A few weeks later I found myself seated across Grandma’s table from Jessie. I wonder what they thought we’d do if we sat together. The corpse of the turkey effectively separated us. As I looked at Jessie’s reassuring green eyes I was able to let Grandma’s usual “I just don’t know what I’m going to feed you” line wash over me. I’d been a vegetarian for over 15 years but somehow Grandma never seemed to remember what she fed me the last time I visited.
Jessie spoke up, “We’ll do just fine, Mrs. Elschlager. You have plenty of things here that we can eat.” It was easier for her to be diplomatic. I had too many old buttons to push.
Jessie was wearing her favorite green silk shirt over black slacks, almost too dressy for my farm-bred family. The shirt set off her green eyes and blond hair perfectly and took my breath away. She had a single strand of pearls passed down from her mother with matching earrings. I supposed people thought I was the “man” in our relationship, but of course it wasn’t that simple. I guessed I dressed more butch and I had shorter hair—for the moment—but I wouldn’t know how to change the oil or put in new sparkplugs while Jessie was happy to take care of our tune ups and oil changes herself. She’d learned from her dad. Maybe that was my problem—mine was never around and while my grandpa was good at building things, he didn’t work on cars at all. Meanwhile, I loved to cook while Jessie would be more likely to bring takeout when it was her night for dinner.
I looked around at the log cabin Grandpa built after they sold the farm house and moved to the small town of Wayland, Missouri. I still missed the farm; this didn’t feel at all like home to me. My grandparents bought the farm when I was still a toddler and I spent every summer and Christmas vacation there. It was like my second home. I used to be closer to them until I got to my teen years. It always seemed like Grandma couldn’t bear for anyone to grow up and make their own choices. She’d tried to control everything, right down to how I spent my meager allowance. We’d grown apart even before I realized that I didn’t want to date boys.
I looked over at Aunt Vickie, who was telling a story about her gallbladder surgery, and remembered the battles over her black husband coming for Christmas dinner many years ago. They later divorced, and never had any children. She had steadfastly refused to come if her husband, Clyde, wasn’t also invited. I guess you could say she was my role model. Grandma had relented after one lonely Christmas without her favorite daughter.
Aunt Vickie had frosted hair that was a leftover from the seventies. When all the other women in our family had decided to liven up their brown locks with red dye, she settled on frosting her dark hair with a platinum layer on top. I always thought it looked too artificial. I had played with my hair color off and on over the years and had settled for a shade of red that was just a bit redder than my original reddish brown.
Aunt Vickie was saying, “I woke up in the recovery room and motioned to the nurses that I could remove my respirator hose myself.” She was a nurse at the same hospital. “Of course they let me. I was ready to go back to my room in no time. These laparoscopic procedures are so much easier to recover from. It’s amazing! I went home the next day!” Surgeries were a favorite topic of conversation in my family. Of course my mom, being somewhat of a surgery junkie, always had a story to top everyone else’s. Sure enough, she launched into a story about her own heart surgery.
“It only took three days for them to send me home after my open heart surgery,” Mom said. “I remember that I was in the hospital for a week after my hysterectomy. I think the insurance companies just don’t want to pay for the time. I was still in pain when they sent me home.”
I tuned out at this point. I loved Mom, and I’m sure her heart disease really scared her, but she’s spent so many years harping on her ill health that I just couldn’t bear to hear it any more. I also hated the way she and Grandma seemed to be vying for the position of most-severely-ill lately. I mean, what was the prize—early death?
I glanced around the room and my eyes lighted on the Serenity Prayer plaque. I guess I should say plaques. There was the large, fancy one that I could read from across the room. Then it was surrounded by smaller versions because people kept giving them to Grandma. She really knew how to work it, too. Completely ruined it for me. She’d sigh loudly when we gave her some news about our lives that disappointed her, some choice she disapproved of, and point to her plaque and say something like, “I just try to remember the Serenity Prayer…” and recite it while we stood around uncomfortably. Of course we were meant to feel guilty for making it so hard for her to live up to the prayer’s advice to “accept the things I cannot change.” Really, Grandma found it hard to accept that there were people she couldn’t change.
Grandma was the smallest adult in the family—four-foot-eleven in her stocking feet. Her hair was shorter than mine, almost as short as Grandpa’s. She’d kept it that way since the days when she was able to get on a tractor and help bale hay with the men. She’d always preferred to be out doing farm work rather than cooped up in the house. Her blue eyes were often fierce and what she lacked in size she more than made for in spirit. She was dressed in home-made clothes: a maroon blouse and mismatched lime polyester slacks. She never dressed up for the holidays. She’s never been able to enjoy Christmas since the year her father died on Christmas day.
I felt pressure on my foot and looked at Jessie, who promptly winked at me. “Penny for your thoughts,” she said.
I shook my head slightly, “You wouldn’t want to pay that much.” Her foot traveled up my leg and I blushed.
“That’s more like it,” Jessie said softly. “It’ll be over soon.”
--to be continued--