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For the Love of Turkey MAG
As a child, I was taught that Thanksgiving was an essential part of keeping the family together.
Every year we'd gather at Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa's house out in the middle of nowhere – all sides of the family, every aunt and uncle and nephew and cousin and boyfriend and girlfriend and anyone else even remotely attached (and some who weren't attached at all), all situated within the five rooms and fourteen acres that Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa owned, a thousand teeth chewing up bites of turkey and creamed corn and green bean casserole and baked beans and snow peas and homemade stuffing and stuffing from a can and rolls that had been left in the oven just a few minutes longer than they should've been. All brought forth and placed on the table by all in attendance, and consumed by everyone, whether they brought a dish to share or not.
It would take several hours to get there and several hours to return, but nothing was more grueling than the hours spent at the house, watching the teeth chomping down on the cakes and the pies, the fat rolls lolling out of the reindeer sweaters and turkey grease rolling down the fat arms, seeping into crevices so deep that it would never see daylight again.
My great-grandmother's yard, normally green and full of life, was shielded from the sun by at least twenty cars. My family drove up the driveway slowly, almost hitting a cousin who ran out in front of us, and found a spot between an obnoxiously large silver truck and a rusty purple Camry.
People were situated in the sunroom in the front, a good number of people, and they were all looking intently at us. We walked past them, my mother and father and sister and I. We were very close to them and could hear them clearly.
“Hey, ain't that Marlene's boy?” I heard someone ask.
“Ain't Marlene's boy dead?”
A giant circus tent was set up in the backyard, covering several long fold-up tables, set side by side amidst a myriad of mismatched lawn chairs and plastic benches. At the end of the table sat a big stack of paper plates and every kind of plastic silverware that the Dixie Company made, right alongside a huge stack of bright red Solo cups.
I looked back and noticed that my family had disappeared. I moved on into the living room and still didn't see them. Great-Aunt Sue, however, saw me.
“Jesse!” she squealed as she jumped off the couch, much too energetic for her age. “How've you been, bug?” She grabbed my hand and led me to the couch. There wasn't enough room so she sat me down in front of her and proceeded to talk my ear off for at least twenty minutes.
“You're growing a mustache!” she squealed, clapping her hands excitedly. “You know who you're gonna look like?” She paused and looked closely at me, expecting a response.
“Who am I going to look like?”
“The evil man from ‘Frosty the Snowman' who tries to steal the hat!”
She threw her head back and cackled hysterically.
“You know,” she continued, “Lucy – you remember
Lucy, Maggie's friend – she's single now … You'd be a perfect match! Just perfect. You should add her friendship on that one web … Michael!”
She looked up and squealed again, nearly pushing me over as she jumped up off the couch and ran to my cousin Michael, who had just walked in.
I moved onto the couch, nuzzled between Great-Uncle Merle and Great-Uncle Bart. Merle is a former mail carrier who was fired this past election year after he was accused of not delivering flyers in support of the presidential candidate he did not support. He stood and walked to the kitchen, presumably for an hors d'oeuvre or a beer. Bart stayed on the couch and began to snore. Beery breath came forth from his opened mouth, almost bringing tears to my eyes.
Uncle Steve came and filled Merle's spot, a beer in his hand and a smile on his face. “How's it going?”
“Uncle Bart's drinking again.”
“Well, Auntie Mabel's cheatin' again.”
Bart let out a monstrous belch, so powerful that it broke his sleep, and his eyes, glassy and bloodshot, opened wide.
“How have you been?” I asked Uncle Steve.
“I've been doing all right. Jackson's in jail again.”
“What'd he do?”
“He and his friends stole a tortoise from the zoo,” he said, deadpan.
“They stole a tortoise?”
“They stole a tortoise and they put it on a skateboard and pushed it down a hill.”
“What happened to the turtle?”
“It died. They don't know what happened exactly. It didn't hit anything. They just think it died of fright or had a heart attack or something. The skateboard just rolled to a stop. Didn't hit a building or nothin'. Just died.”
He took a sip of his beer and looked off at the family in the kitchen. It was quiet in the living room, which was mostly filled with old uncles sleeping or mothers nursing babies. The quiet amplified the sounds of
Aunt Ginger and Grandpa George in the kitchen.
Grandpa was asking, “So what are you gonna do now that your school's closing, Ginger?”
“Well, Papa, I'll finally do what I've always wanted to do. I'll be goin' back to bein' a waitress.”
“And how's that gonna pay your rent?”
“Well, I was plannin' on movin' on in with you!”
“Don't mess with me, girl,” he boomed. “I'm not on the Prozac anymore. I might smack you.”
“He's smart as a whip but mean as a snake when he ain't on the Prozac,” someone chirped.
“I'mma whip you too!”
“Where's Nancy Ann?” someone asked.
Aunt Nancy Ann Cianci, three times removed, was a mainstay at every family gathering. Her fruitcake, which she baked every Christmas, was consistently thrown out each year, untouched.
“She ain't comin' this year,” Aunt Ginger said.
“She don't feel loved.”
“Why don't she feel loved?”
“Pro'lly 'cause 'a what happened with Donnie Joe.”
The story of the tumultuous relationship between Nancy Ann Cianci and her son Donnie Joe Cianci Jr. is a fun one to tell, but at a different time. All you need to know here is that Donnie Joe is an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who emptied three dozen boxes of paperclips into his mother's yard one night in hopes that “lightnin's gonna strike 'em and burn
the whole damn house down!” He was institutionalized the same evening. In her time of need, she turned to her husband's family and my family, but was turned down, because “no one likes Nancy Ann and her goddamned fruitcake.”
I sat on the couch with Uncle Steve. Bart snored himself awake a few times, and Sue's cackling could be heard every now and again from the kitchen. My parents and sister were nowhere to be found; I assumed they were outside, huddled in a corner, hoping that no one would notice them.
People often think that the most grueling part of Thanksgiving is the dinner with the dysfunctional family gathered around a table, trying to stuff food in their mouths, thinking that people won't talk to them if their mouths are full. You would say that, because you haven't been a part of our Family Portrait.
At around 4 o'clock, every aunt and uncle and nephew and cousin and boyfriend and girlfriend and everyone who was remotely attached (and everyone who wasn't attached at all) were corralled into the front yard in front of the oak tree in rows, the tall ones in the back and the babies in the front, and everyone was required to put on their biggest smile and pretend to be normal for the fraction of a second needed for the camera to click.
Someone I don't know poked his head in the door and announced that the picture was in five minutes. He yelled this, and it startled Aunt Ginger, who was still sitting at the table with Uncle Randy, and it woke up Uncle Bart.
“But what if we don't want to be in the damn picture?” Uncle Randy called out after him. “Maybe we want to stay in here with the air-conditioning.”
“If y'ain't in the pi'ture, y'ain't gettin' food,” my great-grandmother said as she walked through the room and out the front door.
Uncle Randy grunted and rose, taking one last swig of beer before following her. Those in the living room slowly followed out into the front yard, meandering between the cars and trucks to the clear area by the oak tree. It was here that I found my mother, father, and sister, who acted like they hadn't intentionally fed me to the wolves.
The picture was taken without much trouble. Everyone understood that food would follow if everyone behaved. In fact, it was one of the best pictures we had ever taken. Everyone was smiling. No one looked weird.
Then the incident happened after the camera clicked.
I was not near Great-Grandma or my cousin Jeremy when it happened, so I don't know what exactly took place. All I know is that Great-Grandma fell, and the sound of her hip breaking could be heard by almost everyone. Some said that she tripped on a tree root that stuck up a bit. This is perhaps the most plausible explanation, followed closely by the fact that it was unnaturally hot for November and she may have just gotten woozy and lost her balance.
Others swore they saw Cousin Jeremy stick his foot out in front of her, an allegation he fiercely denied.
A group of aunts and uncles loaded her into a car and drove her to the hospital. The rest of us moseyed around the house and property, waiting. We were there for two reasons: Great-Grandma and her food. No one really wanted to start eating without her, but no one wanted to go home hungry either.
A while later someone suggested that they start bringing the food out to the tent. “She wouldn't want it all to go to waste,” they argued, their stomachs making almost as much noise as their mouths.
So the family, who had been scattered around the property, gathered in the tent and grabbed plates and piled them high with food they shouldn't be eating. Our plan was simple: put a few things on the plate, eat quickly, and get out. We made our way around the tent, getting chunks of casserole and stuffing and pie.
To the best of my understanding, it was one of the girlfriends of one of the cousins who first asked where the turkey was. The cousin asked his brother, who asked his mother, who asked her sister, who asked her aunt. Someone finally spoke up and said that Great-Grandma had been in charge of it, and the last she had heard, it was in the oven, and she would go see what was going on with it.
My family built our plates, minus the turkey, and began walking around to find a seat. This proved difficult, not because we all wanted to sit together, but because we didn't want to sit near any of the rest of the family. The small clusters seemed harmless, but when they were approached Aunt Mackenzie was gossiping about Bart's drinking and Mabel's cheating. Uncle Randy was in the corner of the porch getting red in the face with some of the other uncles and any man who made the mistake of walking over there, yelling and carrying on about why Congress wasn't “impeachin' that damn
Communist dictator Obama” because, in his opinion, “this country's on its way to the very depths of hellfire.” There was talk in other corners that Cousin Jeremy had tripped Great-Grandma because, according to one group, he was back to “snortin' that cocaine up through his nose,” and to another, “injectin' that nasty heroin stuff up into his rear end.”
We finally found seats and had begun eating when we heard Uncle Randy yelling from the porch.
“Can I have everyone's attention?” People quieted, and he continued, “I've got some bad news.”
Gasps were heard all around. Everyone expected the worst from the hospital.
“Seems like the turkey's burnt,” he said. “Completely ruined. Dry as a bone. Uneatable. Left in the oven too long. Mama was workin' on it, 'n it got lost in all the commotion.”
I don't think it was my family's intention to all look at Cousin Jeremy at the exact same moment, but they did.
“Well, the only reason I came was for the damn turkey,” someone called out.
“Thanks a lot, Jeremy,” said another.
Jeremy's feet moved at super speed, but his arm seemed to move in slow motion. The impact with the guy's face was tremendous, knocking his trucker hat clear off his head and onto the hood of a car.
Some of the men went and grabbed Jeremy. Jeremy, in the air, continued to swing his legs in a frenzy, and one of the kicks connected with the guy's jaw. He managed to wiggle free once and was kicking and screaming, but was picked up by even more guys and carried around to the side of the house, leaving the smart-mouth guy on the ground dripping blood onto the concrete.
I heard later that Jeremy did have drugs in his system, but the information came third- or fourth-hand.
My family's movement to our car was as swift as Jeremy's first swing. No communication passed between us, just a silent agreement that it was time to go. We grabbed our plates and walked to the car and didn't say any good-byes.
We ate in the car and threw our plates out at a gas station eighty miles down the road.
Aunt Sue called the next day with an update on Great-Grandma. She was going to need surgery to replace the hip.
We let the call go to voicemail.
My father said at one point on the way home that we were never going there for a family gathering again, and I am almost certain that he was not joking.