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For the better part of the morning, the front yard was mowed, raked, and bagged to perfection, the grass resembled a lush green carpet that had been rolled out to the street to greet the guest who would be arriving in the early afternoon.
Don Finland had been warned repeatedly by his wife Sheryl, that politics and religion would be avoided while guest were in the house. She had been fastidious in her instructions on his behavior, as there would be no outbursts or regretable remarks.
Oh I wouldn't regret them. He thought, staring out of the window as his lawn was under attack. He watched as a wayward leaf danced through the air while making its decent onto the green grass. He turned to grab his coat when he was met by his wife.
“Today is about family.” She had said sternly.
He wondered just what he had done to deserve the punishment that the day had in store for him. He loathed the meaningless chatter that would infiltrate his house in the ensuing moments, instead preferring the solitude of his worn chair in the den with his 13 year old terrier, Sonny. Before he could respond to his wife's demands a car pulled up outside, followed by a second car, and a Toyota Prious that Don hoped would not be spotted by the neighbors. He took a deep breath as he watched the greetings begin on his perfectly trimmed lawn.
“I’m serious Don, it's Thanksgiving.” Sheryl reiterated, walking back towards the kitchen.
“Kickoff is at four, I’m not missing the game.” He mumbled quietly to himself.
The delectable smells floated throughout the house, filling the rooms with an enticing fragrance that warmed the air and awoke the stomach. The homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cornbread, green bean casserole, squash, yams, and cranberry sauce were all on the menu, each made from scratch by Mrs. Finland herself.
But these were role players, cast and crew to the star of today's event. In the warmth of the oven, slow cooked and glistening under the light was the turkey, the main event of the afternoon harvest. The thought of the first bite was the only thing getting him through the day. Sheryl had labored throughout the night in preparation of the gathering, and now Don would only have to endure his children's boyfirends for a couple of hours in order to reap the benefits.
The door opened and the holiday began in earnest. Sheryl quickly untied her apron, rinsed her hands and hugged her daughter Pam, who arrived with her boyfriend, Sean, and their three year old twin boys, Dylan and Darren.
“Hey sweetie, it’s so good to see you! How was your trip?” She asked, as if the one hour drive had been an all night journey on horseback.
“Oh, it was fine, we took the scenic route, I’m sorry we’re late.” Her voice lowering, she whispered. “How’s Dad, you know, with Ben coming?”
Sheryl shrugged. “You know you’re father, I've warned him to play nice.”
“Glad I brought my appetite, it smells delicious!” Sean said as he came in for a hug. “Good to see you again Mrs. Finland.”
Don found his way into the kitchen, mainly to see his daughter and grandkids, not their tattooed father.
“Come here you little rug rats!” He yelled, his theatrics animated as the two children squealed in faux terror. Don hunched down, his hands above his head, before they rushed into his arms. He playfully hugged the two children before rising to his feet, walking towards his daughter and the freak she had been shacked up with for almost 5 years now.
“Hey Sweetie.” He said softly, kissing her on the forehead. A slight grunt as he nodded in Sean’s direction. For Sean, being acknowledged was a new development, a breakthough that had taken him four years to experience. He had Pam’s younger brother, Ben to thank for his ascent up the totem pole.
“Hey Don, the yard looks great outside.” Sean said, trying to build upon the gesture.
No thanks to that cigarette butt you left in the driveway. Don thought, but Sheryl’s watchful eye kept him in check. Pam smirked at Sean and his attempt to reach out to her father.
The moment passed and Sheryl continued the small talk, keeping the banter light before the impending tension.
“Did you see the new counter tops? You’re father put them in himself.” She said, always the mediator.
“Got ‘em on closeout from the wholesale store, talked him down $100 dollars.” Don added proudly, speaking to his daughter but meant for Sean to hear.
The door opened again and the second round of greetings commenced, more hugs and kisses, handshakes and compliments as Sheryl’s sister, Rita, and her husband, Clint arrived. Don steered clear, having nothing nice to say to the liberal know-it-all who he was forced to see twice a year. Clint was a tenured professor at the local community college and Don had been in his share of debates with the stiff yuppie over the years. By now they had made it quite clear that they had very different views about the world they lived in.
Standing in the doorway, Don sipped his diet Pepsi as Ben and his partner, Raja made their grand entrance. Don had given up trying to pronounce the kid’s name, not that he would be bragging to anyone about him anyway. The initial shock of their unnatural relationship had worn off, but he was still far from embracing the partnership his son had chosen.
He watched as Sheryl hugged her son and then his partner. They had made the drive down from Baltimore where Ben worked as a Actuary and Raja did something that he couldn't remember. For the first year he had refused to acknowledge their relationship, now he sat quietly in disgust when forced to interact with the two of them together.
“Hey Dad.” Ben said, refusing to allow his father to ignore them. His approach from the beginning was to shower his father with kindness in hopes that he would eventually recognize the fact that his son was happy.
“Hey Son” Don managed, putting forth his best effort to be sociable. Raja stayed in the background as this was only his second meeting with Ben’s father.
The conversations continued. Sheryl, Pam and Ben set the table that had been extended to accommodate the many guests, a rare occurrence in the Finland household that had Sheryl thrilled at the chance to entertain. Sean and Raja stepped outside as Sean enjoyed a smoke while Raja enjoyed getting some fresh air and briefly away from the uncomfortable setting.
A fleeting deer gingerly glided across the backyard, effortlessly hopping over a felled tree and into the orange and yellow leaves of the woods. Sean exhaled a plume of smoke, looking over at Raja.
“Don’t sweat it man, it took me four years just to get that nod of the head in there.”
“I’m just trying not to get shot.” Raja replied, smiling but cautious..
Inside the den, Don entertained Rita and Clint with his silence and channel surfing, as Rita occasionally tried to resuscitate the lifeless conversation between the two men.
“So Don, how have you been? Sheryl tells me there have been quite a few changes at the department.”
There were few things that Don could talk about without starting an argument with the tree-hugging professor sitting in the room, work was not one of them. After 20 years with the fire department, there had been drastic changes and cuts recently due to budget short falls and the economy in general. He knew that he and Clint had vastly different ideas on how to fix the cuts, not to mention the changes. They had been down that road before.
“Yeah, staying busy.” He mustered, and both men seemed unaffected by the gaping silence left in the room.
The hour finally arrived and the family gathered at the table. Don led with a quick prayer and giving thanks for the great feast awaiting them, wishing he could say aloud the things for which he truly prayed. They scooted chairs and settling in while expressing their admiration for the beautiful spread Sheryl had prepared on the table.
The dishes were handed off and spoonfuls of delicious diet-wrecking extravagances were passed.
“Mom uses real butter for these, they’re amazing!” Pam divulged to no one in particular.
Daily lives were discussed, jobs, school, kids, and other light topics fit for family gatherings as the food was passed. Once the plates were full, the clanking of utensils became more pronounced as the discussions grew scarce.
There was one discussion still taking place. At the end of the table, Don watched as Rita leaned over, asking Sheryl something he couldn't quite hear. Sheryl rose, heading into the kitchen, returning with yet another dish, a loaf of some type. Ben inquired about the dish arriving late to the table.
“It’s Tofurky, for our vegetarian guests.” She answered pleasantly, placing the dish in front of Clint.
While trying to digest this act of sacrilege , Don choked on a large mouthful of real turkey, which quickly became lodged in his throat. He hacked violently, banging on the table and then his chest while stomping his feet in an attempt to dislodge the dry chunk of bird from his chest. Sheryl gasped, her chair flying backwards as she came to her husband’s aid, unsure what to do next.
Don panicked, trying to rise from his seat at the head of the table, gagging while hunched over in attempt to force the blockage either down to his stomach or up and out of his body. As he struggled, Raja took action. Before the much larger Don could turn around, he felt the arms around his waist.
“Take it easy….don’t panic…. hang on…” His voice calm and reassuring and with his arms in place, he sent a powerful squeeze to the abdomen.
“Here we go.” He said, repeating the maneuver. Sheryl watched in horror as her husand's face had become a deep shade of purple. Raja worked his fist towards the sternum as the dinner guests looked on, even Clint seemed concerned about the situation. Pam had her phone out to call the ambulance when Don began coughing..
Raja released him as he caught his breath, gently assisting him as he took a knee on the floor, yakking loudly, his face red and regaining color. Sheryl grabbed a glass of water.
“Don! Oh my you scared us to death!”
"Scared you? I thought I was going to die." A few sips of water, he wiped his mouth.
The turbulence faded and Don, a bit humbled but thankful, took his place at the head of the table. With everyone’s attention, he looked over to Raja, clearing his throat once again.
“It’s Rah-jah, right?"
"Yes sir." Raja nodded.
"Well, thank you for that." He hesitated a moment, still catching his breath. "I believe I owe you an apology.”
“You’re welcome sir, and thank you for having me at your house.”
With that, the warm smile that Sheryl and Pam knew so well made its first appearance, and dinner continued. The utensils were picked up and the family and returned to their plates, everyone eating a bit more carefully. Don, feeling lucky after his near death experience, was ready for another first, asking Clint to pass down the Tofurky, which with enough gravy, he decided wasn't all that bad after all.
Sean fixed a plate for Dylan and set it on his chair. His left hand was under the table, returning the small box containing the ring into his pocket as his big presentation would have to wait. Raja had stolen the moment, while taking his spot on the totem pole in the process.