I scratched at the varnish that coated our kitchen table as my dad was talking. The edges were starting to peel up slightly, and the once shiny layer was now a bit clouded. A piece of the gloss snapped off the table and fluttered onto the floor below. In the kitchen, the air was thick with tension. I didn’t look up from the chipping varnish until my dad prompted me for a response.
“You’re sure this is for real?” I finally asked. I really couldn’t think of anything else to say.
He nodded. “I promised you, I would only tell you that I was dating someone if I knew it was serious.”
“You promised you would only tell me if you were in love.” I corrected him. I looked back down at the hole in the varnish. The exposed wood of the table looked better than the sections still trapped under the yellowing seal. My dad didn’t answer me and when I looked at him, he was staring down at the chipped varnish too. “You love her?” I asked.
He slowly looked back at me then answered strongly yet quietly. “Yes.” I didn’t know what to say or do. Part of me felt betrayed. How could he forget about mom so soon? It’s only been three years. I’m dealing with the fact that my mom won’t get to see me graduate in the summer, and my dad is going out and falling in love. I wanted to scream at him until I looked at his face again.
It took me a second to figure out the emotion on his face. I’ve only seen it once before, on our first Christmas without mom. It was a look that was both happy and sad. Proud and defeated. A look that only happens when your daughter opens a Christmas present and loves it so much that she turns to show it to an empty chair. It’s being so proud that you found her something she loves so much, and then looking at that same empty chair to share a loving glance. I couldn’t be mad at him when I know how hard this must be for him too.
“You don’t have to go to Thanksgiving if you don’t want to. I’m not going to force you. We can stay here and eat, just the two of us.” I chipped off another chunk of varnish before answering. Of course, I would much rather stay home than spend Thanksgiving with my dad’s new girlfriend, but I couldn’t do that to him.
“No, I’ll go. I want to meet her.” My dad’s face lit up and I couldn’t help but smile.
“Thank you, Jenny.” I stood from the table and went to put my empty water glass in the dishwasher. I was about to ask my dad for more details about this new girlfriend when he said “I’m gonna go call her.” I nodded. All he told me about her was she was nice and had a daughter my age but we didn’t go to the same school and my dad never met her so I don’t know a thing about what she is like.
That next week, my dad pulled up to his girlfriend’s house. “You’re joking.” I stared at the house, no, mansion in disgust. “Please tell me you’re joking.” I turned to my dad who was sitting in the driver’s seat. He failed to mention she was filthy rich.
He didn’t make eye contact with me, but as we circled around the fountain in the center of the circular stone driveway he said “I know it looks intimidating, but please, give her a chance.”
I looked back at the giant house in front of me, only separated from us by a row of cars parked out front. “Are other people coming?”
“No, just the four of us.”
“So she has three cars.”
“Jenny, please.” My dad looked at me, “I want you to like her. Please give her a chance.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if his choice of women had something to do with my grandparents. My dad never had a good relationship with his family, and when my mom died things got worse. My grandparents wanted to take custody of me, telling my dad you can’t provide for her the way you should. Your daughter deserves to never worry about money. This was the same thing they said when he got married, and what they told him when he refused to work for my grandpa and gave up his trust fund.
As if my dad could read my mind he said “she is nothing like grandma.” I gave him a small smile and nodded but I didn’t believe him. Anyone with this much money had to be a pompous bitch.
I smoothed out my corduroy skirt as my dad knocked on the door. It was quickly answered by a beautiful woman. She was tall with perfectly curled blonde hair that was pulled back in a ponytail. Small pieces of hair fell and framed her face perfectly. Her eyes were brown and bright and her classy black cocktail dress was covered by a dirty apron.
“Hi! Come in! Come in!” She stepped aside and welcomed us into her beautiful home. The white marble floors were decorated with a pumpkin in every corner. My dad gave her a quick hug and kiss on the cheek before she turned to me completely. “Jenny! Hi, I’m Angelica! I’m so excited to meet you!” She pulled me into a hug saying “sorry, I’m a hugger.”
I chuckled lightly and told her I was excited to meet her too. A timer went off in the kitchen causing Angelica to squeal with excitement. My dad and I followed her into the grand kitchen where everything was white and despite the counters being crowded with cooking ingredients, I could tell it was clean. Just when I was starting to think maybe she wasn’t that bad, her daughter came down the stairs. “Oh Mark, Jenny, this is my daughter Charlotte.”
“Hi!” My dad and I said in unison and I gave a small wave.
Charlotte gave us a sarcastic eyebrow raise before saying, “hi, when is dinner going to be ready?”
“About thirty more minutes.” Her mom smiled at her, but Charlotte just nodded and left the kitchen. Well, she’s a ray of sunshine. Angelica sighed like this was the most normal thing in the world before turning her attention back to her cooking. A different timer went off and Angelica got excited again. “Jenny, look!” She pulled a dish out of the oven. It was a thin cake that smelled like pumpkin and my mouth started to water. “Your dad told me you guys make a pumpkin roll every year, so I got one started. I thought maybe you could help me finish it?”
The pumpkin roll was a tradition my mom started. We made one every year. My dad and I kept doing it after she died, but they never looked quite as good as when my mom made it. My eyes started tearing up, I didn’t think I would get one this year. When I didn’t answer, Angelica noticed the tears in my eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to overstep I just though-”
“No! No! Um, this is really sweet. I just- I didn’t think we were gonna make one this year so I’m a little emotional that’s all. Thank you, Angelica.” I stood up from the barstool I perched myself on and walked to the other side of the island by the cake. Angelica smiled and pulled a bowl of homemade frosting out of the fridge. “Do you want to help me?” I asked.
She looked a little shocked by my question but then she nodded and smiled. I taught her how to spread out the frosting and she helped me try to roll it. In the end, we were left with a lumpy log of cake that was covered in cracks. We laughed at the sad appearance of the dessert. “It looks a little rough, but I’m sure it will taste great,” my dad said with optimism.
Angelica called Charlotte for dinner and led us to a perfectly set table by a fireplace. The table was made of wood so light it almost looked white. The placemats were a stunning gold color and candles and pumpkins filled the center, mixed in with the dishes of food. The varnish of this table was clear, and if it wasn’t for one small scratch in the corner, I would have guessed it was brand new. I sat next to my dad and across from Charlotte. “It looks fantastic.” The meal was filled with small talk between me and Angelica. She was definitely not the pompous bitch I thought she would be. Charlotte only talked when someone asked her a question directly, other than that she ate silently. I tried to talk with her, but all I could earn were short answers that never led to a real conversation.
I helped Angelica clear the table and bring in dessert. Our pumpkin roll rocked lightly on the serving plate as Angelica walked it to the table and I followed her with the ice cream. She proudly set it on the table and my prideful smile mirrored my dad’s. “What is that?” Charlotte was looking at the pumpkin roll with shock and disgust.
“A pumpkin roll. Jenny and her father helped me make it.”
“Where is the pecan pie?”
“I didn’t make one this year.”
“But we have one every year.”
“I’m sorry, honey. But you never used to eat it anyway.” Charlotte stood up from the table sharply and stormed out of the room. We heard the backdoor slam as she walked into the backyard. “I’m sorry about her, the pecan was her father’s favorite but she never used to touch it. I didn’t think she would miss it.” Angelica stood to chase after her daughter but I stopped her.
“Can I go talk to her actually?” They both looked shocked, and to be fair, I was shocked with myself too, but I know how it feels to miss a parent on the holidays, so if anyone understood why she was so upset it was me. Angelica nodded and I followed where Charlotte had just stormed off to.
When I opened the backdoor, Charlotte was sitting on a patio chair next to a table. The backyard was perfectly manicured and the patio furniture looked like its never seen a drop of rain or speck of dirt. Charlotte rolled her eyes when she saw me, but I sat in the empty chair next to the table anyway.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I wasn’t really sure what I was apologizing for, but I felt like it needed to be said. She scoffed. “I know it’s hard celebrating without a parent.”
“Please stop. You don’t get it.”
She stared me down then looked back into the backyard before talking. “My dad is in Tuscany right now. With his new girlfriend who’s half his age. He told me he would come for thanksgiving, but he called me right before you got here. He never even bought a ticket.”
“I’m sorry, Charlotte.” This time I meant it.
“He was supposed to come, and my mom was supposed to make a stupid pecan pie and he was supposed to realize he made a mistake when he left us.” I thought I saw a tear run down her cheek but she wiped it so quickly I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t know what to say so we sat there silently for a few seconds.
“I had a similar breakdown over a pumpkin roll three years ago.”
“What?” She sighed still seeming annoyed with me.
“It was my first Thanksgiving without my mom, and she always made a pumpkin roll with me. My dad and I went to spend it with his parents, who he does not get along with, and they didn’t make a pumpkin roll. I made a big fuss about it and my dad went out the next morning and bought one so we could have it the next day. My grandparents thought I was being a brat, but it was a part of my mom, ya’know? Thanksgiving felt wrong without it.” Charlotte nodded. “I just mean, I get it. I guess I’m just trying to tell you I understand”
Then Charlotte starting laughing. Really laughing as tears from both disappointment and laughter ran down her cheeks. I joined in a little confused, but I couldn’t help it. “I’m sorry I was such a bitch. I mean I don’t even like pecan pie.” She laughed again. We stayed on the back patio for another ten minutes talking and laughing over our messed-up families before going back inside.
When we walked into the kitchen, Angelica and my dad were doing the dishes and talking quietly. The pumpkin roll sat in the center of the island, untouched. Our parents got quiet when we walked in and Charlotte apologized quickly to our parents. “Can we just eat the pumpkin roll and pretend I didn’t ruin the night?” We both laughed and our parents chuckled a bit before reassuring her she didn’t ruin anything.
So we sat by a fireplace and ate the clumsily made pumpkin roll. We talked for so long that we ended up staying the night. The pumpkin roll was not nearly as good as the one my mom used to make and I knew in the morning, we would probably be making a pecan pie. But sitting in the warm living room, with this messed up idea of a family, I realized that for the first time in three years, the holidays didn’t feel empty.