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by Kathlyn Dekens
About a half-dozen times a year, we all get together for birthdays or holidays or visits from longlost relatives or friends we saw last year. We get together for weddings and anniversaries and professions of faith and baptisms and funerals. Sometimes we get together for no reason at all. No matter what the occasion, we celebrate, we love, and we eat.
Frank and Anne are always late. We wait in eager expectation for the law yer, the thrift store cashier, and whatever children might be attending that day. Scents of chicken, turkey, ham, and bacon–all of it warming–seep through the oven door and remind us what we are celebrating: chicken for birthday parties, turkey and ham for Christmas dinner, bacon for Easter brunch. We continue to wait, sipping on punch and coffee, nibbling on the nuts and chocolates strategically placed around the room to keep our guests occupied.
Oma came nearly an hour ago, bearing books we lent her and books she will lend us. Mariam Toews, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Frank McCourt now take up valuable counter space on the island. While my mother and I are happy to have them, we quickly escort them to our bookshelves to make room for more relatives and friends.
Oma is sitting in her favorite chair, already eating potatoes and making Betty feel more comfortable. Betty has been here before, with “The Frenchman,” Gerald, and we have seen them through their worst. We love Betty, and she knows it, but for unknown reasons, there is always a shadow of uncertainty in her face.
While Gerry was in prison, Oma worked with the Prison Ministry and came to know Gerry as Gerry came to know God. When he had finished his sentence, he also finished drinking and dealing drugs. Soon, he met Betty and they got married in the church. They were happy. Life was good. But Gerry had a stroke. Betty had an affair. Gerry threatened Betty. Betty left. Gerry admitted himself into the Psych Ward and Betty pressed charges. Gerry isn’t around anymore; he is ser ving another sentence in the prison down the road. Their sin is evident sin. They do it and we see it and the church knows about it. But Betty is still coming every Sunday with my Oma, and Gerry is still praying in his cell.
Auntie Peggy and Uncle Neal are hovering near the living room where Norah is sleeping. The new grandparents have been instructed to let her sleep, but Uncle Neal disobeys. Every once in awhile, we hear a shout or a thud, and eventually Norah wakes up. They race towards her, acting both innocent and helpful. Peggy reaches her first and wins, which isn’t a surprise because she leads “Sit and Be Fit” at a nursing home.
“Let someone else hold her, Peggy,” grunts one of her sons.
She ignores him, something she has learned to do while living with five inconsiderate males. In her vintage lemon yellow dress and fishnet stockings, Auntie Peggy prances around the kitchen with Norah, making sure everyone has an opportunity to admire the tiny bundle of burps and tears.
Thudding feet run up the stairs and Norman, Norah’s electrician father, appears. “Peggy! ” he bellows to his mother, “I told you to let her sleep! Give me the Little Shitter.” Uncharacteristic of his rough exterior, he gently takes Norah from his mother and kisses his baby on the head. “Hey there,” he coos, repeating the appellation.
The front door opens. “Hello,” squeaks Alyson, Anne and Frank’s youngest daughter.
“Hello!” echo two smaller voices in unison.
Within seconds, Destiny and Nakota, our small Blackfoot friends, are racing around the kitchen, their long black braids swinging, their voices singing joys about Big Frank giving them rides on his motorcycle and Auntie Anne taking them ice-skating and A lyson painting their fingernails.
I wonder whether at six and eight, these little beauties know more about humanity’s brokenness than I do.
They like our family. They like Betsy twirling them around, and they like that Sparkles (their choice name for my dad) gives them extra helpings of dessert. Even when it is hot, Destiny and Nakota wear tights to cover their dark legs and long-sleeved shirts to cover their dark arms. I wonder whether at six and eight, these little beauties know more about humanity’s brokenness than I do.Soon Anne and Frank, the always tardy, enter the kitchen with baskets and boxes of steaming food and whipped cream desserts. Auntie Anne notices that Destiny and Nakota still have their shoes on and she directs them to the back porch and then to the bathroom to wash their hands. They climb off Oma’s lap, whisper their love in her ear, and follow the directions. We line up to ser ve ourselves, the young people first, or the old people first, or the women first. Piling our plates with fiesta bean salad, homemade brown buns, small portions of tutti-frutti ( just to please Oma), juicy chicken, corn, beets, salad, corn fritters, rainbow Jell-O, we joke about our starving bellies.
Within the last few years, the old and the young people have started mingling. The kids used to sit in the basement and watch The Simpsons, while, upstairs, the older people talked politics and faith and basketball and shopping. Now, I sit at the kitchen table between Nakota and Chester, Uncle Neal’s old, Russian neighbor who doesn’t speak English. Every time he opens his mouth to shovel in food, a strong scent of whiskey drifts towards me, and I try to distract Nakota from smelling that familiar scent that too often hung on her mother’s lips. I cover her salad with dressing, cut her meat into small cubes, and remain attentive while she tells me grammatically-incorrect stories about being a cheerleader and pours out her soul over her younger brother, who is now with a foster family and whom she misses. A fter a few more trips to the turkey, we sigh and push back our chairs, rest our hands on our bursting stomachs, and wait patiently until we are ready for dessert.
Nakota and Destiny have started playing with Tito, our antisocial, spoiled puppy, and he growls threateningly. Alone, I step into the living room and find a seat next to Auntie Anne, who immediately pulls a large recipe book out of her bag. The Joy of Cooking, it says, but she has decided to talk about the joys of tea. “I thought you might be interested,” she states, “so you should read this.”
The heavy book is placed on my lap, and I am forced to read about green, black, herbal, and rooibos tea, as well as the various temperatures at which to steep them. Auntie Anne is interested in ever ything and assumes ever yone is interested in everything, too.
So I read and I learn, but before I finish, she pulls out folders and drawings and packages of seeds for our garden. We could be eating Christmas dinner, and the only thing on her mind would be the garden we will plant in five months. So I listen and provide suggestions. “Maybe the carrots should go next to the peas.”
Home is this eccentric mosaic of races and ages. Home is their foibles and their stories.
“Do you really want twenty pumpkin plants and twenty zucchini plants?” Auntie Anne can wear me down. But Auntie Anne does not care about what anyone thinks. She wears what she wants, she loves what she wants, and she laughs at what she wants. She is intrigued by everything and everyone and genuinely loves everyone, even Chester and his whiskey breath.They have transformed over time, my family gatherings. There used to be more kids. More noise. More Kick-the-Can. More yelling matches and more faces being pushed into food.
As we grew older, as some of us left for college, as others lost jobs, got new jobs, dealt with depression, found new love interests, married our love interests, lost a sister, an aunt, a daughter, a wife, a mother, a beautiful woman, we changed–every one of us. But even in our constant inconsistency, those people, those relatives, those ex-convicts, those little First Nations girls, those old Russian men, are part of me.
Joey is in the classically-decorated living room, telling stories about his life in South Korea. James is playing his guitar in the cluttered basement where we keep all of our junk. Betsy is in her cute bedroom giggling uncontrollably with Alyson. Mom and Pop are in the messy rooster-adorned kitchen doing dishes.
And as I stand in the hallway of my house, I realize that the building isn’t home. It isn’t the street that I live on or the city that I am from. Home is this eccentric mosaic of races and ages. Home is their foibles and their stories.