Sandy finished the Thanksgiving grocery shopping in the pet department, piling two ten pound bags of peanuts on the already overloaded grocery cart. She smiled. No one would be able to guess what I am going to do with these, she thought.
At home, she organized the food, checked off her lists. This Thanksgiving dinner for eighteen would appear effortless. But, of course, it wasn’t. The work happened now, before. She had separate lists, all organized and thought out, what preparations needed to be made in what order. Some of the family would be arriving late Wednesday night and she wanted to be ready, then.
With the wood floors swept, the furniture moved back against the walls, she turned her dining room table at an angle, assembled the two folding tables and pushed them end to end at an angle across her dining room and living room.
At three o’clock the stake bed truck pulled up out front. She met the two delivery guys at the door.
“Where do you want these bales, ma’am?”
“In here, by these tables.”
“Inside the house, ma’am?” His eyebrows disappeared under the hair hanging over his forehead.
“Yes, they will be the seats for our Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Inside. Really? You know these straw bales are dusty, dirty, messy, right?”
Sandy laughed. “Of course. Yes, bring them in here, please, four on this side, four on the other side. Thank you.”
“Okay, whatever you say. It’s your house.” The tough delivery guys looked at each other and shrugged.
As the bales were moved, wisps of straw floated around.
“No problem, that’s exactly what I want. Messy.”
“My wife would have a fit.”
Sandy laughed again. She wanted an unusual, a casual atmosphere. Unique. A memory. And they didn’t know about the peanut shells, broken open, scattered around. She felt like a giddy girl planning a surprise party for a special friend. A party where everyone has a good time and laughter echoes off the walls accompanied by the music of happy talk. Okay, she thought, maybe I am dreaming and being unrealistic. We haven’t had a peaceful family get together in quite awhile. Someone takes offense, someone irritates someone else, criticism flares. But, it is worth a try. I will do my part, and hope.
Everything would be white or canvas or gold. Enough color, just in the food. And the people. The gold colored straw looked pretty scattered across the wood floor. She pulled more pieces off the bales and scattered them around. Then, she covered the bales with canvas drop cloths, their edges tucked in underneath. They would be heavy enough to prevent straw poking seated bottoms. Another couple of longer drop cloths covered the tables, hanging down the sides. Gourds she had spray painted gold were placed randomly on the table.
Oh, napkins. She forgot to buy white cloth napkins. Well, on Wednesday, when she picked up the flowers, she could go to the store and get the nicer, heavy, white paper ones. They would do. She added them to the list.
When Sandy walked down the hall into the living room Tuesday morning, she wondered what her husband, Jim would think of their house. He was away on a business trip until Wednesday afternoon. By then, she would have it all set up and messy beautiful. Her email invitations said, “Boots and jeans.” But would they imagine just how casual she meant it to be? The floor needed more peanut shells, just like at their favorite pizza restaurant. In fact, she thought, that is where they should go for dinner Wednesday night. She would take Jim out to dinner. Get a few more ideas. Her son and his wife and the grandkiddos wouldn’t get in until late. She and Jim would have plenty of time to relax over dinner, talk about his trip, and enjoy some time together before the long weekend.
After her coffee and oatmeal, she spread the three lists out on the island, leaned on her elbows, her shirt sleeves rolled up, chin cupped in her hands. One list for what would bake in the oven. One for food that would be prepared and stored in the refrigerator. One for menus, with added ideas for meals the rest of the weekend using leftovers. The tasks were already in order, prioritized by length of prep time and use of the oven. Normally she wasn’t quite so OCD, but she wanted this Thanksgiving to be easy breezy. Certain people conflicts in the family had lightened up over the past year and she wanted, desperately, to be sure they stayed that way. But, not to worry. For now, start the pie crusts and mix the pumpkin bread. Turn on the oven.
Between tasks, waiting for the timer to ding, Sandy worked on the table. At each place setting she set out white plates. For place cards, she marked peanuts with a dark brown Sharpie, the letters of each person’s name. If the letters didn’t come out quite right, she smashed the shells and threw them on the floor. It wasn’t easy. She tried to make them fancy, ornate with swirly lines and flourishes. The bumpy shells were not a good writing surface, but she wanted to keep the theme. She decided that messy looked just as good, and it was better to fit each name on one peanut if she could. She experimented. Greg. Kendra. David. The longest name was Jessica. That took two peanuts. As she practiced and improved, the crunched, empty peanut shells deepened on the floor.
All day, the dishes rotated from island to sink full of soapy water and back again. Pie crusts baked. Pumpkin and cranberry breads ready to go in next. Sweet potatoes cooked, mixed, plopped into the baking pan, refrigerated until Thursday. Broccoli steamed, cheese sauce mixed, refrigerated in its glass baking pan. Water boiled, jello mixed with fruit, half of it chilled, then the other layer added and chilled. One by one, the items checked off her list. She wiped up flour and spills and splatters, then made more as she worked.
For a late lunch, she made a sandwich and sat in the big chair tucked into the corner to admire her decorations, absorb the yummy smells. Bake the pies, almost done. She relaxed, imagined the room full of happy, comfortable people. To her, this work, this weekend, was about reaching across the distance that was measured in more than miles.
As she was sliding the last pie shell full of liquid pumpkin on to the rack, her hand slipped, the pie tilted and spilled on the hot oven floor. It sizzled and smoked. Quickly, she set the pie on the counter and reached over to shut off the oven. That would have to cool before she could clean it out, then reheat it. She didn’t want the smell of burned pie overpowering the other wonderful aromas and interfere with baking the turkey Thanksgiving morning. She left the oven door open to cool faster. Well, it won’t take that long, she thought. She checked over her lists again. Almost done. Not too bad, only one major mess to repair, then finish cleaning up the kitchen.
The cat came down the hall and stepped into the living room. She stopped and sat, looking around at the changes, unsure. She decided it was safe, took a few steps into the room. A peanut shell crunched under her foot. With the foot held in mid-air, she froze, like a dog at point, then turned and ran back to the bedroom. Sandy laughed at her. We won’t have to worry about her coming out here, she thought.
By noon, she felt ready. Almost. A few more tasks on her list, but everything was under control. She had cleaned the bathrooms, made up the guest beds, and swept off the porch, trimming some of the chrysanthemums that still bloomed. The day was cold and cloudy. At least I don’t have to sweep and wash the floors, she thought. She wiped down the front of the refrigerator and the stove and ran a dust cloth over the glass table top next to the couch. She looked forward to seeing the six grandkiddos all together. They hadn’t seen Greg’s twins since June. David, Becky and their two boys lived ten minutes away and they visited often. Jack and Kendra, with their two, Jessica and Ken, lived an hour away, not too far. Greg would be arriving tonight, the others in the morning. A houseful of noisy fun. She liked that.
Three o’clock. One last check of the lists. All crossed off. One trip out. She would stop at the florist to pick up the white osteospermum spoon daisies she ordered. And run into the grocery store to pick up the large white napkins she forgot to buy on Monday. She would tie them into a roll with a piece of twine. Easy and simple.
Later, as she stepped in the door, out of the pouring rain, arms full of flowers and a grocery bag, the phone rang. She set the things down on the table. Dropped her wet coat on a chair.
“Hi Greg. I thought you would be on the road by now.”
“Mom. I am sorry. We are not coming.”
Silence. “You are kidding, right?”
“No, Mom, we are not coming.”
Silence. “Do I get an explanation?”
Greg answered in short, nervous, quick bursts. “Janet decided she wanted to have her own Thanksgiving. You know, in her own home, now that we have moved to this house, she changed her mind, said she wouldn’t come, wanted to stay home, keep the kids here, with her, on her time off from work, for the holiday.”
“Well, that is reasonable, except last minute. What can I say? Is this about not getting along with Kendra?”
“No, I don’t think so. Maybe, you know how they are together. She just said she wanted her own Thanksgiving. Mom, try to understand. I know you will understand. Please don’t be upset at me, or her.”
“I will really miss seeing the twins. I’m sure they have grown since we saw them last.” Sandy sighed. She tried to smile, at least with her words, but it was hard. Seemed these conflicts, lately, made family gatherings like walking on egg shells, afraid to offend, afraid to say the wrong thing, afraid, just afraid. She had wanted this to be different. And she thought it would be. Filled with laughter and fun and relaxed. Oh well, what could she do? Holidays could be messy. “Greg,” she said, “Say hello to the twins from me, and Janet, too, and have a wonderful holiday.” She didn’t mean it to sound sarcastic, but it came out that way, a little bit.
“You, too, Mom. Say hi to Dad for me.”
Sandy hung up the phone. She sat in the chair at the head of the table, looked down the length at the plates, already set, the golden gourds, the pile of flowers she had dumped at the other end. Four empty places. Should she rearrange? Wallow in disappointment? No, she thought, I’ll get the flowers in vases and water. No point in letting this ruin it for me, or for anyone else.
Outside, the rain pelted the windows and the wind whipped the tree limbs. Darkness fell early, the storm clouds wrapping a dark thick blanket over the sky. Again, the phone rang. Sandy looked at it, not wanting to answer. She heard her own voice, the cheerful message on the machine. Then, Jim’s voice.
“Sandy. Guess you are out shopping or something last minute. Our flight has been delayed…”
She grabbed the phone, interrupting his message. “Jim, I am here, sorry.”
“Oh, good, glad you are home. This storm is interfering with flights. I hope Greg will be fine on the road.”
“They are not coming. I’ll tell you later. When do you think you will get in?”
“They said about a two hour delay. I will call you when we board.”
“Okay. I want to take you out to dinner, to the pizza restaurant. I will meet you there, after you land.”
“Sounds good. I’ll call you, soon, I hope.”
Someone knocked on the front door. Oh, now who could that be, thought Sandy. She opened the door and saw her neighbor, an older woman she rarely talked to. “Evelyn, come in.” She helped her take off her wet coat.
“I am so sorry to bother you. I know you are very busy.” Evelyn looked at the table. “That is, ah, interesting. Straw bales and peanuts? Rustic. But the table is pretty. I am so sorry to bother you,” she said again.
“That’s okay. My husband just called to say he would be late. Come sit down.”
“Well, we just had a big tree branch fall on the back of our house. Broke through the patio cover, broke two windows on the back side.”
“Oh, I am sorry. Where is Fred, is he okay?”
“Yes, we were in the living room. I wondered if you have some tarp or something we can put up over the windows. Not too much rain is coming in, but the wind is bad. And the cold.”
“I think so, I will go look in the garage.” She stood up. “Evelyn. I just had a great idea. Our son and his family called to say they are not coming. We have extra beds, all made up, and room at the table, ready. Will you and Fred stay here tonight, and join us for Thanksgiving tomorrow?”
“We couldn’t impose on you like that, don’t be silly.”
“It is not silly at all. Like I said, I have the beds all made, the places for you at the table. It will be much warmer here until you can get the windows fixed. Jim can help you, but with the holiday weekend, it may be a few days before they get fixed. Please, stay with us. That is, if you don’t mind a casual meal. And our kids and grandchildren. I thought the straw bales and peanuts would be fun, for a change. Comfortable.”
“I noticed. Wondered why you were doing that. Most people get all fancy.”
“I will get the tarp, then we’ll go over and ask Fred to come. Please, I want you to. I know Jim won’t mind. He will like to help you fix the tarp when he gets home. Oh.”
“What is it?” asked Evelyn.
“Well, we were going to go out to dinner. I was going to meet him after his plane landed.”
“I have a chili in the crock pot at home. Fred and I could still eat that, and come here after you and Jim get home. I would appreciate it, being able to stay here. It will be cold at our house with that wind and the damp. You are very kind.”
“Actually, it helps me not feel so disappointed that our son isn’t coming. I am glad you can stay with us. Very glad. You can see we have plenty of room for you.” Sandy pointed at the table.
“We will be honored. I wasn’t going to fix anything this year. Too much work for just us. Our kids are all busy, or too far away. We will enjoy being with you, being with your family. Much better than sitting by ourselves. Thank you.”
The scattered straw and peanut shells are evidence of my messy life, but even the messes are worth celebrating and sharing, Sandy thought. I will accept this. An opportunity to help a neighbor, maybe gain a friend. I can enjoy what we have, use what we have, and share Thanksgiving, thankfully, with family and friends.