54. Clear and Present Danger

54. Clear and Present Danger

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


Clear and Present Danger

Thanksgiving is so called because we are all so thankful that it only comes once a year.

~P. J. O’Rourke

Aholiday at my mother-in-law’s house is never without drama. There was the Thanksgiving that her second, now ex-, husband was sharpening the carving knife and almost cut off my brother-in-law’s ear. Then there was the year the Christmas tree was erected “the wrong way” very late on Christmas Eve. This almost resulted in a brawl between my husband and the same ex-husband. There was also the time when my mother-in-law invited people to stay at her country house—a three-bedroom home built in 1782—for Columbus Day weekend. Everyone said yes, and all fifteen of us showed up. One man ended up sleeping under the dining room table.

After thirteen years of marriage, I have learned how to say no. However, saying no on Thanksgiving and Christmas is not an option. The alternative is passive-aggressive retribution. I know, because I’ve already tried that.

Last Thanksgiving was especially memorable, probably because it was supposed to be “momentous.” My mother-in-law had just finalized a bitter divorce in a legal battle that left her broke. Not long after the papers were signed, she met a man through an online dating service and decided to move in with him.

She wanted to host Thanksgiving at his—“their”—new apartment in New York City, bringing together his family and hers so we could all meet. On her side were my husband and I who live in Connecticut with two children, ages six and four, and my sister-in-law, my husband’s sister, and her husband, who live in New York State and have four boys, ages two, four, six, and eight. The beau has two grown children: a twenty-eight-year-old son, who is single, and thirty-year-old son, who had recently married a woman from the Ukraine. And because my mother-in-law is a “the-more-the-merrier” type of gal, she invited another couple and their autistic son.

None of our side had ever been to the apartment. My mother-in-law forewarned us that it was still a “bachelor pad” despite her moving in. Over the years, I have learned to arrive at least one hour after the invited time since a meal planned to start at 1:00 will be served no sooner than 3:30. I also know to feed my children before we arrive since none of us behave well with low blood sugar.

After an hour’s drive to the city and a half-hour securing a parking space blocks from the apartment, we arrived with excited kids. We rang the doorbell, and the beau opened the door wearing a white undershirt with vibrant yellow sweat stains under each arm.

“Welcome!” he announced, red-faced and smelling of beer.

We walked into the two-bedroom apartment and made our rounds. Everyone, of course, had arrived before us.

My brother-in-law and sister-in-law stood together, she holding their youngest, while their three other boys were running through the apartment, sliding across the hardwood floor in their socks. We were introduced to the sullen single son, and the older son, who had a winning smile, and his Ukrainian wife. We shook hands with the other couple who were desperately trying to keep their son from banging on the keys of a nearby piano.

My kids pulled off their shoes and took off after their cousins, who were sliding into walls and doing somersaults on and off the couches. After a short tour of the cozy apartment, I decided to nip into the guest bathroom. From the doorway, I saw cracked tiles above a soap-scum-filled sink. A dirty hairbrush rested on the lip of the sink. I noticed that the toilet seat was up, and urine and hair were scattered around its rim. There was a bare roll of toilet paper and no replacement nearby.

The master bath would have to be better. And it was. There was toilet paper, and the seat and lid were down. As I gently lifted up the lid with two fingers, the lid and the seat slipped off the bowl and fell loudly onto the floor.

After grabbing a drink, I decided to chat with the winning son and his wife. She was lovely and smart, and he was handsome. After a bit, I decided to ask them how they met. It was quiet for a moment while they exchanged glances.

“Actually, she stalked me,” he said with a smile.

I laughed. “That’s funny!” I said. I had a few friends who had very bad stalker stories.

“No, really I did,” she said, nodding like a bobblehead doll. “He used to play tennis near where I went to school, and I would go to watch him every day.”

He nodded. She nodded. So I nodded.

“She really did,” he added. “She followed me.”

“And, finally, one day he spoke to me,” she said and smiled up at him.

Two hours later, I was desperate to sit down and eat, mostly so the autistic boy would have to sit at the table and stop banging on the piano. I could feel a migraine coming on. I had noted the dining room earlier, a dark musty room with wall-to-wall bookshelves filled with books that hadn’t been read—or dusted—in decades. The dining room also housed a three-foot-wide, flat-screen TV in one corner. The table for twelve was set for eighteen.

The apartment had heated up to about ninety-five degrees from the body heat and the cooking. Although I went into the kitchen occasionally to see if I could help get the festivities moving, it was only on my last attempt when I could. While lifting the bird out of the oven, I noticed that my mother-in-law was sweating so much that her foundation makeup had dripped off her face onto the turkey.

As she handed me side dishes to set out, I corralled everyone to the table. After the food was displayed, it was time to sit and enjoy. My husband said a blessing before the carving. My mother-in-law has always liked “her man” to carve, so while the beau carved we got a full view of his T-shirt. I felt very thankful I was not sitting near him.

As we all watched the ritual carving and the doling out of food, it became abundantly clear that there was not enough turkey—and not enough of everything else either. Those guests with plates started filling them up with the accompaniments. Not surprisingly, when I got the last plate with one measly slice of turkey, the creamed onions and Brussels sprouts were the only side dishes left.

Now, I was mad. I can put up with a lot, but no heaps of stuffing swimming in hot gravy? No spoons upon spoons of sweet potatoes? I looked across the table at my oblivious and Brussels-sprout-loving husband. I knew this was almost normal for him. I caught his eye and gave him my evil eye. He smiled, cheek full of food (he was one of the first served), and lifted his Brussels-sprout-speared fork to toast me.

Fortunately, after my kids fled the table, I could feed off their plates. Mood slightly improved, I watched the beau finish off his second “forty,” a forty-ounce bottle of cheap beer in a green bottle he proudly held up for all of us to see.

“Only $3.99 at the Korean market around the corner! Can you believe it?” he said.

Spit flew when he spoke, and when he laughed we got a view of half-chewed food as expansive as the Hudson River outside the window behind us.

After four hours, I had had enough. Although my kids’ unspent energy was being tamped by the television, I was ready to hit the road. I stood up and called to my children.

“Time to go!” I announced.

Seated under a huge wooden wall shelf with glass panes that was filled with books, frames, and small figurines, they actually answered when I called. It seemed like they were ready to go, too.

Just as they reached my side, the wall shelf they had been sitting under pulled away from the wall. I gasped as gravity worked its magic. In a millisecond, the heavy shelf came crashing down on exactly the place where my children had been sitting mindlessly staring at the television.

The noise and chaos got everyone up and involved. I whispered in my husband’s ear that the fun was definitely now over. Amid the “Oh my goodness!” and “Thank heavens they had gotten up!” and “I just can’t believe it!” comments, I smiled and ushered my family out the door, waving thanks and blowing kisses all around.

Despite the long, cold, windy walk back to the car, the return drive on busy I-95, and the growls of hunger from my empty stomach, I felt truly thankful for the first time that day.

We had survived another holiday at my mother-in-law’s house. It had been a close one.

~Gwen Daye

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