Friday, November 22, 2013


by Colleen Sutherland

You ask, how did I wind up here? Well sir, it all began with a turkey.

A year ago I announced to my seven children that I wanted to go to a restaurant to avoid the annual Thanksgiving dinner “At my age, I shouldn't have to put up with this.” I meant it. After 59 years of drunkenness, abuse and infidelity, my husband was finally gone. I wanted quiet and time for myself in my remaining years.

Then in mid-November, I got the call from the local television station to congratulate me. I had won a 25 pound turkey.

“I didn't enter any contest,” I told Ruth, my eldest.

“Oh we all entered your name for you,” she explained. “We figured this year you wouldn't have to pay for it and we could have Thanksgiving at your house after all.”

“It didn't have anything to do with the cost! I didn't want to do Thanksgiving ever again!”

“Too late. All the travel plans have been made. Lois and her family are flying in from Idaho. Paul is driving overnight from Minneapolis. We'll be there as usual. But don't worry about it, you make the turkey and we'll bring the rest.”

And so there I was at 5:00 on Thanksgiving morning, a seventy nine year old woman preparing a 25 pound bird. I waited for one of the children or grandchildren to come to help, but they never did. I wound up cramming it into the oven on my own. I felt my muscles tear. I would have to schedule a trip to the chiropractor.

They began to arrive at 11:30. The first was Ruth who came in with a pumpkin pie. She was followed by Mary-Margaret with another pumpkin pie.

With forethought because I knew my children, I had bags of potatoes, a freezer full of vegetables and cranberry relish. I set to work. “Mary-Margaret,” I said, “would you peel the potatoes?”

“That's not done already?” She started peeling and got through a dozen before she whined Esther into taking over by claiming arthritis. What did she think her mother had? Esther set down her pumpkin pie and grabbed a knife.

“Dull,” she said and went off to find one of the husbands to get it sharpened. She never made it back to the kitchen. I picked up another of the two dozen knives in the drawer and started peeling.

Paul came in then with his new wife Sunshine and her two teenage daughters. “Look what I made?” Sunshine said as she showed off her effort: a pumpkin pie that wasn't quite cooked in the middle. “Allyson will be along in a few minutes. She's baking something.” Allyson is Paul's first wife and she was likely to bring at least one of their three grown up boys and their children.

“I thought I should invite her,” Paul said, “so the children could have a nice family Thanksgiving.” The two girls, whose names I forget, immediately went to join all the other teenagers in the living room to compare piercings and tattoos. Then they took out their cellphones to text God knows who.

Allyson and Sunshine began their usual sniping starting with criticizing each other's pies and moving on to his faults. I learned more about Paul's character than I wanted to know. He certainly takes after his father.

Soon the house was a jumble of seven children, twenty-three grandchildren and God knows how many great-grandchildren and pumpkin pies.

The house was in an uproar except for in the kitchen where I worked on the meal. The potato peeling was finally done. From time to time, one of my offspring whose name I couldn't remember, came in to say, “Grandma, you shouldn't be working today! Go in the living room and sit down on the recliner!” Then he wandered back out of the kitchen before I could ask for help.

The generations were exploring the house, remarking on all it contained until one of them, I think it was Lois, said they should start marking their favorite pieces of furniture, antiques, or collectibles, “in case something happens to Mom, I brought some stick on tags.” That started a rush with people taping tags on everything. Lois was an antique dealer so she was quick to get the best pieces, but her tags were ripped off and replaced with others. The house was beginning to look like an estate sale with white tags everywhere, except estate sales don't usually include shrieking women.

I was still in the kitchen wondering why on earth I had so many children. It was because my husband liked babies, I remembered, though he never had much to do with them.

“Have the children,” Father Pete said when I was in the confessional. “It's your duty as a woman to be a good Catholic mother.” All my daydreams of some other career disappeared as the children arrived. So did my husband, whose name I make an effort to forget. After Titus was born, I was on my own. We never divorced though. That was against church teaching. My husband came home for the holidays, wedding anniversaries, and a fling in the bedroom. Contraceptives were not allowed, of course.

We pretended we were one happy family for the children. But he was dead now. I had to pay for the funeral but at least that way I knew he was dead. He's buried over at the graveyard next to St. Andrew's. There's a plot for me next to him. I don't suppose it will be used. Maybe one of the kids will want it.

The Thanksgiving fiasco continued. More grandchildren arrived, this time with their “significant others”, sometimes spouses, sometimes dates, sometimes someone they met the night before. There were great-grandchildren, too. The hallways were filled with portable cribs, though none of those babies ever slept that I could tell. One of the third generation, I forget who, volunteered to set the table. I looked at her blankly. Table? I didn't have enough tables for this crew. It was going to be a buffet, I said.

They pulled me out of the kitchen once for a family portrait. They put the photo on a computer screen for me to look at but it looked like an angry mob ready to storm the White House. By then they were arguing about politics.

“Here, Mom,” Ruth said and shoved a hat at me. “We decided to draw names for Christmas presents this year. There's just too many of us to shop for.”

I drew a slip of paper and put it in the pocket of my apron.

In the end, I got the meal laid out in the kitchen. It was light on salad, stuffing, vegetables, buns, and relishes, but it was the best I could manage. I rang the dinner bell. Then all those people finally remembered where the kitchen was and came trooping in to grab what they could. As a good Catholic woman, I bowed my head for a dinner prayer, the one Father Pete had given me years ago. When I turned they were fighting over choice bits of turkey. They complained about the stuffing which didn't have mushrooms but did have giblets. Wild rice would have been better, I was told by someone, I forget who.

One mother, I forget which one, reached into the freezer to find some hotdogs to microwave for a fussy eater. That started cupboard and refrigerator raids with the grandchildren in tow to find out what they could possibly be nourished with.

I wondered about some of those children. There were rumors that a couple of them were illegitimate. However, they all had nasty tempers so I figured that they had the genes of my long gone husband floating through their bodies. Even that oriental kid, whose name I don't remember.

They took their plates out to other parts of the house, fruit punch sloshing all over. The men, however, had brought their contributions, cases of beer. They pulled folding chairs in front of the television to catch the first football game of the day. All except for the eldest grandson whose name I forget who took the recliner.

Most of the grandchildren were either texting friends on their cell phones or playing computer games.

I went to my bedroom with a headache but my bed was already taken by a teenage grandson and his girlfriend breaking one of the commandments. I closed my eyes and thought about Pastor Pete who always counseled patience. I told them to get out and go to confession on Sunday.

“I'm a Unitarian,” the boy told me.

I took a short nap, trying not to think about the wet spot on the bedspread.

I woke up two hours later to the sound of glass breaking in the living room. The game had heated up and so were the men who were rooting for opposing teams, I gathered.

“Where did the women go?” I asked, hoping they were in the kitchen cleaning, but no, it was quiet in there.

“I think they went Christmas shopping,” a grandchild, I forget who, volunteered. “Early holiday shopping this year.”

“Christmas shopping,” I corrected him. Father Pete said “holiday shopping” was part of the war on Christmas.

It was then I remembered I hadn't had anything to eat. There were dishes and glasses all over the house except for the kitchen where all the dirty pots and pans remained unwashed, but not a scrap to eat except for the undercooked pumpkin pie. I threw on my jacket and went down the street to St. Andrews to see if the Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless was still being served. There was a little stuffing and a couple of turkey wings and more pumpkin pie. I ate enough to keep going, helped with the dishes, and went home to get to work.

By the time the women returned with the cars laden with packages, their husbands and significant others were snoring on couches and the floor and the kitchen was clean. I was sitting on the swing on the front porch in my old jacket drinking out of a bottle and anxiously watching the falling snow. In a big snowstorm, some of them might stay over.

“Mom,” Mary-Margaret said, “You don't drink!”

“I've just taken it up,” I said. “It's one thing the church doesn't forbid.”

As they gathered their families together to leave, Mary-Margaret told me the latest gossip. Father Pete had retired because the church finally discovered what he had been up to all those years. He and his housekeeper had retired to Florida for the sun and to hide from the cops.

When the last of them were gone, even the sleeping nude teenagers in the spare room (maybe the same two who had been in my bedroom earlier) I sat down in the living room. I would call the carpet cleaners the next week. I took my apron off then remembered the slip of paper. I drew it from the pocket and looked at the name. Who was that? Then I remembered that it was my name. I had drawn my own name. No Christmas shopping at all for me. How nice! But maybe there should be. Right then I decided I would give myself a present.

And that is why I am sitting here on the deck of the Queen Victoria, watching the sun set over the Atlantic on my six month 'round the world cruise. By the time I get back, my house will have gone to auction along with all the contents. There will not be a scrap left for the children to fight over, not a single antique or collectible.

When I get back, I will live in a studio apartment in a state where I have absolutely no relatives. I haven't figured that one out yet since they seem to be everywhere but it won't make much difference since I plan on having a post office box for mail.

Before I left, I had my will re-drawn. Everything goes to Planned Parenthood.

Yes, it all began with a turkey.

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