This story is by Jessica Deen and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
June led everyone into the dining room. She pushed open the swinging doors, taking a deep breath. The smell of the holiday dinner filled her nostrils and brought her back twenty years, which was likely the last time they were all together.
The last few years had been quiet for June and her husband, Greg. She was longing for the chaos of family again as she remembered bits from her childhood – playing games and pranks, laughing with little Maggie at their brothers. The arguments that had torn her and her siblings apart years earlier seemed petty and insignificant. It was time to move forward and try again.
A few weeks earlier, she wrote the stiff and formal invitation. She was surprised they agreed to come at all. When the responses came in at once, June repressed the urge to assume they consulted each other before answering.
She was being silly. She didn’t want to start this dinner with accusations.
Greg thought it was a bad idea, so she didn’t tell him she worried it would be like having strangers off the street for Thanksgiving. She spent hours scouring Facebook, searching for details to dazzle them with – to prove the effort she made to know something about them.
Her chest expanded with hope of rekindling the magic of family ties. They started life with each other before anyone else and she was sure that bond could be restored.
Maybe they would think of reading books together in blanket forts instead of the nasty fights over money and possessions.
The problem with expectations is that things never turn out the way you think they will.
In true, cheesy long distance commercial fashion, June requested everyone to bring their favourite side dish from their family dinners as kids.
They might actually enjoy this. A good way to mix the old with the new.
The disappointment she secretly feared had started with the arrival of her first guest. She opened the door with enthusiasm and sweaty palms only to notice that her sister was holding a store-bought salad. Maggie followed June’s eyes and was quick to make an excuse.
“Mom never shared her recipes with me. I didn’t want to ruin it and James makes this FANTASTIC coleslaw down at the deli. I knew it would be a hit.”
Next, her niece came to the door, empty-handed exclaiming university students didn’t have time to cook.
Her brother Lawrence came, reminding her he could get on her nerves without even showing his face. He rang the doorbell continuously until she let him in. With gritted teeth she tried to smile.
His wife, Tilly came forward, presenting her homemade dish that smelled heavenly. The sweet candied yams made June’s mouth water and her fists clench. Her family had never once served yams.
She blinked away the tears that threatened to appear and pursed her lips.
Greg was right. This was exactly the reason why his eyes slid down whenever she brought this up.
She excused herself and when it was finally time to serve dinner, some of her hopefulness was restored as they entered the dining room.
“Is that Mom’s table cloth?” Maggie asked as she ran her fingers over the embroidered orange leaves. “I never knew where it ended up.”
“No one else wanted it at the time, so I took it. Do you remember how long it took Mom to finish this?” June fingered a leaf of her own. “She started it after Christmas the year before and barely had it finished for Thanksgiving.” Her heart skipped and her breath quickened at the nostalgia.
Her brother, Brian grabbed one of the forks and twirled it around for inspection. “I was really hoping I’d never have to see these again.”
“The fork?” Tilly asked.
“Well, the silverware in general. Remember, Larry? That used to be one of our punishments. Polishing the fricking silverware.”
While everyone took their seats, Greg walked in with the turkey. It was perfectly golden brown, steam still rising from it. He set it down on the table and, wasting no time, Lawrence stood up, reaching across two people to peel a chunk of skin off the turkey with his bare fingers. “Don’t want to miss out on that,” he said, winking. Tilly swiped at him and rolled her eyes.
Disgusting. They should both be ashamed.
Thank goodness Greg knew her so well. Her patience was being tried and he moved things right along for her.
“Time for a toast, I think.” He stood at the head of the table and raised his glass. June’s teenage niece grabbed her mother’s wine glass straight from her hand and took a swig.
Do none of these people possess any semblance of manners?
“To being all in the same room – together again. To family.”
With the commencing of the clinks, June couldn’t help but notice that Greg was the only one who had reached out to her with his glass. Why had they all turned in toward one another leaving her feeling like she was an intruder on her own family dinner?
“Thanks everyone for coming. This would mean so much to Mom and Dad. I’m sure…” June trailed off when she realized people had started passing food around and no one, other than Greg, of course, was looking at her. He reached over and tapped her hand, urging her on.
Clearing her throat, she started again. “Thanks for coming tonight. It always meant a lot to Mom to keep the family together and we haven’t been great at that.”
“Maybe it meant something to Mom, but Dad didn’t care at all.” Brian said. “He made it pretty clear that the family gatherings were all Mom’s idea. He would have been happy to rot away by himself in the basement.”
By the rosiness of his cheeks, he already had more wine than June intended on giving him. June noticed people were averting their eyes elsewhere.
“Brian, I don’t really think that’s fair. Dad had trouble showing his emotion…”
“Bull!” Brian’s voice was loud and abrupt. “He didn’t have any difficulty. He showed them with his fists on regular occasions. Honestly can’t believe they even tried to pretend we had a normal childhood with those two for parents.”
Greg moved his hand below the table to catch June’s knee to settle her down, but it was for nothing.
“I was wondering how long it would take. You just can’t help yourself. Talking poorly about people who aren’t here to defend themselves!” She spat out these words toward Brian like she had been holding on to them for a lifetime. “You always were such a victim.”
“And you’re always better than the rest of us.”
Lawrence piped up and added, with his mouth full of another handful of crunchy turkey skin, “Come on, guys!”
Appalled by what he was saying and also by what he was doing, June stood up. “No, you come on. Look at you right now – stuffing your face like you haven’t eaten in a year, when you clearly aren’t missing any meals.”
June could feel the intensity of the sudden silence that fell on the room. She was hot with embarrassment and her guest’s stares.
Brian said to Lawrence, “See? Just like mom,” gesturing toward June.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Umm, I don’t know. Raising your voice, pointing fingers, insulting and trying to intimidate just because you don’t like something someone said. Just seems familiar.”
“Guys, can we just forget this?” Maggie pleaded. “June, please go on with what you were saying.”
“You drove them crazy! They tried everything to get you to grow up and we all suffered because of they way you acted. You took all their attention!” Overwhelmed and unable to contain herself, June turned on everyone else. “None of you could even put in an ounce of effort to make this like the old times.” Her cracking voice betrayed her emotion. Greg stood up and tried to lead her to the other room, but halfway through the door, Brian yelled back to her.
“Newsflash, Junie. The old times were shit. I don’t know what rose-coloured glasses you’re looking through, but none of us could wait to get away from our parents. You were their favourite so maybe that’s why you didn’t ever want to cut the cord. You got everything you wanted. Especially after they died.”
June wheeled around. She looked Brian dead in the eye and said, “Get. Out. Of. Here.”
When he didn’t move, she shrieked, “NOW!”
Brian stood to leave and, on cue, so did everyone else. June was left with untouched food and half empty glasses as everyone filed out without saying another word. Too many words had already been said.
June looked back at Greg who still had a hold of her shoulders and said, “Remind me to never put us all in the same room again.”