I don’t keep a diary or a journal or anything like that except for a basic planner at the office. That planner, now that I think about it, is probably the reason I don’t keep a diary. When you’re required to meticulously note what you’re doing for every minute of the day coming home and writing about your day seems a little repetitive. I’m going to label this file “Journal,” however. Maybe it will have more than one entry, it’s hard to tell, but I doubt I’ll have another experience that will fit with the one I’m about to write. Not to disappoint whoever is reading this – but I want to be upfront – I’m calling this file “Journal” to create intrigue. My hope is that one day whoever finds this on my computer either after I’m dead or while I’m suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia or whatever mind disease will afflict me in my old age will see a file called “Journal,” and be curious enough to read it. Of course, the person going through my personal computer files may decide to respect my privacy, or perhaps no one will care enough to go through my files. Or maybe the file will end up corrupted and lost. But those are future possibilities, and this story – this single journal entry – is not about the future. No. That’s not true. It is about the future. I’m not making sense. I’ll just start at the beginning.
I’m not sure where the beginning is. Do I mention that I met my wife in college, and we married about seven years after that? That we lived about two hundred miles from her parents and almost the same distance from mine but in a different direction? That we alternated years between families when it came to Thanksgiving? Is any of that important? It might not be important, but I do want to mention that my wife was pregnant when this happened. She didn’t know it at the time. She found out before we left her parent’s house this past Thanksgiving. Our first child. I’m still awestruck by that. Perhaps that’s what prompted this Journal. I hope that my child…my daughter or son…will read this and learn from it. Maybe there will be more entries, one day. I’ll try not to digress anymore. But, if my child is reading this know that I love you. You’re only the size of a pea, inside your mother, as I write this, but I love you more than I thought it possible to love another human being. That sounds cliché. But I swear that it’s true. If you have a child when you’re reading this then you’ll understand. Now, that I write that, I think I’m looking forward to being a grandfather one day.
Anyway. The beginning.
We were spending the week of Thanksgiving with my wife’s family this year. They lived in northern Iowa and unsurprisingly it had been snowing there for a couple of weeks already making me thankful that we lived further south. I don’t hate snow as long as it’s in moderation. Northern Iowa is not known for snow in moderation. My wife is one of four children, and the only one married, for now. She has one older brother, a younger sister, and a younger brother. The two youngest I’ve met before, and were in attendance this Thanksgiving. I’d never met my wife’s older brother. No one in her family talked about him really. I knew his name: Hunter. I knew he was five years older than my wife. And I knew that talking about him was taboo. I once asked Amanda – my wife – about him, and all she did was shrug. She didn’t even know where he was now. I didn’t push her about it. At the time, I was still getting to know her, and learning that her family was very different than mine. My family talks about everything and everyone. Not that we’re all in touch with our feelings or anything like that. We mostly talk about everyone in order to ridicule them in the most loving way possible. It’s not gossiping if it’s family, according to my mother.
Amanda’s family did not feel the same, and – to me – dinner conversation always felt a bit strained and quiet. As though everyone was on their tiptoes or that there was an elephant in the room that I couldn’t see. The first time I had dinner with them, I thought it was me. I mentioned this to Amanda – who I hadn’t married yet – and she was confused. Apparently, that’s just how they were. To be honest, I never adapted to that.
This past Thanksgiving was going like any other. Amanda and I were there, as were her younger sister and brother: Elizabeth and Jason. We were the last to arrive the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and we would be staying until Saturday. It was a full house, and everyone was happy to catch up. But that never took long, and before Wednesday was over everyone drifted off into their own things. Phones came out, and people became more concerned with their own lives and homes than with the one they were in. Amanda and Elizabeth were the exceptions. They were rather close, and enjoyed spending time with each other, but not in the house. A few hours after we arrived Amanda announced that she and Elizabeth were going to the grocery store to pick up a few last-minute things. They were out the door before I could ask if they wanted someone to drive them.
On Thanksgiving, I helped Amanda and Elizabeth and their mother cook dinner. Being around Amanda and Elizabeth made things feel less uncomfortable. They would talk about anything, practically ignoring those around them. Sharing inside jokes that made no sense to me or their mother, but I listened and enjoyed the sound of their laughter.
Dinner was an hour away from being complete, and there was a lull in the cooking process but everyone was already gathered around the dining room table when the sound of the front door opening and closing caused everyone to look up from their phones. I was more confused than concerned, and judging by the looks on everyone else around the table I was not the only one. Who would have a key, and let themselves in? Jason’s longtime girlfriend – Jennifer - was the first to stand up, and took a peek around the corner of the dining room towards the door.
“Hello? Can I help you?” She asked with a friendly smile.
“Do the Ackers still live here?” The masculine voice was audible only because of the silence.
“Yes,” my father-in-law answered as he moved past Jennifer. He stopped when he rounded the corner and saw who was at the door.
Jennifer looked back and forth between the two for a minute before returning to the table with a shrug.
I didn’t know it at that moment, but I’m sure you’ve guessed who was at the door that Thanksgiving. I will admit, I was thrilled even if I didn’t know who was at the door. At least it would be something to talk about for an hour or so. Not only during this Thanksgiving but future ones, too.
“Can I come in, Dad?”
My eyes grew wide as I looked at my wife, her mouth was hanging open as she shared a look with her little sister.
My father-in-law didn’t reply, he simply walked back into the dining room and sat down at the table. My mother-in-law stood up and with a smile moved to meet her oldest son at the dining room entrance. Her oldest son, and the baby he was holding. The baby stopped her from hugging him immediately, and she looked between the pale face of the son she hadn’t seen in years and the milky brown face of the infant he held in one arm.
“Is that…” she didn’t finish the sentence.
I don’t know if it was an emotion that prevented her from finishing her sentence, or an ingrained habit of ignoring things. When you spend years refusing to see what’s in front of you, it can take a toll. After a moment she hugged her son careful of the bundle he was gently cradling.
“Come on,” she tugged at his free hand, “we’re about to eat.”
Hunter let her pull him to the table, and he sat down next to her doing his best not to jostle the sleeping baby.
“What’s his name?” Jennifer asked, smiling from ear to ear as she leaned towards Hunter to get a closer look at the baby.
“Jasmin,” Hunter smiled at Jennifer.
“Oh! Like from Aladdin!” If Jennifer was aware of the awkwardness in the atmosphere, she didn’t let that stop her. “I loved that movie as a kid.”
“Me too,” Hunter answered, as he looked between Jennifer, Elizabeth, and Amanda. He seemed to decided something before speaking, “so, you’re my sister-in-law, I guess?”
Jennifer shook her head and grinned up at him. “Jennifer. Not yet, but can I tell you a secret?”
Hunter nodded, and Jennifer leaned over to whisper something in his ear that caused him to laugh.
I don’t know the exact words, but considering that she and Jason announced their engagement before everyone left, I have a suspicion it had something to do with that.
“How old is she?” I asked, as eager as Jennifer to be involved with this family member we’d never met. “I’m Amanda’s husband. Gabriel.” I made sure to gesture towards Amanda. Given the number of years he’d been away from the family, there was a good chance he wouldn’t be able to tell which sister was which.
“She’s eleven months old.”
“Where’s her mother?” My father-in-law asked, glaring at his son.
Hunter shrugged, “probably giving some creep a blowjob for twenty bucks so she can buy more crack.”
“Hunter Ackers!” My mother-in-law turned pink from the shock, as her mouth worked noiselessly.
“What do you expect, Maggie, when our son associates himself with people like that?”
“Here we go.” I heard Elizabeth mutter, as she pulled out her phone.
Jason seemed focused intently on his phone, as well. Amanda got up and went to the kitchen. Only Jennifer and I didn’t pretend to ignore the family drama unfolding.
“There’s only a select group of people who will associate with you when you’ve been in prison, dad. And you made it very clear that you weren’t one of those people.” Hunter spoke calmly clearly unsurprised by his father’s attitude.
Earlier I said I wouldn’t digress anymore, but I need to make a confession. I had an instinctive reaction to my brother-in-law’s admission to having a criminal record. It was not a good reaction. A thousand possibilities rushed through my mind about what he could have done to end up in prison. Each worse than the last. I was nearly convinced he was a serial killer, and that the baby should be taken from him immediately for its own good. I admit that upon hearing he had been in prison I didn’t want to be in the same house as him. Let alone the same table. I even felt my body lean away from him in an attempt to put distance between us. I’m not proud of those thoughts and feelings that rushed through me then. However, despite my revulsion at the man across the table from me, I remained seated. I could no more step away from what happening then I could stop watching a train wreck.
“David,” my mother-in-law spoke quietly, warningly, to her husband. “Let’s just have a nice dinner. It’s Thanksgiving.”
“With a criminal at the table?”
“I thought you might want to meet your granddaughter,” Hunter said. “She’s not a criminal.”
“Are you even allowed to travel? What about probation?”
“Parole. Parole is when you’re released from prison early with conditions. Probation is something you’re given instead of prison. And, I was never paroled out. I served my sentence. Years ago. Supposedly, it’s done.”
My father-in-law made a noise of disbelief. Or disgust. I’m not sure which.
“Have you been able to find a job?” Jennifer asked. “My cousin spent some time in jail, and it took him ages to find someone who would hire him.”
“I did have one,” Hunter commented, sadly. “Construction. I had to quit. Krystal – Jasmin’s mother – she wouldn’t stay away. Even with the court order. So, I decided to move. We’re headed to Kentucky. My boss knows someone out there. He helped me get a job. Bit of a pay cut, but…” Hunter looked sadly at the little girl in his arms. “I’d do anything to make sure she’s safe.”
Jennifer nodded, sympathetically. I admired her ability to ignore the tension in the room. She couldn’t be oblivious to it, yet she spoke to Hunter as though it was the most natural thing. As though he were any other member of the family. I can’t recall what they spoke about next. Eventually, Amanda came back into the dining room carrying the first bowl of food. Elizabeth and I got up to help her, but we barely spoke. Everyone was listening to the conversation between Jennifer and Hunter. Eventually, Jason joined in the conversation, as well. My mother-in-law shared stories about her own babies in comparison to Jasmin. By the time all the food was on the table, and all the plates full only my father-in-law was refusing to join the conversation.
“I should put her down somewhere…” Hunter said looking around the dining room.
“I’ll get some pillows from the couch. And a blanket,” my mother-in-law stood from the table. “You can lay her down in the corner, for now. It’s not much, but this house hasn’t been baby-friendly for a long time.”
Hunter worked with his mother to make the infant a small pallet in the corner of the dining room. And dinner commenced. There was more talking and laughter during that meal then I had ever heard in that house. It was mostly the four siblings catching up on each other’s lives with Jennifer and me making the occasional contribution. My mother-in-law would insert a story or comment here and there, as well.
I can’t say exactly when during the conversation it happened. But at some point, my perception of Hunter changed. I was no longer convinced that he was a prolific serial killer, and he seemed like a terrific father. As I got to know him, I decided he was a decent human being. He worked hard to provide for his daughter and had gone to great lengths to get her mother into rehab, without success. He was a man who had made mistakes but was doing his best to move past that. I even found myself feeling a little sympathetic for him at times. Hunter never claimed he was wrongfully convicted. He’d accepted responsibility for his actions and been punished for them. Wasn’t that enough? Why was it so difficult to find a decent job a decade after being released? Why couldn’t anyone see past a single mistake from a decade ago?
I’m not sure when Jasmin woke up either. I always thought babies cried as soon as they woke up, but apparently, that’s not true. Jasmin didn’t make a sound when she woke up, or as she crawled over the pillows that surrounded her. It wasn’t until she made a laughing noise that I looked over and saw my father-in-law holding and tickling her. He was smiling too, and talking to her gently. A moment passed before he realized the entire table was watching him. He shifted the baby to stand on his leg and bounced her a little.
“I think she needs changing,” he looked at Hunter when he spoke. “Why don’t you go get her things from the car.”
Hunter stood up from the table and started walking towards the door. He’d only just walked past the entrance to the dining room when his father’s voice stopped him. “Bring your things in, too. Unless you have to get back on the road right away?”
Hunter seemed stunned, he stood in the entrance and gawked at his father. I found myself holding my breath. My initial assumptions about Hunter had changed, yes, but I considered myself an open-minded person. My father-in-law could be a very stubborn man about some things, based on his refusal to speak I had assumed this was one of them.
Eventually, Hunter spoke, “we can stay a couple of days. If you’re sure…”
“Of course, we’re sure,” my mother-in-law replied, beaming at her husband. She turned her attention to her youngest, “Jason, help your brother get his things.”
“I’ll give you a hand,” I said, and the three of us put on our coats before braving the cold.
The days that followed were some of the best I’d ever spent at my in-laws. I could hardly believe the changes that seemed to come over everyone. Phones came out almost exclusively for the purposes of taking pictures. Most of those pictures were of Jasmin. Under the supervision of my father-in-law Hunter, Jennifer, Elizabeth, and I put up the Christmas lights while Amanda and Jason - under my mother-in-law’s direction - were in charge of the tree. When Saturday came, no one wanted to leave.
I’m not sure how to end this journal any more than I knew how to start it. I should say something wise, perhaps. Something that specifies exactly my point of writing this. But I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to color the opinions of anyone who reads this. I will say that I learned a lot this past Thanksgiving. I hope that one day someone reads this, and learns the same things I did. I’m not going to list those things here, you’ve read my journal, you can draw your own conclusions.