A speculative tale about what could have been.

Image by Terri Cnudde from Pixabay

I

They gather at Stephanie’s house. It’s not the largest, or even the most convenient, but since she is cooking the turkey this year, that’s where they go. Dresses, slacks, and ties on, they start arriving too early. Dad hovers, checking unnecessarily that everything is being done the right way. Mom brings her stuffing, two pies, and the cranberry sauce. She helps Stephanie with the basting and they have a small disagreement about when to put the stuffing in.

Jen calls from Utah. It’s her in-law’s turn to host Thanksgiving this year, so they packed up their crew and drove the familiar path east through the Nevada desert. She says hello to whomever is available, passing the phone around to brother-in-law’s, cousins, aunts, and uncles. With her gone, it’s only Stephanie and Brett’s six children, Stephen and Christy’s three, and Debbie and Matt’s four, with the baby. Debbie carries the baby all day. She sits quietly in the corner. She covers up, when he needs to nurse, keeps holding him when he falls asleep.

No one mentions Dan. The last time they mentioned him, Dad got mad. Really mad, like break something mad, enough to scare the children. So they don’t bring him up. They don’t talk about guns, the military, or the president either. Those things get Dad upset as well. So, they limit their conversation to scriptures, what the Prophet said at the last General Conference, and the tried-and-true “What are you thankful for?”

But Stephanie keeps track in her head. It is the 17th Thanksgiving without Dan. She knows because Rachel is 16 years old.

Rachel and Ben set the table. This is Ben’s first year being entrusted with such an honor. They get out the holiday tablecloth — the one hand embroidered by Grandma B. They take the china plates from Mom and Dad’s wedding forty years ago and set one out for each of the adults. The two teenagers are included in the adults this year, much to Rachel’s delight and Ben’s annoyance. Ella and Miles are on napkin duty. They take the silky smooth squares out of the china hutch and fold them into sloppy rectangles on the right-hand side of everyone’s plate. Maya and Parker play with their cousins, running and screaming around the too-small house that was the only one Stephanie and Brett could afford on his salary.

The men — Stephen, Brett, Mark, and Dad after he makes his rounds — sit in an uncomfortable discussion about Work and Church. Stephen is not working again, but Christy is selling the latest thing from home, so they seem to be doing well. At least, as well as can be expected. They receive aide from the Bishop’s Closet. The ward pulls through for them, as it has for all of their families. Christy stands uselessly in the kitchen wondering what she can do to help. Finally, she stirs the mashed potatoes, then pours the sparkling apple cider into glasses for everyone.

They eat in silence, the usual hymns playing in the background, the kids playing in Ella and Miles’s rooms. At the end of the meal, Rachel helps her aunts slice up and serve the pumpkin and apple pies to the men and children while Mom and Stephanie start on the dishes.

II

They gather at Dan’s restaurant. It was hit hard with the closures, but Dan is inventive. He got on board the curb-side pick-up as soon as he saw things shifting. At least this year, they don’t have to loose a day of profit to close for the family dinner.

Jen calls from the city. She can’t get away from work. Something about a new client, end of quarter, and working 70-hour work weeks.

That leaves Dan and Lauren with their four children, Stephanie and Rob, Stephen and Emily with their three, and Debbie. Since Dan hired Debbie’s dessert business as a caterer and baker for his restaurant, the two have been inseparable. Aunt Debbie is very popular with the children. She always brings something sweet. This time, it’s spice cake cupcakes with a cinnamon brandy buttercream frosting, decorated like little turkeys with candy corn and M&M’s. Kids and adults are equally delighted.

They push tables together in the party room. Dan won’t allow anyone except Debbie in the kitchen, and that suits Stephanie quite well. She is a whole new person since she decided to stop cooking. Either Rob does the cooking or they eat out. Or, at least before the closures they ate out. Now they just order a lot of delivery. Stephen and Rob settle down over a couple of Guinness’s to talk politics. Stephanie and Emily pour red wine and discuss the children, money, and Stephanie’s latest book. She shows off Stephen’s photos, paired with her poetry, and both women marvel how well the publisher did with the color and layout. Stephen has been doing well since he transitioned from wedding and family photography to selling his nature and landscape prints. He seems happier, too. Things are tight, but the money he made in the wedding business has helped tide them over.

Mom Facetime’s from Florida. It’s warmer there, and the travel restrictions make it so she can’t join them. Maybe for Christmas, they all say. Everyone takes a turn at the computer screen waving hi to Grandma and saying all the requisite things. “I’m good,” “Miss you too,” “Happy Thanksgiving.”

Dan finally emerges from the depths proudly displaying a beautiful golden-brown Turducken. Debbie follows with brussels sprouts, brioche rolls, and mashed “potatoes.” The “potatoes” come in two different bowls. Cauliflower mashed potatoes in the ochre bowl for those in the company trying to keep down their sugar and carbs; mashed red potatoes with skins for those ready for the full-fat holiday.

Kids and adults grab plates and crowd around the buffet table to pile the gourmet goodies. Dan turns to the football game on the large flat-screen TV above the bar. At the end of the meal, Debbie serves up her individualized cheesecake cups for the kids, gluten-free pumpkin pie for some, and Salted Caramel Apple pie for others.

III

They don’t gather this year. At least, not officially. Stephanie stays in Colorado and calls Dan in North Carolina. Her two kids say hello over the phone to his four. Cousins who know each other only in name. Dan tells about their new cat, the bed he’s making for 6-year-old Noah, and the improvements he’s made to Mom’s stuffing recipe. Stephanie tells about potty training 2-year-old Charlie, and the “hiatus” she’s taking from Mom this year. They agree on how nice it is to be alone with only their spouse and children for the holiday.

Stephanie asks Dan if he’s called Steve yet. He says that the last time they talked it became a competition, so he hasn’t called recently. After hanging up with Dan, she calls St. Louis to talk to Steve and his crew. They decide to Zoom so that Steve can show off his new house, the first one he has owned. They have a trampoline and an unfinished basement. Two car garage. Rooms for all three kids. The kids say hello to their cousins before returning to their respective play activities. Steve and Stephanie talk about pets, houses, and train tables. They also express gratitude for being with their own family units for Thanksgiving. No travel. No drama. Stephanie asks Steve if he’s called Dan. He says that their conversations are short and rude, so he hasn’t called.

Jen and Debbie are in Florida with their husbands and the baby. In this time of increasing travel restrictions and rising virus cases, they still decided to put four adults and a toddler on a plane to fly halfway across the country. Not what Stephanie would have done. She tries to get both sisters on the phone but gets their voicemails. She doesn’t try to call her mother. She doesn’t have anything to say.

Stephanie gets the 3-lb turkey breast into the crockpot, turns it on to high. Her husband starts on the mashed potatoes. They eat a dinner for four with paper plates and turkey jokes. After the meal, they have the apple crisp that Stephanie made yesterday with her daughter.

Writer, educator, mom, coffee lover. I write memoir and creative nonfiction about psychology and mental health. Twitter @running_shadows IG @s_annewriter

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