Some family gatherings are best forgotten. This would be one on them.
The fact is William didn’t want to be there in the first place. A visit to his wife’s family was not among his favorite experiences.
But 40 years of marriage, he reasoned, teaches you to do things for your spouse just because they need you to do them.
And so it was.
There was William, sitting next to his wife Sarah, whom he adores, 700 miles from home on a blistery fall day, surveying a motley collection of in-laws and outlaws assembled around a dining room table.
What began as a somber family gathering to mourn the passing of Sarah’s mother had morphed into a spontaneous Thanksgiving dinner, an event William would later describe as the ‘Dinner From Hell’… with good reason.
At the head of the table presiding over the hungry throng was Harold. He is Sarah’s 89-year-old stepfather. He’s also the reason the family had gathered in the first place. Harold was driving a car a few months earlier involved in an accident that injured Sarah’s elderly mom, Millie, ultimately leading to her recent passing. He admitted to falling asleep at the wheel.
The family had assembled to discuss settling Millie’s estate. It turned out to be more complicated than expected. You see the family is suing Harold and his insurance company. But since Harold was Millie’s husband he is also a major beneficiary. Thus, it’s reasonable to assume he would be entitled to some of the settlement from the family’s lawsuit against him. Or is he? No one is absolutely sure.
Confusing? Stay tuned!
Now, William was not the least bit fond of Harold. In the 20+ years they’d known each other William simply could not warm up to his stepfather-in-law’s abrasive personality. Being a gentle soul and an accomplished musician to boot, William found Harold’s unrepentant redneck views about religion and politics beyond intolerable. It was a struggle, but William kept his counsel when needed for Sarah’s sake.
To digress for a moment:
William and Sarah had arrived a week earlier, Sarah being the executor of her mother’s estate. Soon after their arrival, Harold announced what he considered a brilliant idea to fill the time while Sarah was busy driving around to meetings with lawyers and officials, and before other family arrived. Knowing William would not have a vehicle during the day to pass the time, Harold invited William to come with him on a road trip, saying it would be a perfect opportunity for them to bond.
Being a virtual captive in Harold’s car was not William’s notion of a bonding opportunity, nor was it high on William’s list of things he’d prefer to do with Harold. In fact, some of the things he’d like to do to Harold were illegal.
Harold explained the purpose of the road trip was to retrieve money he’d lost beside a highway several hundred miles away into the mountains. It wasn’t just the risk of having to overnight with Harold, however remote, nor was it the risk of putting his life in the hands of a self-confessed narcoleptic driver. It was the rest of the story that became the game changer:
“It must have fallen out of my back pocket,” Harold said of the $70 lost during a drive with Millie a year earlier. “You see I had the trots. At one point I had to pull over urgently to do my business in the bushes. I ran into the trees beside the highway and dropped my pants. That’s when the clip with the money must have dropped out.”
“How in the world can you ever expect to find your money?” William said. “There are miles and miles of roadside to search!”
“I’m pretty sure I know where it is,” Harold said. William was much less confident.
He gave Harold’s idea the nanosecond of serious contemplation it deserved and responded with an unequivocal “No!” Here’s why: He quickly realized he’d be searching through high grass on the edge of a forest beside a busy highway at a location of questionable accuracy for a weathered money clip, the most identifiable landmark for which would be a year-old pile of human excrement.
Back to the dinner:
The attendees were as one might expect… Sarah’s siblings plus any spouses in good standing, as well as a random assortment of grandkids… oh yes, and a few other relatives hoping to cash in on any spillage from the lawsuit.
The event was at Harold’s place, an aging modular home with a kitchen floor that sagged precariously in one area. He explained the dishwasher had leaked for some time before being discovered, eroding the particleboard subfloor. Someone had installed laminate over the linoleum in a failed attempt to solve the problem. Now, the laminate creaked and sagged along with that section of the floor. Harold seemed unconcerned that one day he might disappear through it.
William was sitting beside Sarah at the long rickety dining room table, heavily laden with food, including an enormous plate piled high with turkey meat, heaping bowls of mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cheese sauce, sweet potatoes and mixed vegetables, along with gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and an abundance of other accouterments.
As the serving bowls were being passed around, the contents disappearing with dizzying speed, William couldn’t help but take notice of his fellow participants:
Seated to Sarah’s right was her older sister, Nora, a dementia patient on a day pass unsure of where she was and what was going on. She kept looking up at Sarah as if she ought to know her. Next was Nora’s daughter, Jamie, making a valiant attempt to feed her combative mother, but hampered by early onset Parkinson’s. A spoon made it to the appropriate mouth… fairly often.
(Politically incorrect, you say? Listen folks, this is based on a true story. I kid you not.)
Among those across the table was Sarah’s younger sister, Allison, whose weight required assigning her to the sturdiest chair in the house, causing those in the know to place bets on how long the chair could maintain its structural integrity. Allison would admit to being “a little over 225”, claiming less. William estimated closer to 375 pounds, certain the truth was more.
Images kept flashing through William’s mind of Allison as the Michelin ‘man’, challenging his ability to keep a straight face. Later, back home he’d describe Allison’s physical appearance to friends and neighbors while puffing out his cheeks and modest belly to their fullest. He also admitted later that the diversion had made the dinner a somewhat less insane experience to endure.
Sitting to Allison’s left were her two pre-teen children, each from different fathers, a boy and a girl, both seemingly determined to emulate their mother’s huge appetite and consequent size. Seeing the two children reminded William that one of their grandfathers, he wasn’t sure which, had recently undergone a sex change operation. He cautioned himself mentally against any temptation to enquire of the children which sex had disappeared in favor of what gender.
On Allison’s right was her current boyfriend, Bert, father of neither child, a pony-tailed ex-drug running former biker, whose overburdened second helping plate made clear his determination to match her weight some day soon.
Both Allison and Bert warned the assemblage of spiritedly chomping relatives they had a need for constant vigilance. Bert, who admitted to having served jail time on drug charges, said that he might be a target for assassination by his former gang members for having deserted their fold. This helped to explain the bulge in the back of his pants, tucked beneath the black leather vest emblazoned with gang ‘colors’ he insisted on wearing.
Completing the table circuit was Harold’s natural daughter, Mary Sue, whom William described as being one-card short of a full deck. He was surprised when Mary Sue insisted on sitting beside her father given the prevalent believe that he’d raised her amid an unrelenting barrage of put-downs, the assumed cause of their perpetual feuding. William concluded their reconciliation might have resulted from Mary Sue having become a successful author. Her accomplishment was a startlingly well-written novel about a recovering hooker, no simple task for a high school dropout with acute dyslexia. William was less surprised when she freely admitted the lead character was patterned after a quite recent period in her own life.
William could hardly believe the speed at which the enormous mounds of food disappeared. Not 20 minutes after the motley crew had gathered at the table, most were belching and passing wind in futile efforts to ease their over-stuffed bellies, secure in the embrace of the living room sofa, armchairs and the floor—all the while wondering aloud about dessert. That left Sarah and William to clear the table and bring out multiple pumpkin pies, plumb pudding and ice cream, with sprinkles of course.
Pumpkin pie would not be the same without whipped cream. The fridge yielded one kind of whipped cream and it wasn’t the dairy variety.
An enormous aerosol-type spray can of a white substance masquerading as whipped cream was positioned on the table beside the pumpkin pies.
To say Allison was impatient for dessert would be an understatement. Upon spying the whipped cream she vaulted from the couch, where she’d commandeered most of it, with the speed of a frightened deer and all the grace of a wounded hippo. Immediately she seized the whipped cream.
William watched in astonishment as Allison upended the caldron of pie topping, tossed her head back, and proceeded to fill her opened mouth to overflowing with the faux whipped cream.
Enough! William’s mind shouted. Enough! It’s time we headed for home.
And so they did.
Note: The forgoing is based on a true story, proving beyond a reasonable doubt that “you just can’t make this stuff up”. Names of the guilty have been changed to protect the guilty and the rare few who happen to be innocent.
Photo Credits: Car accident, writingfactory.blogspot.com; money clip, google.com, can of whipped cream, nin luethekirin; whipped cream eater, dreamstime.com; hooker, www.tuvez.com; vest, online-instagram.com; Michelin, com; thanksgiving family dinner, PDFPronto.com.
Copyright 2016 By James Osborne. All Rights Reserved.