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      Sludging through the drifting snow, Callie’s heart was filled with apprehension and sadness. She felt her foot slip, which caused her to squeeze the large cardboard box full of individual egg custards she carried with mittened hands a little tighter than the already near death-grip vise she had on it. It was her grandmother’s recipe after all. Thanksgiving would not be the same without her grandmother’s egg custard, and if they couldn’t have the woman herself there, they should at least have something that reminded them of her.

           Maybe it was her imagination, but even nature seemed sad. It was commonplace for snow to hug the land and trees this time of year, but the branches seemed to droop uncharacteristically low and the freezing wet that Callie’s boots waded through seemed extra mucky. The cold wind that bit her little pink nose seemed to bite with an angry vengeance and the eight-year-old felt sure it was taking its vendetta out against her nose personally.

           “It won’t be the same without Mom.” Callie’s mother whispered as they neared the front door of Callie’s patriarchal grandparents’ house. Callie had always found it strange that, even though they were actually her dad’s parents, her mom called them “Mom and Dad” as well.

           Callie’s dad didn’t say anything, but he looked grim.

           Suddenly and with a loud bang, the door burst open, making Callie flinch so hard that for a moment she was sure her precious box of custard would fall from her hands and make a feast for the birds in the snow.

Maybe we could eat it frozen. She comforted herself just as she regained her balance.

“Come on!” Callie’s cousin, Betty, called from the doorway. “Everyone else is already here! You’re the last ones!”

As soon as that door opened, it was as if nothing had changed. The cacophony of voices and noises seemed to breath life into the dismal front yard as well as Callie’s spirit. The branches seemed to raise their heads ever so slightly and her uncomfortably cold nose suddenly didn’t hurt so badly. The warmth emanating from the kitchen filled with chattering aunts and older cousins busy preparing a lavish feast while trying to keep curious little fingers from sampling the dishes put an excited smile on Callie’s face and the delicious aromas that wafted toward her, almost like a physical force, set her stomach to rumbling. The men could be heard yelling and cheering at the television screen all the way from the den on the other side of the house.

Betty’s mom, Susanna, Callie’s dad’s younger sister, came to the door and stood behind her daughter. “Oh, good, you’re here. We were starting to get worried. The roads are slick.” She hugged her older brother with a depth of feeling that could only come about through the pain of shared loss.

“How is he?” Callie’s dad asked.

“I don’t know, Trevor. He seems better now that everybody’s here. This house is just too big for him to rattle around in by himself and he won’t change a thing, so he’s constantly reminded of her. It’s sweet, but I don’t know if that much is healthy for him.” Susanna sighed. “He’s aged so much in just a couple of months, but he’s been smiling a lot today.

Callie and her parents were soon inside and busy catching up with their family members whom they only saw a few times a year and enjoying the holiday to the greatest capacity. Callie became so absorbed in playing with Betty and her other cousins that she completely forgot her hunger and was taken by surprise at the call to come and eat.

A huge buffet table covered in the delicate, antique white lace tablecloth used only for holidays and special occasions was set in the dining room for the adults and a smaller, less formal, version was set off to the side for the kids. The food was a collective effort made by all the women in the family, as was tradition, and the buffet-style spread spoke of the success and tirelessness of recipes passed through the generations. This was the first Thanksgiving the family had shared since their matriarch had passed away and the work put in to making it feel normal was more than evident.

“Evelyn would be so happy to see us all together like this.” Grandpa said with misty eyes and a small waver in his voice. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was in the kitchen right now fussing over the pies.”

Grandpa’s were not the only eyes that grew a little wet as memories of Thanksgiving’s past dominated the conversation as they all set to work devouring the meal.

Second helpings had just hit their plates when something strange began to happen.

The overhead lights dimmed all at once to almost complete darkness. The candles that had been lit to add a festive cheer and were dancing merrily in their meticulously placed holders in the center of the table gave off the only source of light. Their happy flames grew sober and cast eerie shadows on the wall as their dance slowed to a standstill. Eerie with expectation, but devoid of any evil or ill-will. A blast of freezing air sent the children running to their parent’s sides with panicky gasps.

“Mommy, I’m cold.” Betty whined, burying her face in Susanna’s shoulder.

“What’s going on?” Callie asked at the same time, crowding close to her father’s side.

The elder of the group stood up and slowly made his way to the now-open dining room window. A thin smile trembled on his lips and he seemed almost reluctant to close the window, hesitating to lock the latch.

The room demanded a hush, but all eyes were turned on him with eyebrow’s raised and filled with unasked questions.

“Evelyn would have loved this. She would have eaten every meal by candlelight if it weren’t for her failing eyesight and she just adored having the window open, no matter the weather. She always said it made the whole room smell fresh and clean. She loved getting to be indoors and feel the outside breeze on her cheeks at the same time.” He chuckled and wiped away the tears brimming so close to the surface they were almost ready to overflow. “Sometimes when I close my eyes it still feels like she’s here with me.”

“That’s because I am.” Evelyn’s voice was so clear that everyone’s head snapped in its direction. The problem was, it seemed to come from everywhere at once and nowhere in particular.

“Evelyn?” Grandpa’s voice was shaky, even as it was full of hope.

“I’m here, Steve.” It was definitely Evelyn, impossible as that was, but the ghostly quality could not be ignored. Parents clutched their children tightly to their breasts and with racing hearts and trembling lips tried to make sense of what was happening.

The candles glowed and flickered, keeping tempo with her every word and casting unnaturally bright light from their tiny wicks, illuminating the faces of those around the table.

Grandpa Steve’s eyes stayed fixed on the chair to the right of the head of the table where Evelyn had taken her seat for so many years and which the family had opted to leave empty. Nobody felt right taking her spot. The tears ran down his face, now unchecked, and the biggest smile any of his children or grandchildren had ever seen lit up his features. “I see you, Evie. I see you.”

No one else could see her, but all felt her presence so strongly she could not be ignored and their fear turned to peace and the feeling that finally, finally everything may be alright.

“Stop your crying, Old Man.” The otherworldly voice scolded, exactly as she had done in life, using her favorite nickname for her husband. “I’m fine, Steve, just fine. You’re allowed to mis me, but your grief is so heavy it’s not letting you enjoy your family, not the way you should. It makes me so happy to see everyone here together, just like we used to be. You’ve all done a wonderful job keeping our traditions alive.” It sounded so much like the grandmotherly speeches she used to give that everyone grinned.  

Grandpa Steve stayed rooted to his place by the window. “How are you here, Evie? And why didn’t you come sooner?”

“I never left, Steve, not really. It was time for me to go, but oh, how I hate to see you grieving. I’m afraid that my great healing has caused you more pain than I was ever in.”

“You’re my best friend, Evelyn. I’ve felt so confused and lost without you. For fifty-two years you were my wife and now you’re gone, just like that. I don’t even know where to start putting myself back together without you here telling me how.”

“I’m still here, Steve, just not always where you can see me.”

“But I can see you now. Why can’t we just stay like this?”

Evelyn laughed her hearty, not at all feminine, laugh that Steve just adored. “Everyone gets one. I could have come to you in a dream or while you were dozing in your chair by yourself in front of the television with one of those sad little TV dinners you always insisted on buying, but I thought this was better. Only you can see me, but I want my whole family to know I’m here.

By this time, everyone was crying softly.

“Now enough of that.” Evelyn snapped, her tone breaking the seriousness and heavy emotion of the moment. “It’s Thanksgiving. We should be celebrating life, not dwelling on death. Cathleen,” She said, referring to her eldest daughter. “I think it’s time you served the pie.”

“I made egg custard.” Callie chimed in. “Just like you used to do.”

“Well, you better bring that out too.” Her grandmother replied warmly. 

After that holiday, it was never again questioned whether Evelyn's seat near the head of the table should be left empty or filled. They all just hoped she would show up.

November 29, 2019 04:36

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