We were spending Thanksgiving, as we often did, with family– not my bad cousins, who might have been fun, but my father’s side of the family: my eccentric uncle and aunt, a well-to-do attorney and his outspoken liberal feminist college professor wife from New England. My mother disliked my aunt, who was guilty of using inclusive language, not wearing makeup, voting democrat and having only two children. Besides, she wore sneakers with pantsuits.
I was and am a dreadful introvert with no social skills. I would have been a fish out of water at any holiday party. I might as well have been a fish out of water riding a pennyfarthing bicycle, at this one. We were rather paranoid Charismatics who went to the “traditional” church with the Communion rail. My aunt and uncle went to a liberal Catholic church where they refused to refer to God by a male pronoun. We were middle-class, and my parents were politically conservative; my aunt and uncle were well-to-do liberals who always invited a gaggle of well-to-do liberal friends to dinner. We were homeschooled with scary old-fashioned textbooks from the 1950s. My aunt and uncle viewed homeschooling as academically worthless and culturally repressive; their friends, the other party guests, worked in private schools all around Columbus.
Worst of all, my mother kept trying to show me off. No matter how hard I plastered myself to a wall and stayed there, she found me out. She tried to drag me into conversations and get me to talk about Shakespeare and Dickens, of which I’d read a little and understood nothing, in order to prove to my aunt and uncle that homeschooling worked. She was determined to prove to them that homeschooling worked. My aunt and uncle were determined to believe that homeschooling was dangerous. I didn’t want to talk about Shakespeare and Dickens. I didn’t want to prove homeschooling worked. I wanted to go home and read Shakespeare and Dickens in peace. But I couldn’t. It was a holiday, and I had to be sociable. So I talked to my uncle and aunt and all their friends about Shakespeare and Dickens, and then I plastered myself to the wall and waited to be allowed to go home. I did this every year. My aunt and uncle informed my grandmother that homeschooling had robbed my siblings and me of our social skills, but the fact was, I never had any to begin with.
I was offended that she thought I would stare. I knew not to stare at people; I was about to spend several hours plastered to a wall, hoping no one would stare at me.
We went to my aunt’s house in our itchy Sunday clothes. We politely greeted the party guests. Beth was there; she could speak a little, but only in a soft voice, and she couldn’t open her mouth more than a tiny bit.
I made cripplingly awkward small talk about Shakespeare and Dickens.
Finally, it was time for supper. My aunt wouldn’t let us eat before we stood around the table and each stated something we were thankful for. The well-to-do liberal feminist guests all had appropriately sappy things to say about life and health and family togetherness. I muttered something awkward, not to do with Shakespeare, Dickens, homeschooling or how much I wanted to go home. My three-year-old brother James said “I’m thankful for the turkey,” and the guests chorused their admiration.
We all sat down to eat turkey and stuffing except for Beth, who was making the best of things with a plastic cup of chocolate pudding and a plastic cup of red Jell-O. She looked as awkward as I felt.
Suddenly, noiselessly, my brother James excused himself from the table. My aunt went looking for him. She found him in the kitchen, searching the fridge.
“All the food is on the table,” said my aunt.
“I want what that lady’s having,” said James.
It took a few minutes for my aunt to understand what he wanted. Eventually, James came back into the dining room with his own plastic cups of red Jell-O and chocolate pudding.
My aunt moved his booster chair next to Beth so the older woman and the toddler could enjoy their pudding and Jell-O together. She topped each cup of pudding with a dollop of whipped cream, and gave James a plastic spoon.
“They’re his favorite,” I explained.
Beth’s tiny mouth turned up in a bit of a smile; she looked on the verge of tears.
It is a sacred thing when awkward people with next to nothing in common share a meal together. It’s a miracle when they find some common ground. Even if there were nothing else to be thankful for, that would be enough.
(image via Pixabay)