Hurrah for the Pumpkin Pie
by Kate Flora
I had exactly thirty minutes to buy everything I needed to cook dinner for twenty. Naturally navigating the store was like playing bumper cars. As I snatched items off the shelves and shoved my overloaded shopping cart past two tarted-up moms blocking the aisle while they consoled about hair color gone wrong, their sleek heads bobbing and voices cooing like pigeons in the park, that famous line from Tolstoy popped into my head—Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I don’t know anything about happy families, but I know plenty about unhappy ones, and one thing I’m certain about is that holidays bring out the worst in mine. In them and in me.
I didn’t even need to be there to script the whole thing. It was consistent every year. Mom and Dad would arrive together but not speaking. She would bustle, tight-lipped, into the kitchen and proceed to get in my way, while dad would pop his first beer and sit down on the couch to watch football. Baby brother Jesse, who’s living with us since he lost his job, would already be on the other end of the couch, and his silent, cadaver-white girlfriend, Alyse, whose life work is either sleeping or painting her nails black, would be sitting at his feet. Next to arrive would be the “successful brother,” Jared, with his wife Molly and their three barely housebroken children, followed shortly by my oldest brother Jason, his wife Sheryl, and their two hostile teenagers.
Molly and Sheryl would come into the kitchen and unload their offerings onto the counter. Molly’s was always, and only, wine, and her first helpful act would be to open a bottle and pour a glass for herself without offering one to anyone else. Sheryl was toying with being a vegetarian, and she’d take up much of my small counter space with the containers of her own special food—only enough for herself, of course. As dinner grew imminent, with a loopy smile and a “you don’t mind, do you?” she’d move in and start her own personal prep, ignoring the fact that I was making gravy, cooking the peas and mashing potatoes on the crowded stovetop.
By then I would have asked Sheryl if she’d have Ariel and Jonah set the table, a request she’d blithely ignore, so I’d be rushing back and forth trying to do that while not cooking the peas to mush, occasionally tripping over Mom, who liked to stand in the middle of the room, muttering darkly about my dad.
When my husband Charlie got back from hunting with his Uncle Bob and our widowed neighbor, Tom, they’d sit down in front of the TV, too, and send one of the kids out for more beer. When I’d holler to Charlie to come take the turkey from the oven, he’d pretend not to hear me because he was tired from four hours of hunting, and anyway, a working man deserved not to be disturbed. Bob and Tom were both deaf as posts, so they didn’t hear anything, and my brothers think my poor husband is henpecked, so they’d stay put in a gesture of solidarity.
When I would finally give up and drag the turkey from the oven, I’d find the space I’d cleared for it on the counter now was occupied by two six-packs, and I’d have to stand there, all five foot nothing of me, holding a steaming 24 pound turkey. I’d holler for someone to come and move the beer. If I got lucky, mom would stop her muttering long enough to do that; otherwise, I’d be yelling until someone in the other room finally gave up and came to my aid. More likely than not, it would be Jared and Molly’s six-year-old, Annie, the most civilized person in the whole lot.
Charlie and I had no kids, and therefore, according to family reasoning, I had fewer demands on my time, which was why everyone thought it was such a great idea for us to host the holiday dinner. Of course, I worked full time, while Sheryl had a part-time job and Molly was a homemaker, but no one seemed to think that counted for anything.
Okay. Yeah. I know. Ann Landers says that nobody can make you do anything that you don’t want to do. All I can say in response is: Ann Landers must have never met my family. As the only girl with all those brothers, I’ve been expected to wait on guys almost since I could crawl. My mom was no different, which may be why she’s gone all weird now. With her, except when she bickers with Dad, it’s like someone’s turned her dial to somewhere between two stations and she’s so busy trying to make sense out of the noises in her head she can’t hear anything that’s happening out here.
Maybe if Charlie were on my side, that might help. I’d met him because he was Jonah’s best friend. I should have known better, but at the time, I was running on hormones and not good sense and so I married him. I was knocked up when we got married, which I’ve never heard the end of, never mind that Molly and Sheryl both were, too, but I lost that baby and have never gotten pregnant since. And now here I was running through the grocery store like buying food was a 5K, when I’d sworn that last year was going to be the last time I let them do this to me.
The simple fact was that I couldn’t get anyone to listen. I’d planned it all out. Sometime around September, I’d talk with my sisters-in-law and everyone would get assignments, and we’d share the work. But even though I’d done that, and they’d all nodded and agreed, last week when I called to make sure they remembered their jobs, they’d all somehow forgotten and were just too busy to go and add it to their schedules now. They said they were sorry.
Well, I was too busy to add it to my schedule, too, but look where I was. Back in the grocery store, making a martyr of myself because I couldn’t think how to do it differently. Maybe if I just burned the whole dinner? Or forgot to make the dressing? I’d never hear the end of that, but they were all such lazy slugs that they’d be bound to want to give me a second chance. A chance I did not want.
Once I’d loaded it all into my car, I headed for home, and it’s when I passed the CVS that I got the great idea. Everyone in my family, except the little kids, is big on stuffing. Or dressing, as my husband’s family calls it. I don’t eat it, but they’re so passionate about the stuff that they call me days ahead of time to remind me to be sure and make enough. These are the same people, mind you, who can’t find the time to do anything to help, but they’ve always got time to remind me about the dressing, which has to have cornbread and oysters. That and the pumpkin pie. There’s got to be pumpkin. And apple. And pecan. And Uncle Tom doesn’t think it’s a holiday unless there’s mincemeat. And me working late every night because we’re going into the holiday season.
I was so tired I was about in tears, trying to figure out how I’d do it all, when I passed that CVS. And it must have been the devil on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, because I found my car turning right into the parking lot and next thing you know, I was coming out with a couple family-sized packages of laxatives. They’d crush up nice in my mortar and pestle, and mix just fine in the dressing and the pumpkin pie. I still had a lot of work ahead of me, but for the first time in a long while, I had found my smile.