She chewed her mashed potatoes, taking small portions as some slipped off her fork onto her untouched turkey slices. She repeated these steps until all the mashed potatoes were gone and a space on the left side of her plate remained. Next, she tackled the turkey. When she was done, she carefully placed her fork and knife in the middle of her plate. Her vegetables to the right side were untouched. I watched her out of the corner of my eye not wanting to stare at this odd behavior. My father ignored her and concentrated on his full plate of seconds. The occasional ‘slurp’ or ‘burp’ would erupt between mouthfuls, which he apologized for under his breath without looking up.
At one point I caught my mother glancing at the empty chair to my right. She caught me looking at her and gave me such a stare of defiance; I quickly retreated back to my meal until it felt safe again to look up.
Nat King Cole singing Christmas carols played softly from the living room. His voice, the clinking sound of cutlery hitting the plate and my father’s occasional grunts, were the only sounds heard throughout this tedious meal. I thought of excusing myself and taking my meal to my room, but I dared not suggest it.
My mother sat quietly in front of her unfinished meal, her head slightly bowed, as if she were praying. I had never noticed the thickness of the rims of her glasses before. I seldom saw her without them. I had inherited the near- sightedness from her. I resented having this gene that prevented me from playing football or rugby, or my new passion from TV – basketball. She never encouraged me in sports, my father surprisingly didn’t seem to care. They knew I excelled at things academic which they liked but never praised.
She was now looking at my father. It was a look of pity and love. He, oblivious to her stares continued to plough into his meal like a pig at a trough. Without a word she got up, squeezed herself past the empty chair and the flowered wallpaper, past my father without looking at him. Moments later I heard their bedroom door close. My father appeared still unaware of her departure. I slowed the consumption of my meal so he could catch up. We finished in silence.
Then my father took his plate, noisily dumping it in the sink and headed for the bathroom. Twenty minutes later I heard him emerge and enter their room, firmly shutting the door. I had almost finished doing my required chore of dish washing. This year there was less to wash than normal. I wouldn’t have minded doing the extra work if some of my favorite dishes had been cooked. Usually at this time I would be scraping the remains off the pan of her bread pudding; or sampling small portions of the stuffing, or maybe stealing macaroni and cheese to take to my room, paying careful attention that I arranged the food just as she had left it, before wrapping it in foil. Most of all I missed her fruit cake. The fruits have been soaked in rum all year, made me positively tipsy when I ate it.
She forgot to do this annual task. Probably right after it happened. She had always been a creature of habit, but now her sense of order had left her. This in some ways took me off the hook, because I was for the most part ignored. My father did not have to discipline me because she wanted him too. I would retire to my room when I got home from school. She remained in their bedroom and would only emerge to cook the evening meal. Usually something she threw together with leftovers from the previous day.
Nat King Cole was now singing the Christmas song. It was my sister’s favorite carol when she was alive. We both preferred Christmas carols sung by current artists like, Donna Summer or Diana Ross. But this one song by old Nat would in the past have the whole family drowning out his baritone crooning, as we competed with each other in an awful off-key rendition; while decorating the tree.
A year ago, my sister and I did the work, while my mother gave directions, irritating us as she moved the lights on the tree from where we had placed them; or switched the color of the Christmas tree balls around so they would match. She said it made the whole room look more aesthetic –whatever that meant. We raised our voices with cries of disapproval. My father would laugh at us, sitting on the sofa, one eye on the game, sipping his third beer. But she would always win out by saying.
“Trust me, you’ll see”
Sure enough at the completion of our work, way past our bed time, we would stand back and marvel at its magnificence. As usual she was right. It did look ‘azz-tee-tic’ or whatever.
Our living room looked splendid; with long net curtains that fell to the floor and heavy gold drapes that hid them. The White walls blended well with the cream leather sofa and love seat, separated by a two-tier glass coffee table on a raised patterned red rug. Thick green garlands filled with fruit and white lights, hung above the mantel and caressed the wooden poles that supported the fake fireplace, where a nativity scene with colorful tiny mannequins that surround Jesus in a manger were carefully arranged by my sister.
Next to this stood our crowning glory. A 6ft fake fir covered with a hundred clear lights, adorned with red, gold and silver balls. Tiny red bows with gold trim and matching streamers were intricately woven into the tree. At the base of the tree stood five red poinsettias. In front of which were scattered many brightly packaged presents: that we had been warned, on pain of death, not to open or even peak at until Christmas morn. At the very top of the tree stood a magnificent silver angel with a light behind its head.
My father would belch and applaud loudly hugging my mother playfully as she admonished him for being so disgusting. We kids would just smile, and laugh and shake the presents to figure out what was inside.
Christmas morning of last year we were all awakened by the happy squeals of my sister who was always the first to make it to the tree. She never waited until we all were assembled to open presents. We would find her surrounded by shredded wrapping paper screaming with delight at the new professional Barbie she had gotten. This added to her collection of Barbies, while she ignored the little black doll that Aunty Pat had sent her.
My gifts were always practical; several books, pants, a shirt, some socks, and one or two board games like chess. I had asked for a Monster Tonka truck for the past three years. My dad would always say that he couldn’t afford it. I knew from the night before that none of the pretty packaged presents held my truck. So, I watched my sister open her gifts with an attitude. After I had opened the last one with no surprises. I began to sulk. My dad caught wind of this, and with irritation said what he always said about the truck, and sent me out to empty the garbage.
Outside in the cold air a light dusting of snow had fallen during the night covering everything. I dragged the black garbage bag behind me as I wrote letters in the snow with my foot, soaking my house slippers: I HATE MY DAD. I threw off the top of the garbage can to dump the bag, when I saw a big bright red box with a big white bow on it. Attached was a card with my name in bold black letters on the top line and underneath it said: Merry Christmas, son. Love Dad.
I was paralyzed with joy for a moment; then I snatched the box out of the can. It was heavy and I knew that inside was my truck. I turned around to laughter. My dad stood in the doorway his arms around my mother, while my sister clapped and screamed with her new Barbie tucked under her arm. I looked at my father and he beamed with pride. It was the best gift he ever gave me, and I was to later discover how hard he had saved to make my dream come true.
Nat finished the last bars of his song. I put away the last of the dishes and headed for my room. As I passed my parents room, I heard the sounds of my mother sobbing as my father tried to console her.