written November 22, 2012
Eric: The off-key singing of May’s door, opened at 7:30 was by no means the first to come to May’s ears this Thanksgiving morning. Sonya has roamed until (only?) about two in the morning.
“Good morning,” I had whispered to her, then just a huddled form. We talked of things not now remembered, lazily sliding into a vacation morning. Our sole employment today was the manifesting of a buttery, salty sidedish by me, and a buttery, sweet dessert by the visiting girl. And a walk, it was decided. But first- coffee!
May: [Speaking to Eric much later in the day] There was, of course, some question from your mom regarding whether you had in fact ever used a potato-peeler at any time during the last year. You suggested that you had so, at my house to end the subject. But then I walked didn’t know what you were talking about, and so when asked said I didn’t owe one.
Eric: Which, however you look at it, with the heavens and planets spinning around us out there, is a pretty silly and ultimately pointless moment. But it’s good to get it in the record?
May: Why not? It allowed me to create a story with a punch line of Eric peeling potatoes with someone other than me. So worth something. Sonya, Eric’s mother and father didn’t buy this though. The dinner conversation then degenerated into the creation of Eric’s Christmas list. Apparently, he is not to receive a washer of his own this year–
Eric: The nature of the potato-peeler defense and the related family reactions it conjuring inspired me to grab my recorder. I am pleased to have the following transcript, a quintessentially wide-ranging, fractured family conversation, the likes of which I have not made in years. The elemental personality of each shines through:
[THE CARLSON THANKSGIVING LUNCH ]
Eric: [Eric begins recording everyone at the table with May’s new iPhone. Making a playful scene, he zooms the lens inside the Cornish hen to get an exclusive] This looks great, and it looks done! Mom, Dad, would you like to say something for the recording of this moment?
Dad: Shut it off so we can eat! [Eric quickly does] So, I have a question… where does the water come from, in St. Louis?
Eric: The ground, I expect. [Helping himself to mashed potatoes]
Dad: Well, I know that. But is it all from St. Louis, or do they have to ship it in from Kansas City, out of town?
Eric: I don’t know too much about it, or Missouri’s water-table. My best guess is that it is piped in from the outer regions of the city. Away from the Mississippi.
Dad: [Looking to May for a better answer] Do you know?
May: That sounds right me. I don’t know, but it’s something like that.
Dad: That’s a whole lot of water to bring in every day. But I guess they have their way. [Changes the subject, looking again to May] You have to forgive me, the retired guy, but what should I call you, when we all go out in town?
Mom: Now Richard…
Dad: It’s just a question… I mean, what you’ve done is a huge accomplishment. You have a doctorate now, and that must have taken years.
May: Really, you don’t have to call me anything specific.
Dad: But you’re a heck of a gal! You’re really done some amazing things.
Eric: Were you able to get out and vote this year, Mom, for the election?
Mom: Oh sure, not much of a line this year.
Eric: We hadn’t really talked since before all that. What did you think?
Mom: It seemed like it was going to be close. I followed all the news leading up to it. But it seemed that the media was just letting Obama off scot-free with Benghazi. The only ones who seemed to be really talking about it was Fox. It seemed to show just how much we need a change, and Romney would have done a good job.
Sonya: I don’t really follow politics or the election. But Mom always has it on. I think it just depends on what kind of change, you know? …Do you think Obama is a good president, Eric? I bet you do.
Eric: …Uh, well, there have been a lot of challenges, but in my mind, many of the qualities I would like, the temperament and knowledge, he has. So I like that part.
Dad: You don’t have much Elmwood left in you. That’s not meant as a condemnation. Just an observation. Bein’ retired–
Mom: If I could cut in for a minute, if I were you I would stay away from the thighs. It looks a little shiny–maybe I should stick it back in. I was sure the meat thermometer was at 165. [Eric and May take another bite of turkey, giving their silent thumbs up] Maybe I should put it in the microwave for a couple minutes.
Eric: No, it’s fine, really.
Dad: You really out did your self this year, Joanne!
Sonya: Yeah Mom.
Eric: It’s very good.
May: This all looks great.
[Silence. The sound of silverware clinking on dishes, and the high-pitch whine of Dad’s hearing aid]
Eric: [To May, quietly] I think I hear Lex Luthor tapping in. [May begins to laugh uncontrollably to herself, trying to keep down some green bean casserole]
Sonya: Why are you laughing… [Looks around, but thinks of a subject to talk about] Eric got us this pepper shaker. Did you know that?
May: Yes, I do know. [Finally stifling her laughter] He’s a connoisseur of pepper grinders–lots of spices, actually.
Dad: How do you cook a fish?
May: …Well it depends. With cod you can fry it or bake it or whatever.
Dad: Mm. I love cod.
Eric: You want to know about fish, I once went to a restaurant down by Alton, along the Illinois River, that was known for it’s fish.
Dad: You don’t say!
Eric: Yes I do. If you were to walk in, ready for a big fish dinner, you would find that each booth along the walls had their own tanks. And in the tanks, fresh water fish from Illinois there to watch you eat. A catfish staring at you accusingly the whole time.
Mom: Oh not really…
Eric: Don’t get me wrong though. I can see Chinese restaurants, or sushi places having large tanks of tropical fish. It looks nice. But the fish hut’s tanks were all cloudy and dim like the Mississippi.
Mom: Speaking of fish, May, did you ever the story of a family Christmas when Eric was little? His grandfather Carlson was opening a package that had a fish in it, and Eric–
Eric: Yes! She’s heard, they’ve all heard.
Sonya: You have a cat, right?
Eric: Yeah, his name is Payton. I’ve had him since 2009.
Sonya: Is he anything like Sophie? Sophie is the sweetest cat, but no one would really knows that, because she just likes me. But she is.
Eric: Payton’s cool, pretty playful and smart. He’s probably starting to wonder where I am.
Dad: [To Eric] Big game today, gonna watch aren’t ‘cha?
Eric: Can’t miss a big game. Who’s playing?
Dad: You know, I’m not entirely sure. I did know. But it should be good. [Dad thinks of a new subject] So, you still looking for work?
Eric: I do work. I am working, as a substitute teacher.
Mom: You’re signing up for workshops, right? You need to make sure to get to any workshops they have, or any conferences, so you can start working on credits.
Eric: Well, I–
Dad: What you really need is a Roth IRA. That’s what your mother and I have.
Eric: Think I could get a good deal on interest, do you? [Eric leans in for any tips]
Dad: Well sure! You want to have a house don’t you?
Eric: You’ve seen my apartment in Tower Grove East when you visited me in St. Louis last summer. It’s pretty sweet.
Mom: I wanted to ask, does your school–what is it called?
Eric. Collinsville. Collinsville High School.
Mom: That’s right, I knew that. Does your school have a retirement?
Eric: I’m sure they do, for teachers that aren’t subs.
Mom: And they’re still calling you every day?
Eric: Yes. Every day. Promise.
Dad: You know your mother worries about you all the time. She hasn’t been well. And we can’t get ahold of you. Well call and call. When somebody leaves a message, they except to get a call back. I mean, one of us could die, and you wouldn’t know!
Eric again assures his Dad that he can be reached, writing his number down again on a piece of paper, in hopes that this will placate his father through Thanksgiving dinner, uncomfortable with some of the truth of it. And the meal continues on, more of less stable and happily, through a brief dessert of pies and coffees.
May: With Eric stepping out of the room with the recorder, the conversation veered to a question by Dad of “how [May] puts up with” him. May replied, “Well, I don’t know. I think I see a different persona than you get to see, sometimes…” “Well, that’s good,” came the response. Then his mom started in: “We really worried about him as a kid I mean, he was a good kid, but could be rammy.” Strains of this reached Eric, returning in the midst of the old “he always would march to the beat of his own drummer” story from third grade.
Eric: Right, I return to the table. Suddenly switching gears, Dad asked, “So what are your hopes and dreams? I want you to take a piece of paper and a pencil from over there, right them down for me.” Taking a moment to collect my life’s aspirations for a comment soon to be forgotten, I said as I indulged him by writing, “Well, right now, it’s teaching… I want to help and inspire people.” This only earned a skeptical look from Dad.
Dad: Well, I’m going to say something, and I’m not trying to be difficult, but (now speaking to May) I didn’t hear him say anything about getting married and settling down. [Perhaps knowing his senior citizen schtick had gone too far, he relented] Ah, I’m just kidding him. They know that.
[END OF CARLSON THANKSGIVING LUNCH]
Eric: To allow some time for the fam to recharge from our stressful presence, I took May on the famous Three-Mile Square. Cool, cloudy, and blustery, May thought of the Dunn’s Corner Market prime rib her dad was baking far to the East. Elmwood’s quiet country roads, May surmised, were the perfect locale for loose dogs to roam, like an adventurous German shepherd. We must even encourage it! Often we lapsed into silence, pleased to be a happy, simple couple content with a beautiful morning and the company of the other.
“This,” I pointed out for May, was where, on long walks with mom, I would rush into the corn and reappear as Superman(!) . . . a large bundle of clothes under my arm as a gift for my mom to then carry. “So this is a special place?” she inquired. I replied that it was a nice memory. So prompted, May reached into her long, blue coat, saying, “I have something for you.” A single rose was withdrawn, a few petals caught in the breeze. I suddenly imagined her, half an hour earlier, carefully concealing it before we left, and her selecting it in faraway St Louis. Only so rarely have I had the luck to inspire such warm acts in someone, and never had I been given two roses (another, I learned, was a “backup” rose). It was perfect.
It must be noted that when we discussed Dad’s insistence of a cooked ham, May blurted out the line of the day: “That shit was raw!”
May: When we returned to the house, it was time to set to work making Eric’s mashed potatoes and my apple pie. The pie went off without a proverbial “hitch,” with the exception of the fact that Sonya decided to peel apples AFTER cutting them. The potatoes, on the other hand, did not proceed quite so smoothly. After adding the butter and some sour cream, you see, they were quite “soupy.” I suggested that we microwave some extra potatoes and add them to the mix. While this solution was a good one in theory, it resulted in what Eric declared to be excessive “lumps.” This fact didn’t worry me, Eric’s mom, or Sonya. We all appreciated the effort. Even his dad, who claimed men do not quite belong in the kitchen, at the lumpy potatoes with gusto.
Eric: It should be understood, May, that Carlson Thanksgiving lasts merely from the first dish passed—normally to myself, Dad, then to be backed up at Sonya, Mom receiving the remnants, after Sonya has gleaned the porcelain collection accumulating to her right— to the first plate cleared.
We were determined to facilitate a real, proper conversation for this celebrated meal. This may have been finally achieved with May’s telling of her holiday horrors working at Macy’s, circa 2002. “So, give me your opinion on the Queisen Art grill,” Dad inquired. Alas, May was confined to the children’s section. I do have to say May’s apple crumble pie and vanilla ice cream was a HUGE hit.
Eric: The theme of the day was the extreme elongation of time and space. Noted during our walk’s return—referencing “The Specious Present” by Henry James, Star Trek time travel, and Back to the Future—the day continually sub-divided and multiplied it’s minutes. On the evening of November 22, 2012 time stopped (without, we feared, an Internet connection).
Yet God finally sanctioned a pinprick of broadband, and with this technological power we immersed ourselves in the trashiest of expired VH1 reality shows.
May: Amen. Well, perhaps not quite yet. Both Frank the Entertainer: A Basement Affair and then Tool Academy provided hours of mindless entertainment. Watching them together, Eric and May laughed at the relationship follies of others, knowing, hoping, they dwelt high above. Sonya joined the watching later in the evening, making things slightly uncomfortable. (The lack of anything to do weighed on me so that I offered that she come with us on our Friday Wildlife Prairie Park and Peoria venture.) Yet in the programs she, sadly, saw much of her own “boyfriend” in the so-called “Tools” of the Tool Academy, repeatedly telling Eric not to judge the women to claimed to “love” them. Both of us concluded the evening tired, and wondering at the definition of that word that is so overused—that word they were careful never to use—and so headed to their respective beds.
Third chapter of this devolving escapade home continues with “A Bloody Travesty of a Sorry Event (And the Civil War Was There Too).”
The opening chapter of this story, “The Burden of Heavy Ornaments,” can be read here.