first night with a new girlfriend.
“This is not a knee arthroscopy,” I chuckled. “You won’t need any pain medicines, you won’t have any nausea unless you eat too much of Aunt Millie’s pies, and there's no convalescence.” I had no more than said that when some exceptions came to mind. “Unless Judith a few others get into a raucous about who has never hosted, who brought no food, and who never stayed to clean up?” The heated arguments about football or politics were not threatening, since there were no personal insults. Thankfully, this was Thanksgiving, and there would be no gift exchange like we have at Christmas, and no wedding, baby, or graduation observances like we have at Memorial Day, both of which resulted in someone getting their feelings hurt about one thing or another.
“We are noisy,” I said. “The gathering will start out calm and quiet with people organizing the chairs and tables, people preparing food, and others setting tables and arranging the food in long buffets. Then Uncle Martin will pray, and then we will eat. That is when we sit in clusters and talk. After that, the conversations will get louder and louder until they reach a fever pitch.”
“How will I know what to do and where to sit?”
“You don’t have to. If the chair is empty, it is available. You don’t even have to pick tables with people your age. If you want to sit with others who are there for the first time, sit with them. If there are friendly-looking older adults, sit with them. If you want to sit with me, sit with me.”
I knew this was out of her comfort zone. I told her, “I do want you to come. You can do this. I have seen you function at a wedding reception and at a work function. You did fine. You don’t have to know someone’s name to have a conversation with them, you know.”
“I know.” She went mute.
The next morning, I had my roaster oven sitting on the island in the kitchen. She had showered and dressed, came up behind me and hugged me tightly. “Good morning,” she said. “You’re at it early.”
“Yes. I have to have the mashed potatoes in the roaster oven at eleven so we can get to the church fellowship hall at twelve, and serve at twelve thirty.”
“Who organizes this?”
“Each year, one of my mother’s siblings is selected as a host. Even though we always go to the same church fellowship hall, there is a family that is assigned to coordinate. That means set up, recruit helpers the day of the gathering, and then clean up at the end. Now there are lots of others who help every year, but someone has to coordinate the menu, assign certain dishes (I get bread and mashed potatoes every year), and collect the money for the fellowship hall rental.”
“So, whose duty is it this year?”
“Uncle Brandon. I pointed to him and his family on the notebook page. One of them is named Judith, and she is very bossy, very confrontational, and just when you think she hates your guts, she sends you the most thoughtful Christmas present ever.”
“So, what is the high point?”
“Aunt Millie’s pies and the volleyball game after the meal.”
“Yes. Everybody plays, even the ones that are too little to play and the ones that are to old to be useful. You don’t have to be good. They might address you as ‘hey you.’”
“That sounds fun,” she said, the first positive thing she had said about the outing I had heard.
“It is. Lifts and double hits are allowed for the young and old.”
“Can I help you?”
“No. I just have to peel and cook these potatoes and I only have one peeler.”
“But it’s twenty pounds of potatoes.”
“I fill up a pot and start it cooking, then fill up the next one. When one is done, I mash them, then fill it again. It takes less than two hours to peel and cook them. By the time they are done cooking, most of the work is done and most of the pots are cleaned.”
“How do you make the cheese balls?”
“I don’t. They are cheese cubes from the grocery store.”
She tilted her head to one side, “When do you put them in?”
“Right before I serve them.”
She went about some business in the back of the house and returned when I had finished the potatoes. I was washing some pots and reloading the dishwasher. It felt good to be done, even though the whole project was a relaxing event I looked forward to. Wait. Once a year is plenty.
I loaded the bread in a laundry basket, adding paper plates, plastic silverware, a package of napkins, and a roll of paper towels. I squeezed milk, butter, salt, and the cheese cubes with the rest of the stuff in the basket. Then I manhandled the roaster oven into the garage and put it in the back of my SUV with the laundry basket. Off we went.
The drive was less than an hour. The weather was splendid fall, but most of the leaves were already gone. As we progressed, she asked, “How did the cheese ball mashed potatoes start?”
“Let’s see,” I said. “Stacy Lynn is now maybe thirty-five? Anyway, one Thanksgiving I made mashed potatoes this way. I had suffered catastrophic failure and Judith’s wrath by putting garlic one year, ranch salad dressing mix the next, and not peeling the potatoes the third year. I wanted something that was more interesting than potatoes with milk, butter, and salt. So, I put the cheese cubes in a small amount of them and separated them into a separate serving bowl. Well, they were not only a hit, but passed the Judith inspection. On Monday of the following year, Stacy Lynn, probably seven at the time, called on the phone. ‘Uncle Tony, are you going to make cheese ball mashed potatoes?’ I melted like the cheese. Since then, I have made cheese ball mashed potatoes. Some others have said, ‘Why do you go to all that trouble?’ I answer that it is fun. I don’t tell them that all you have to do is dump a bag or two of cheese cubes in them. There are no cheese balls.”
At the church, I hiked my roaster oven into the kitchen and plugged it in. I could already see that a fire had started, as Master Sergeant Judith was directing traffic. Kayden followed me in with the laundry basket, which she placed on the approximately one-acre island in the center of the kitchen.
“Don’t put that there! Other people are going to need to work here!” A two-alarm fire and a new girlfriend with a candlewax spirit.
Kayden grabbed the basket and picked it back up, then looked at me in terror.
“Cool your jets, girl. Give us a chance to unload. Oh, and hello to you, too.”
“Oh, I thought that was where you wanted that to be for the afternoon.”
“Of course not! But I would like to put some groceries in the refrigerator, make sure my potatoes are ready, and slice my bread. Or did you want me to take this all home?”
I glanced at Kayden, who had started breathing again. “This is Kayden,” I said to Judith before her attention span for me was over.
Kayden then got a grin on her face. “I’ll bet you are Judith. I have heard about you.”
During the subsequent flurry of activity that brought the meal together, I lost track of Kayden, but kept my eye on Judith. After plates had started filling, I found Kayden sitting with some cousins from several of the families including a woman I didn’t know. After going through the line, myself, I headed in her direction, only to be rebuked by one of Judith’s siblings, “No men here.”
“OK,” I said, getting a reassuring smile from Kayden. I headed for another table. The fire had been put out. Kayden had joined the family.