by Mirel Bodner Abeles
One look around the table reminded Talia Roland why she didn’t do holidays. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and assorted friends had descended on her family from near and far. They gathered round the dinner table with the express purpose—or so it seemed to Talia—of doing their utmost to make her regret being related to them in any way.
Gordie was busy picking his nose. Uncle Fred, well past his fifth glass—though who was counting—was slurring his words and ogling the younger women. Aunt Rhoda vented her anger by sending verbal poison darts at whomever Uncle Fred was focusing on at the moment. Lisa’s howls coupled with the beatific smile on the face of Davie was a clear indication that, once again, her younger brother had been up to his usual mischief. Her father’s voice could be heard above the racket, probably holding forth on politics or his latest pet peeve.
Talia jabbed at her peas with such force that two of them shot off her plate and across the table. With a grin, Damian picked one up and lobbed it back at her.
“Hey, what’s with the Darth Vader face? Upset with the boyfriend,” her older brother drawled ,”for not showing up?”
Talia scowled. “You’ve gotta be kidding. Upset that he’s missing the madhouse known as our family at holiday time? Puhlease. And besides, I keep on telling you, he’s not my boyfriend, he’s just a friend.”
“Uh-huh. Sure, Sis. Whatever you say.” Damian smirked.
“Boyfriend? Has Talia got a boyfriend now?” Uncle Fred turned his bleary gaze towards their end of the table. Just her luck that the racket and the drinking were unable to dull her great-uncle’s hearing.
“As I’ve told Damian a zillion times, Brett is a friend, not a boyfriend.”
“Why not? Doesn’t the guy have eyes in his head? Or is he short on the brain power?” Uncle Fred shook his head mournfully. “I don’t get it. In my days, a beautiful and intelligent young lady such as yourself would have had ’em lined up fighting each other for a chance to take her out, and instead, you got ’em emasculated as friends.”
Rhoda let out a shocked grunt.”Fred, watch your language!” Her sharp outburst grabbed the attention of the few who had not yet turned to stare at their end of the table.
Fred squinted at his wife, confused. “Whaddid I say?”
Eyes narrowed and lips clenched, Rhoda snorted. “You? You didn’t say a thing. At this point it’s the drink doing the talking!”
“Doesn’t take a drink to know that my niece is one heck of a catch.”
Talia shifted in her chair, uncomfortable with everyone’s eyes on her and not sure whether to be flattered or even more pissed off than before. Pissed off won.
Rhoda scowled and her eyes flashed a stormy gray warning. “Nowadays, girls aren’t interested in catching men, only in having a good time with them. Chew ’em up and throw them out, isn’t that so?”
Damian laughed and the tension dissipated. “Not quite. And even people who enjoy good times with friends? Most of them long to find that special someone that they can spend a lifetime with. Like you and Uncle Fred. What is it now? Fifty-two years together?”
Aunt Rhoda glanced at her husband and her tone softened. “Fifty-three.”
Uncle Fred nodded. “Yup. See, I was smart enough to recognize a good woman when I saw one. Haven’t had a moment’s regret in all these years.” The belch did nothing to diminish the sincerity of Uncle Fred’s tones.
Aunt Rhoda groped for her husband’s hands blinking back some tears. She sniffed and and her voice trembled. “Neither have I.”
Amazing how Damian could do that.
More sniffles sounded around the table. Talia cleared her throat, and as if a signal had been sounded, everyone turned back to the food at hand and light conversation.
Within minutes, though, Marshal and Ruthanne’s children were running around the table, setting their parents to bickering. Noise levels surpassed their previous high, and the circus was back in town: or at least back in her parents’ open dining room.
When the volume reached blast-off levels, the door bell sounded.
“I’ll get it,” Davie yelled, lunging towards the door.
“No, me, me!” shrieked Lisa, running after him.
Lisa howled when Davie opened the door before she could reach it. And there, framed in the open doorway, stood Brett, eying the mass of people uncertainly.
Talia gasped and sank further into her seat.
Uncle Fred glanced at her and chuckled. “Well, you gonna hide under the table, or go and greet your guest?”
Talia shambled reluctantly towards the door. What on earth had possessed her? Why had she felt so sorry for him, away from home for the holidays, when that was what she longed to be? Far, far away from her home. The invitation had slipped out before she could stop herself.
But Brett had hesitated. He volunteered at a local nursing home. Said he’d be busy bringing the folks there holiday cheer. Half disappointed, half relieved, she’d dismissed his promise to drop by if he could leave early as empty words. And yet, there he was.
Brett’s eyes shone at her, and a grin tripped its way across his face. The smile faded as he glanced past her at the assembly gathered round the table. He squirmed. “I hope I’m not too late…I wasn’t sure I could make it, but a lot of the folks were out or busy with their families. I got here as soon as I could.”
Hushing Lisa along the way, Talia’s mother reached the door and reached up to smooth her flyaway hair behind her ears. Her earlier harried look was replaced by a welcoming smile. “So glad you could make it. Come join us at the table.”
Talia raised her hands in front of her. “That’s okay, Mom. We can go to the den.”
Her mother frowned at her. “Nonsense! I filled a plate for Brett next to you.” Drawing Brett towards the table, she signaled Talia to take over, then headed to the kitchen. “Dig in before I bring out the desserts,” she called over her shoulder.
Talia led Brett back to the seat to her right, now mysteriously emptied. Muttering a brief but heartfelt prayer for her family’s good behavior, she glanced at Brett as she slid into her place. “Everyone, this is Brett. Brett, this…,” she waved her hand to take in all the people in the room, “is everyone.”
Brett acknowledged the various greetings and turned to the overflowing plate before him.
“Wow!” he said, wide-eyed. “This is some spread! Must have taken your mom forever to prepare.”
Passing by with a load of dirty plates, Mrs. Roland overheard him and smiled. Talia made to rise to help her mother, but, using her elbow, Mrs. Roland pushed Talia’s shoulder down. “Everything’s under control. You stay and entertain your guest. And you can explain the system.”
“The system?” Brett asked before turning his attention to the delectable food on his plate.
“Yeah, we usually do the hosting because we’re the most centrally located with room for everyone. But everyone brings their contribution. Mom prepares the stuff too big or too difficult to transport, and everyone brings their specialties: Aunt Rhoda her pies, Grandma her potato bake and garlic green beans, and so on. The young marrieds generally bring salads and drinks, till they develop their own specialties. We all know what is expected of us, and what to expect from everyone else. Works like a charm.”
Brett swallowed and looked around the table appreciatively. “This is all really delicious; so much better than what I usually get. Thanks for having me over.”
Grandma beamed from her place near the head of the table. “You’re very welcome, young man,” she said in a wavery voice. Nodding her approval, she added, “And a very well-mannered young-man he is, too!” Grandma leaned past the person beside her and, in a voice grown suddenly stronger hissed to her younger brother seated further down. “Fred, this the non-boyfriend?”
Flushing, Talia sank low into her seat, wishing herself on another planet, anywhere but home. She flicked her eyes as far to the left as possible, desperate to avoid Brett. There was Gordie, fishing up his nose again. Shuddering she moved her glance back to the right, and caught Damian’s twinkling eyes–all that could be seen above the hand hiding the smirk on his face.
At that moment, Lisa let out another shriek and clapped her hands. “Look!” she pointed, bouncing in her chair. “The yummies!”
People shifted in their chairs to watch Mrs. Roland and the other women bringing out an array of desserts: cakes, cookies and pies; fresh fruit, cut up and arranged on large platters; mousses, puddings and custards; dishes of ice cream and more.”
“Oh my gosh!” Brett murmured. “Is it always like this?”
Talia nodded, still avoiding his eyes.
The women arranged the food on a long, empty table near the door, and added small plates and dessert spoons and forks. Hands on hips, Mrs. Roland surveyed the table and nodded briefly, then turned to her guests. “That’s it. You’ve all been sitting too long. Now stretch your legs, and get some dessert. Mingle a bit.”
Mr. Roland chuckled. “You want us to get some exercise before we start on the next course?”
“Honey,” his wife said, without any of her former briskness,” I hate to break it to you, but those few steps don’t really count as exercise…”
Chuckling, everyone pushed back their chairs and lumbered to their feet. Talia tried to lose herself in the crowd, but Brett reached for her hand and wouldn’t let go. She froze; Brett squeezed her hand.
“I’m so sorry,” she mumbled.
“What for?” Brett sounded surprised.
Uncle Fred walked by, and clapped a hand on Brett’s shoulder. “Our Talia, she’s a good girl.” He winked and merged into the herd by the desserts.
Talia clenched her eyes shut and turtlelike, buried her head into her shoulders before sighing and straightening up. “That. My family.”
Bret scanned the room. “You’ve got a wonderful family! Warm and caring.”
Talia looked at him skeptically, then followed his gaze. Uncle Fred stood among the people by the dessert table, one arm around his wife’s waist. Aunt Rhoda leaned into him for a moment, then straightened to fill a plate. Marshall and Ruthanne succeeded in corraling their children there, and were now joking around as they helped the younger ones with their selections.
Near the table, Davie sat on the floor tailor-style, cutting up some more fruit for a delighted Lisa.
Gordie was dozing off, nestled in his mother’s lap. His mother absently fondled his head as she chatted with a cousin sitting beside her.
Damian stood among a group of cousins swapping jokes and stories amidst a lot of laughter and back slapping.
Like a queen ensconced on her throne surrounded by courtiers, Grandma sat in her son’s leather arm chair leaning down to tell a story to the open-mouthed children before her. Talia remembered herself sitting no less entranced as Grandma spun one of her tales.
Seated on the sofa, her father cradled her mother in one arm while enjoying the scene before him. Her mother leaned back against his arm, eyes closed, legs stretched out before her. A tightening of the arm against her brought a smile to her face.
Brett must have caught it as well, for he echoed the gesture and gently squeezed Talia’s hand.
Talia looked at him. “You’re right. I do have a wonderful family.”
Brett nodded. “And as for the non-boyfriend bit…” Brett smiled and let go of her hand to slip an arm around her.