In the Time It Takes

“Do you think they know?”

Her hands are slick and shiny, covered in butter, and flecked with dark bits of thyme and black pepper. In front of her, a large, raw turkey, slathered and herbed and stuffed, rests in an heirloom roasting pan on a bed of onions and celery.

“We’ll tell them after dinner.”

His hands are clean, but he picks at a bit of dry skin around the nail of his pointer finger.

“There’s no possible way they’ll know, right? No way they could have figured it out?”

“I don’t see how.”

She steps away from the counter and he moves forward, lifts the roasting pan and places the turkey in the oven. Already, it looks perfect. Picture perfect, just like a Norman Rockwell painting.

“I’m worried,” she says. “I just want everyone to enjoy dinner. I don’t want drama.”

Bright sunlight peeks in through a window above the sink. The tiny kitchen feels alive with fragrance and clutter and heat. The oven’s been on for hours.

“I know,” he answers. “It’ll be fine.”

She sets a timer.

“Someone will complain that it’s dry,” she says. “Or that it’s too salty. Or not salty enough.”

“Someone could have volunteered to cook.”

“I volunteered, though, so it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s good.”

“You didn’t volunteer,” he points out. “You felt obligated. That’s different.”

She knits her brow. “I did not feel obligated.”

“You absolutely did.”

“No, I didn’t. This felt like something I could do. I like to cook.”

“This isn’t cooking,” he argues. He gestures around the kitchen, to the towering collection of pots and pans stacked on the countertops, and then to the stack of dishes already soaking in the sink. “This is forced labor.”

She looks over to the timer. She sighs. “I don’t want to argue with you,” she says.

“Then let’s not.”

“Okay, let’s not.” She checks a list she’s hung on the fridge. She’s worried over it for days, adding and then crossing out items. “I need to make the sweet potatoes. We have marshmallows, right? You bought them?”

“I don’t like marshmallows,” he says. “Who decided to add marshmallows?”

“I have no idea,” she answers, and adds “but I’m certainly not a better cook than they were.”

“You’re a great cook,” he says.

She smiles. “And that’s why you love me.”

“One of many reasons,” he says. He walks over and pecks her on the lips. “What can I help with?”

Together, they chop and roast sweet potatoes, and glaze them with maple syrup and Bourbon. She makes a green bean casserole while he sets the table. She’s crafted a special centerpiece, full of little orange and yellow pumpkins, gold ribbons, and cinnamon sticks. He positions it just so, with little tea candles all around to catch the light.

She comes into the dining room carrying a tray of crystal wine glasses, a wedding gift they only use once a year. She places one down at each setting.

“Thank you for setting the table,” she tells him. “It looks great.”

“Thanks,” he says.

She doesn’t reply.

“You did a really good job on the centerpiece,” he adds.

“Are we doing the right thing?”

He can hear an edge in her voice, a raised pitch, a thinness.

“We’ve talked about it for months,” he says. “It’s an opportunity I’m probably not going to get again. And you’re excited, too, remember?”

“I am,” she answers. “I really am.”

“The it’s the right thing,” he says, even and confident.

“But what if it’s not? What if we’re making the wrong decision?” She tightens her grip on the tray, now hanging lengthwise, covering her abdomen. Her knuckles turn bone white.

“Do you really feel that way? Or are you letting holiday stress get to you? Your family can be handful this time of year.” He crosses his arms, puts a hand up to his chin, shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”

“How could you even say that?”

“I’m sorry,” he says again.

“I’ve been agonizing over this. You know how hard it is for me.” She turns, sharp and intent, on one ankle and makes her way back to the kitchen.

From the dining room, he hears the loud clang of the tray hitting the counter. “I know,” he says, almost too quiet.

“And to bring up my family like that. How could you?”

He winces. He says nothing.

“My family’s lived here forever. No one’s ever moved away. No one. It’s just not done.”

He joins her in the kitchen, tries to catch her eye as she opens and closes drawers, pulls out one serving spoon after another.

“You know we’re close. You’ve known that from day one.” She leans over the sink, bearing her weight down on her hands, forcing herself to stay upright, focused.

“Your family will be okay. It’s a move,” he says. “It’s not a life sentence. We can always come back if we hate it.”

“You know as well as I do that you don’t want to come back.” She finally turns to face him. She sets her lips in a thin, tight line.

“That’s not fair,” he says.

“It’s true, though,” she replies, short and clipped.

“You were the one who told me to look for this job.”

“I know, but it’s not like you needed convincing.”

“You even chose the city,” he yells. He takes a breath, starts again: “You said you’ve always wanted to live in Chicago.”

“I know,” she says. “I know, you’re right.”

She checks the oven timer. The turkey’s turned golden. She starts to say how nice it’s coming along.

“I know you’re worried,” he says. “But we’ve talked about this.”

“I know. We have.” She bites a nail. “But I just feel like it’s the wrong decision.”

“You feel like that today, because it’s a holiday.”

“No, that’s not why.” She closes her eyes, opens them, knows they’ve gone hard and wide. “Don’t tell me what I think.”

“I’m not,” he says, gentle, patient. “But you were ready to go before today.”

Outside, the sun ducks behind a cloud, and against the window, they both hear the ping of tiny pinpricks of rain. The weather’s turned, but in their kitchen, things are still hot and close and heavy as a weighted blanket.

The timer sounds. He retrieves the turkey from the oven. They both watch as it steams, and she moves to cover it with foil.

“Then you haven’t been listening to me,” she whispers. There is nothing calm in that whisper.

“I have!” He raises his voice again. He doesn’t fight it this time. “I really have. I thought we were on the same page.”

“You hear what you want to hear,” she snaps.

“I hear what you tell me.”

“I tell you everything! You just don’t listen.”

“I listen.”

They move all of the sides to the table, one after another. Warm casserole dishes, overfull gravy boats, all set up in the kind of perfect order of a magazine spread, each in its place and each place just right, with the turkey at the head, surrounded by fat sprigs of rosemary.

“You listen and filter out what doesn’t fit into what you’re thinking.”

“That’s not true,” he says.

“It is,” she counters.

“You know it’s not.” Quiet, defeated, deflated. “And if you really feel that way, I don’t know why you married me in the first place.”

“Sometimes I don’t either.”

“Do you mean that?”

She pauses, and for a moment, they both wait. Silence hangs between them.

She nods. “Yes,” she says. “Yeah, I think I do.”

He nods back, makes his choice, and answers. “Then we have other things to talk about.”

“I guess we do,” she says. She turns her back to him and walks out of the room.

He follows her out, walks into the living room and starts a fire for the evening. It roars to life. Later, after dinner, everyone will gather here to drink hot chocolate and play a board game, as they do every year. He’s always enjoyed the tradition.

Outside, a car door slams. Quiet conversation drifts up the walkway to the front door. He joins her in the foyer and plasters on a smile. It matches hers, bright and vibrant and convincing.

“I don’t understand how we got here,” she says. The smile doesn’t slip.

“I don’t understand why you don’t understand.” His mouth stays curled, like hers, tight and stretched and smooth. It shines like a scar.

The doorbell rings.

Found Friday #13: Christmas Treasures

I mentioned in Wednesday’s post that I’ve already decorated for Christmas.

Normally, I’d wait until after Thanksgiving, but the holidays just feel different this year, and I figure in 2020, we need all the joy we can get.

So, I’m cheating a little bit this week and writing about the things I “find” every year when we unpack the Christmas boxes and haul out the holly. I love decorating for Christmas, and so I always like to take a little extra time to look through my collection of Christmas-y things and appreciate them.

The first items I always unpack? My Christmas bears.

I’m not really sure where they came from, but I’ve had them forever. My mom says she thinks she bought them for me, but let’s face it, 1987 was a long time ago.

Not so long ago, when I moved into my first place, my mom gave me some of the ornaments she’d collected for me over the years. I have lots of favorites, but I particularly love this one.

It’s my first Christmas ornament.

I’ve also got a number of handmade snowflakes that she and my grandmother crocheted over the years.

And a few that I made for her when I was in primary school. This one?

Not sure when I made it, or how old that candy cane is…

Even the garland peeking out here and there in these pictures is an heirloom. My mom made it for me the first year I put up my own Christmas tree.

When my husband and I got married, I felt so honored and happy to be able to include his special ornaments. I love this one, which looks like his first dog, a little Sheltie called Daisy.

And we’ve also started our own collection. We get a new ornament engraved every year. This is the one we got in 2016, our first Christmas in the new old house.

It felt appropriate.

I love that every year at Christmas, I get the opportunity to showcase all of these little treasures. The memories they carry are precious.

*A quick note – I’ll be taking a break next week for the holiday. Check back on Monday, November 30th, for this month’s short story. In the meantime, I wish each of my readers a lovely weekend and week, and, to my American crew, a wonderful (and safe) Thanksgiving!*

Some Thoughts on 2020 Thanksgiving (and Why I’ve Already Decorated for Christmas)

This time last year, we were prepping for a big Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, and a quick trip right after to Las Vegas.

We stayed busy. We saw EVERYONE. Hugs all around.

And I got to see the Grand Canyon for the first time.

We came home exhausted.

This year? Well, we’re exhausted. We’re in the middle of self-quarantining for fourteen days, so that, if we’re still healthy and they’re still healthy and none of us has had any known COVID exposures or symptoms, we can see my parents over the holiday next week.

Just my parents. No large gatherings. I don’t even know if we’ll make the traditional dinner.

Yes, so far, the holidays feel very different this year. But, as I look forward to next week, whatever we end up doing with ourselves, I am thankful.

I’m thankful that my family is healthy, and that I’m healthy. I’m thankful to have money coming in, and food on my table, and a roof over my head, and books. I’m thankful for books, always. I’m thankful to have time to write and to rest. I’m thankful for the sun in the morning and the moon at night and for a world that just keeps turning even in the midst of chaos and crisis.

2020 hasn’t been the year I anticipated, but it’s the year I got, and I’ve tried to be as grateful and happy as possible for every little thing that’s good. And where I can, I’ve tried to make good things happen.

Which is why it’s November 18th and I’ve already put up Christmas decorations.

No regrets. It was the right choice. What can I say? This year’s been all about finding joy even in the darkest of times.

It’s been hard. It will likely continue to be hard. But I’m here and I’m healthy and my loved ones are, too. And in 2020, that’s plenty to give thanks for.

Free Will

Light and Shadow:
We are made of both,
and we choose how they balance.
Each moment a call –
to break or create,
arms or alms,
hate or a hand,
action or none.
This power is ours.
Light or shadow,
growth or fallow,
only we choose.

Found Friday #12: The Last of the Fall Colors

I’m not quite sure when it happened, but it’s looking sort of wintry outside.

It’s still not too cold, but the branches are pretty empty, and there are only a few pops of fall color left.

Our honey locust had a rough summer, but it’s putting on quite a show right now.

The reds and golds have been particularly bright this year.

I’ve always loved every season, and usually, by the time one comes to an end, I’m ready for the next. I’m looking forward to the cold, and maybe, hopefully, the snow. But for now, I’ll enjoy these last days of autumn.

A Grandfather’s Story

Veteran’s Day always makes me think of my grandfather, my favorite veteran.

He died in 2015. He didn’t talk much about his service, at least not to me. What little I do know, I’ve learned from my mother, and I’m always trying to piece it together in stories, because those are all I have left of him now. I wonder how many grandchildren could say the same thing.

Here’s something I wrote not long after he died. I thought I might include it in a larger work (that still isn’t done, and might never be).

Some of it’s true.

************

At a fork in an old country road, surrounded by rocky fields and green mountains and flanked on both sides by cracked pavement, sits an old white farmhouse. Its shutters and clapboard are going grey, its chimney is crumbling, and any reminder that it used to be part of a functioning farm is long gone, replaced by overgrown patches of wild onions and cattails. There’s no sign now that it ever housed a family. This is the house where my grandfather grew up, nestled outside of a small Appalachian town.

The land is called Hell’s Half Acre, and my grandfather knew, when he was a boy, that he’d have to work it. Walking home from school, a satchel of books swinging in his hand, he wondered every day if it would be the last he’d make the trek. And one day it was. He left school in seventh grade, a servant to the farm. It was that, he told my mother, or be sold to another family, one with the resources to afford another mouth to feed.  Instead, he used his hands to work. Evenings on the farm, and days underground, laying wood for mine shafts. And each day, he’d stare at the fork in the road, and wonder if he’d ever get to choose any direction at all.

“When I grow up,” he said to himself, eating dinner at a quiet table full of tired, hungry people, between gulps of buttermilk and bites of toasted biscuit, “when I grow up…” He didn’t dare dream of that time. Dreaming felt hopeless, not an escape but a trap, a long, dark tunnel with no light at the end. 

Then, when he turned sixteen, there came a war.

“I’m going to sign up,” he said to his brother, and he did. He lied about his age, though not by much, and found himself on a train west, to basic training somewhere in the Dakotas. And then a ship east, to Africa. And then a ship north, to Italy. And it was there, sleeping in empty towns and eating blood-spackled bread, that he met a girl. Sort of.

Back home, my grandmother was reading books by flashlight every night, hiding under her covers from a father who thought women shouldn’t read and a step-mother who wore her dead mother’s clothes. Sometimes, in the quiet, heavy darkness, my grandmother would talk to her sister, who died when they were both very young, because she had no one else to talk to. 

“Lucy,” she’d say, “when I grow up…” And she’d pause. “When I grow up…”  And she couldn’t finish the thought. When she grew up, she would be some man’s wife, some child’s mother, and finally some graveyard’s newest coffin.

And then one day, she sent a picture and a letter to a soldier from the county, off fighting in a war that involved the whole world. And it changed everything.

I Know the Feeling

To be tired down to your bones,
right now, it isn’t so bad.
Had things happened any other way,
well, no one knows.
Guessing’s an awful game.
For now, right now, there’s rest.
And soon, there just might be,
I think there is,
just there ahead,
like it’s been waiting all along,
light.

Found Friday #11: Positive Vibes

Still waiting, still watching. Still so tired.

I’ve been glued to news coverage since Tuesday. It’s hard to see a light at the end of this really long, dark tunnel. But I think we’re getting there.

I snapped this picture at around this time last week, while I was having a cider with my husband and a good friend at one of our favorite places. We spent the afternoon and evening discussing what might happen this week, and how maybe, just maybe, the world would look a little brighter very soon.

I’m holding on to those happy thoughts today.

Well, the sky is finally open, the rain and wind stopped blowin’
But you’re stuck out in the same ol’ storm again
You hold tight to your umbrella, well, darlin’ I’m just tryin’ to tell ya
That there’s always been a rainbow hangin’ over your head
–Kacey Musgraves, “Rainbow”

I Always Have Music

I have no gas left in my tank today. I stayed up until well after 4:00 a.m. EST watching election results come in, and right now, after several cups of coffee and way too much junk food, I am a drooling zombie. (I mean, not really, but if you looked at me and an actual zombie right now, it would be hard to tell the difference.)

And there are still valid votes to be counted, so I’m still watching. (And counting valid votes is decidedly, objectively NOT disenfranchisement or fraud, but that is a post for another day.)

Man, I’m so tired.

Anyway, I got nothing. I wish I had something insightful to say about the state of things, but I can’t seem to find my words today.

Luckily, even when I have nothing else, it seems I always have music. So, enjoy this (admittedly not super high quality) video of a friend and me goofing around and making some good noise, back a century ago in 2019, when things were still normal. Or, more normal. (Honestly, what even is normal anymore these days?)

On the eve of Election Day in the US…

I try not to get political here. I’ve been trying to write something, to think of other somethings, to put a something together, all day. But I’ve just got no room in my mind right now for anything but this –

VOTE.

Who knows what tomorrow and the coming days and weeks will bring. But right now, I know this: We the people can vote.

Please vote.

That’s all.