Thanksgiving Dinners

The holiday season is upon us, and it is a time we gather with people. Well, to be honest, I gather with people year round. For me, holidays are more a way point, a place to aim for during the journey, and a time to take stock and reflect. When I look backward, I can see the faces of friends who have gathered at my table, at all my tables, and not just at the end of the year festivities. There have been Bastille Day dinners, and Friday night dinners, lobster feasts, and barbecues, as well as Thanksgiving meals. I don’t know that I ever really expected all those people I have cooked for to remain at the table year after year, but in reflection there they go, drifting off into new arrangements, seated around distant tables.

When I think about the holiday dinners I have made and attended, while the courses have remained the same, the people at the table have changed nearly every single year. Of course there is the family—my brothers, my mother, and while he was still alive, my father. My own family, the family of choice, has shifted over the years. Both my brothers are at or just past twenty year marriages and their wives, and then their children have held stable seats at our gatherings, but I have brought four or five different friends or partners or, in one case, wife to holiday meals. I’m not sure what my family thinks of this. I’m sure they were reasonably pleased that the revolving door had stopped spinning when I married, but then that relationship ended as well.

And before this all seems too mawkish and wistful, the holiday table has never been a place of “what was,” or “what if,” but almost always “what is.” And maybe because nostalgia, or its future looking younger cousin, desire, have provided no overwhelming gravity to either pull me back or towards some land other than the one in which I reside, holidays have not had for me that tinge of regret or loss. Still, I am cognizant of the changing faces, and I wonder where they have gone, and also wonder who might be at the table this year, or the next, or the next.

The only twinge I feel is that I do not think that this is what other people feel. Do other people have the weight of memory and expectation to draw them somewhere? What must that be like? What must it be like to spend twenty or more years gathered with the same people? I feel sometimes as if I am missing out on something, that I lack some key that will unlock a door to this experience.

And yet. And yet there is a simple untaintable joy in seeing new faces, even in imaging where the old ones may now be seated. I picture tables in rooms that I have never seen, with gatherings peopled by a mix of friends and strangers, and in some inexplicable way, I am there too.

The Man in the Basement

Francis crept back into the basement. It was not his basement. It belonged to a woman he had courted in his youth, or in his middle age; he could not remember which. He had been creeping into the basement every night for as long as he could remember, but there must have been a time when he had not. He could not remember such a time.

The basement was simple and stark. He had entered through the steps that opened onto the driveway at the side of the house. In the far corner of the space a wooden staircase proceeded up into the house with a series of three short flights of steps, joined by right angles; his bed was under those stairs. It was a small bed, and the bedding was the brightly colored sheets of a child’s bed, but faded with time and use. He looked at the bed and tonight it seemed smaller than it ever had before. Had the bed been larger once, he thought? Had it occupied some other place in the basement? Perhaps, but he could not imagine that place.

As he got into the bed, he began to wonder what he was doing there. He did, after all, have his own home. His daughters had retired to their own beds. His pets: one large dog–a cross between an Irish Wolfhound and a Great Dane–and three small cats; would wait for him to return in the morning. His bed was made, and he dutifully washed the sheets every week, even though he had not slept there for longer than he could remember. “Shouldn’t I be at home?” He wondered. 

He tried to roll over in the small bed. Nothing he did seemed to make sense anymore. He thought of his daughters, at home alone. He knew there was a family living in the rooms above where he slept each night, but they were not his family, no matter what fantasy he had once had about them. Perhaps it had been more than a fantasy. Perhaps he had once imagined a place in that home with a bevy of beautiful daughters and handsome suitors, and a place permanently set for him at the head of the table. He tried to recall when he had started slinking into the basement late at night, and his memory was a wash of grays and browns. This, he thought, is not where I should be.

He got out of the bed and gathered his things. He tried to do it without switching on the light. He could not find his glasses. Maybe they had fallen between the mattress and the wall. He tried to make no noise, cognizant of the people who lived in the house above him. I must not disturb them, he thought.

Then a light flicked on, and one young woman bounded down the stairs. “I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” Francis offered.

“It’s okay,” answered the young woman, “we knew you were here.” 

“I hope I didn’t bother you,” said Francis.

“No. You’re fine,” answered the young woman, “just don’t try to get to mom.”

“No, of course not.” Francis held up his bag, “it’s time for me to go home.”

“Wait,” declared the young woman, who then ushered her sisters down the stairs. “He’s going,” she told them.

The basement now seemed full of beautiful young women. They were dressed in sweat pants and t-shirts, dressed for bed in the house above the basement. “Don’t leave yet,” one of them said, “we have something for you.”

They brought down large baking sheets covered with food. There were cookies and candied fruits. One of the younger women knew that Francis loved their candied strawberries, and offered them to him. “Take as much as you like,” she said.

One of the young women wept. He was going; he had been there so long.

As the women gathered, more lights were turned on in the basement, which no longer seemed as cramped and contained to Francis. Rooms upon rooms seemed to open up. There were men in brown tweed jackets and loafers, and the family he had imagined all these years teemed throughout the rooms. There were daughters and granddaughters, and young men for each as they were wished. Only one thing was missing, and he knew not to look for her.

Two floors above the gathering, the mother got out of her shower, toweled off, and clapped powder over her arms and legs. “Surely this must be over,” she thought. She listened to the quiet commotion, and grew mildly annoyed. But she was tired. She had, after all, raised her family and prepared them for what came next. She fell asleep. She dreamed of a house–some nights it was in the desert, some nights it was in the mountains, other nights it was on an island surrounded by the green northern sea. It was a house without a basement, into which men might come to fix the water heater or garbage disposal, and then leave. She dreamed on through the night and into morning, and when the sun rise and she woke, she stripped the little bed in the basement for the last time.