She’s going to ask, I know she’s going to ask.
This is my first time hosting Christmas dinner, but we’ve had this Christmas dinner for 32 years. And she had it with her mother for 30 years before that. I wonder now if Grammie ever asked my mother questions like this, and if my mom got mad, and if this is all just part of the great circle of life.
I wish my grandmother was here.
But she’s not, my mother is, and she is busy chattering away with my three-year-old. “Annnnnd what does a turkey say?” she says in her best grandmother voice, and I miss my own Grammie even more.
My mom looks up at me just as my little Charlotte squawks, “Gobble, gobble,” and dissolves into a fit of laughter.
“Is she too big for this booster seat now?” my mother asks as I set down the garlic mashed potatoes.
She never served garlic mashed potatoes when I was growing up, and it’s the one departure from our traditional Christmas meal. But we all agreed years ago — the first year my dad accepted my help in the kitchen — that my potatoes were the better version.
This is the only thing we have ever collectively decided I can do better than the thing we have done for 32 years. Ever.
As I turn to get the green bean casserole, I roll my eyes about the booster seat and about the mashed potatoes. “She’s fine, Mom,” I say. Then I try, more lightly, “It’s just… it’s easier for me to serve a big meal if she’s trapped!” I say this second line in a joking manner because it’s Christmas and I feel bad about rolling my eyes at my mother on Christmas and about trapping my daughter, and — for some reason — about mashed potatoes.
“Oh she’s fine!” I hear my mother saying, and suddenly Charlotte is running through the kitchen. I expertly dodge her tiny, excited body, the hot green bean casserole two feet above her precious blonde head. I look down at my pot holders, which are dirty and burned from years of use. They also say, “Queen, I AM the secret ingredient!” in what can only be described as sassy-font. She’s going to say something about them, I know. She’ll say she should have gotten me new ones for Christmas, and then she’s going to ask about the other thing — the thing she asks about every year. Indignation rises in my chest and I shake my head.
“Mommy, gobble gobble!” Charlotte says. She is flapping her arms like wings, and then she kisses my thigh.
I remember why I am here, and that my mother is a good mother, and a really good grandmother.
“Your favorite!” I say, as I put the green bean casserole down in front of her.
She smiles and says, “Yum!” but she is distracted by my three-year-old who is now squatting and pretending to peck like a turkey. Do turkeys even peck like that? I wonder.
I am momentarily offended that my mother did not say something more complimentary about my green bean casserole, but irritation is replaced with relief when I realize that she didn’t ask about the thing that I know she’s going to ask about.
But it’s coming….
“How’d the turkey come out?” my dad asks. He used to cook the turkey, and I know it pains him a bit that I’ve taken over. But he doesn’t say it.
And I don’t say to him that it came out literally perfect because I am actually reheating a turkey that I purchased from a barbeque restaurant downtown. It’s spit-fire roasted, and looks Rockwell-esque, and it sat in my refrigerator overnight until about fifteen minutes before they came over today. I don’t say to him that I’m a big fat chicken and I should be the one pretending to peck at my hardwood floors. “I think it’s good!” I say, with fake humility and pretend trepidation. I add a little shrug at the end for good measure.
“I’m sure it’ll be great, sweetheart,” my dad says. I land a dry kiss on his head and turn to pull out the stuffing.
The barbecue joint made the stuffing, too.
I set the giant tray on the oven, and begin scooping it into a white serving bowl. She’s going to say something about this serving bowl, I just know it. It’s plain white and it’s one of my favorite pieces. I got it for my wedding, and I remember sitting on the floor with my mother in my bridal suite the next morning, as we opened all the gifts. “You registered… for this?” she said, holding up the white bowl.
“Eeee! Yes I love it!” I squealed in a way only a new bride could.
“Well, you could have gotten this at the Dollar Store,” she said and laid it aside. I was annoyed then, and now, but I wonder if I should put the stuffing in the bowl with the purple flowers. She loves flowers and bright colors, and she doesn’t care at all if her dishes match her placemats. Did she even notice that my dishes match my placemats? I wonder as I head to the dining room with the heaping, steaming bowl of stuffing that I did not make. I set it down in front of my father.
My three-year-old is sitting on my mother’s lap, and they’re playing a game of naming all the people that love her. Charlotte is throwing back her head, laughing with abandon as my mother asks if Cookie Monster loves her.
Two more dishes and she’s going to ask about the thing I know she’s going to ask about.
I stall and ask, “Champagne anyone?” This is a tradition started by my grandmother, who believed you should always have a bottle of champagne in the house — Just in case, she would say. In case there was something to celebrate. And for her, Christmas was as good a reason as any to celebrate. I look around the table at my mother playing with my daughter, and my father finally sitting down to a holiday meal he didn’t have to cook, and my husband, going on about basketball or something…. I realize my grandmother wasn’t drinking Champagne to celebrate Christmas. She drank it to celebrate family. I’m filled with that nostalgic, happy-sad, cozy feeling that Christmas always brings.
“Your hair is darker,” my mother says, pulling me from my reverie.
What’s that supposed to mean? I think, but don’t say. I touch my head involuntarily. “Yeah, I was thinking I’d go a little more natural?” I say, and wish it didn’t sound like a question.
She wrinkles her nose for a split second, but I catch it, because we are mother and daughter and because we are inexplicably and inextricably linked, and so I know everything she is thinking, and she knows everything I am thinking. It’s exhausting.
My husband meets my eye now and he knows that I am irritated by the hair comment. He gives me an uncertain smile that tells me: “She didn’t say anything bad!” But he doesn’t get it. She is saying this because she wants me to be blonde like her, and I know it. And he should know it, too, and if he doesn’t, I will tell him after they leave like I always do whenever she comments about my hair.
I pop the cork and pour Champagne for all of us and wonder if my mother has noticed that I am using the toasting glasses she got my husband and I for our wedding.
She in turn is holding her Champagne flute up to Charlotte’s ear so she can hear the bubbles fizz-fizz-fizzing.
I go into the kitchen where my husband has already cut the turkey, but having been married to me for 10 years, knows that I will prefer to arrange it on the platter myself.
Oh my God, she’s totally going to say something about the platter, I think, remembering the gorgeous serving tray with the gilded edges and brightly colored turkey that my mother uses every year. Can’t get that at the Dollar Store.
I arrange the meat as best I can, and think about the thing I know she’s about to ask about. I try to think of something funny to say back, to keep the mood light. But I am just already so mad that she’s going to ask the question she has asked at every holiday meal for 32 years.
I carry my boring white turkey tray to the dining room table. My mother has already moved the centerpiece so there is a clear spot for the main course. My father smiles big. Charlotte says, “Wow!”
I look down at her, wanting to relish this moment of her first holiday dinner in her own home. But her hair is a mess. “Baby, go get a brush,” I say. I catch my husband’s eye again and wonder why now he looks like he can barely contain his laughter. He knows I hate when her hair is a mess.
“Does everyone have what they need?” I ask brightly, and everyone says, “Yes!” and “Come sit down!”
But I can’t yet. I make my way to the refrigerator, and take out the bowl. I look down at the gelatinous red mess before me. Gross.
I take a deep breath, and go back to the dining room, where I set the bowl between my mother and I.
I am sitting at the head of the table, but I ask her to say grace.
“Dear Lord, thank you so much for this table full of food,” she says, but I can’t stop thinking about the bowl. “Thank you for our sweet baby girl, Charlotte.” She’s not a baby anymore. “Thank you most of all for bringing us all together, and please keep us all safe and healthy in the new year. Amen.”
Here it comes.
“This looks delicious, honey,” my mother is saying. She’s fixing a plate for Charlotte. Food is being passed around the table, and everyone is complimenting me.
My mother picks up the bowl I have placed between us. “Do you want some cranberries?” she asks.
There it is.
THERE IT IS.
Every year. Every single year for 32 years. Every year, this woman has asked me if I want some cranberries.
And I hate cranberries. I hate them so much. I hate their jelly texture, and how they smell sweet, but taste a little bitter, and the fact that when you take them out of the can, they still look. like. the can. I gagged when I was putting them in the bowl earlier. I mashed them up with the back of a fork so they wouldn’t look quite so trashy in another one of my beautiful plain white serving bowls.
I look over at my husband, hoping to catch his eye again, but he’s busy serving my father stuffing that I didn’t make, and laughing at something else.
My father is laughing, too, and I am happy for a moment that they are bonding.
Meanwhile my own mother doesn’t know that I don’t like cranberries, and that I never have. For 32 years I have said no at every Thanksgiving, and every Christmas, but here she is offering them again.
Charlotte has distracted her. She’s telling a long and winding story about her Christmas pageant, which we were all at, and throughout most of which, she was front and center stage with her finger up her nose. My mother is stifling a laugh, and I know she is having the same memory as me.
She can remember that and not that I don’t like cranberries? I think.
“No thank you!” I say too loudly. “I do not like cranberries.” The indignation, the umbrage…. The audacity of this woman.
My father and husband stop talking.
Everyone is looking at me.
I brace for impact. I said it with too much attitude. It’s Christmas for heaven’s sake, I think to myself, and get ready for my mother to give an exasperated huff, or worse. I wait to hear about how she was just being polite, and I need to lighten up. I wait for the hurt in her eyes because I have taken offense to something that she did not mean offensively. I wait for her to get up and leave the table.
I look at my sweet Charlotte, who is happily eating garlic mashed potatoes with her hands. I have ruined her first holiday in her own home.
My mother laughs. “I know,” she says.
What? Excuse me?
“I know,” she says again, shaking her head and laughing. “But I have to ask every year. Just to drive you nuts.”
I’d like to smack the smirk off every one of the faces looking back at me. But I don’t.
I smirk too. And I laugh.
We have had the same Christmas meal for 32 years, and I wing a silent prayer for 32 more with these people. I raise my glass.
“To family… and to something to celebrate,” I say. I smile.
And I mean it.
Based on a prompt from Reedsy, “Write about someone who falls back into childish behaviors whenever they’re around their family. Check out the blog for more short stories!