I live in a Southern Gothic novel. Somewhere in author heaven, Eudora Welty is smiling as she watches my life play out like a scene from one of her short stories. Every family gathering, whether it’s a baptism or Christmas, has an underlying tension. Even someone with no knowledge of my family history can hear the rattling of ammunition in the chamber of every loaded exchange.
Every family has a unique history of slights, both imagined and actual. Every time we get together is an addition to and a culmination of ours. We’re walking a tightrope that’s being stretched from both ends like taffy. No matter how much the tension stretches, we dare not speak of it aloud. Speaking of it would constitute acknowledgment, and acknowledgment is unacceptable. Acknowledgment would ruin the image we’ve created for ourselves of a loving, happy family. We will enjoy our Thanksgiving together, so long as no one points out the vitriol spilling out of every pore.
My grandparents’ house is the same as always. The window boxes are overflowing with fading summer flowers: pink peonies, yellow zinnias, and deep purple dahlias now just shadows of their former grandeur.
My mother briefs me on the rules for the day as we walk up the tree-lined path to the familiar powder blue front door with its shiny silver handle. The rules are the same as they’ve always been, but a refresher course surely can’t hurt.
I am not to allude to drinking, imply that I in any way am aware of the existence of alcohol, or (heaven forbid) drink even sparkling apple cider within ten square miles of my grandmother. There are similar rules for tattoos (like the one on my left shoulder), piercings (like the one in my nose), and mixed-metal jewelry (my grandmother thinks mixing gold and silver is a tacky tragedy). If I break any of these rules, our branch of the family tree will be shamed.
“I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s easier for everyone if you don’t rock the boat,” my mother tells me. She knows the consequences; she has been a part of this family a lot longer than I have. My mother’s caution has paid off over the years. So long as I don’t do anything horribly uncouth this year like put my elbows on the table or take the last dinner roll, we can still be the part of the family that made something of ourselves.
The front door creaks as we enter. The women are all wearing linen pantsuits with orthopedic shoes and printed cardigans while the men wear plaid button-up shirts tucked into jeans. A crowd of various aunts and uncles surround me to ask “how I’ve been” and “how my love life is going”. Whatever answers I give will be passed around every Methodist church in a fifty mile radius. Small-town rumor mills have to start somewhere.
My grandmother is talking about taking out the back wall of the kitchen, although she’s been talking about that for as long I can remember.
“I just think it would open up the space so much more,” she says for what could be the millionth time. “It just feels so closed off.”
Aunt June isn’t speaking to Uncle James. She hasn’t in a long time, not since James married that harlot Susanne. Susanne slept with June’s boyfriend back in high school and June has hated her ever since. My grandmother, ever vigilant, has seated the two of them as far apart as possible.
“My Susanne has come down with a terrible bug. Poor thing just can’t make it to Thanksgiving this year,” Uncle James tells us.
“That one’s been going around town,” my grandmother says.
“Oh, what a shame,” Aunt June says with no remorse whatsoever.
We join hands to say grace, my grandfather’s lazy drawl filling the spaces between us. The little cousins giggle when they open their eyes and see each other across the table also not following the prayer as they should be. My grandfather smiles indulgently, but Aunt Nancy shakes her head in disapproval at her nieces and nephews.
I couldn’t be happier when that last “amen” is spoken punctuated by gentle hand squeezes on both sides. Everyone holds forks at the ready; it’s time to eat. I take a moment to look out at the spread that my grandmother has slaved over all day, refusing help at every step. Creamy potato casserole, green beans with bacon, and perfectly golden dinner rolls are all laid out on my grandmother’s deep wood dining table. Not even the vegetables are vegetarian where I come from. Plates are passed around the table, everyone piling some of whichever dish is closest to them onto each until you’ve gotten your own back. Say what you will about Southerners, but you can’t say we aren’t polite.
“Marjorie, you’ll just have to give me the recipe for this,” great Aunt Carol says between bites of dressing.
“I’d be glad to,” my grandmother replies with a smile. Whether the smile is from pride or because she knows that great Aunt Carol can’t cook her way out of a paper bag is unclear.
As the meal winds down, we retreat into the den to sleepily watch the Cowboys and then the Longhorns lose yet again. If there’s one thing that we can agree on, it’s that the Cowboys are going to have to start running the ball if we’re going to get anywhere this season.
By the time family members begin to take their leave, at least four aunts are ready to scream after an entire day of insults hidden under four layers of indirect. They wouldn’t dare though, images must be maintained. Hugs are exchanged and lipstick marks from smacky kisses are left on every sleepy child’s cheek. Christmas is coming soon, but if we’re going to pretend to be happy like we did today, we’re going to need some time apart first.