Thursday, November 24, 2005

 

In Which We Get Our Just Desserts...



Isn't it funny how many things seem ironic as you get older? For example, in looking back on that night, my emotions about what I did started in stark fear, were eventually followed by relief, and over time morphed into a kind of quiet pride and sense of accomplishment.

Now, almost three decades later, I'm back to fear again. Not the fear I felt as an 8-year-old trying to overcome being scared of the dark, but sympathetic fear for my mom, a fellow parent, helpless to prevent her 8-year-old baby from running out into a genuine Nor'easter in the dark to get help at a neighbor's a mile away. My own son is now just a few months younger than I was when I did this thing. I can't let him walk six houses down the street to see friends without standing on the porch and watching to make sure he gets there. The very idea of him doing what I did chills me to the marrow (and doesn't that please my mom to no end).

Another irony is that now, when I think back to New Hampshire, among the many things I miss about the place I'm from is how dark it gets at night. Very few if any roads where we lived had streetlights and there were no large cities anywhere nearby whose skyline could give the horizon a glow. When you stepped out into the night at my old house, you stepped into an absolute void of space. Stay out in such darkness long enough, though, and eventually you'd see that there IS light--in the form of countless stars above you, or a moon that turns out to be brighter in its way than any flashlight you might have. I miss that moment, when your eyes adjust, when you welcome the dark and realize there's nothing--or at least not much--to be scared of.

In 1976, when I was 8 years old and slogging in the dark through ankle deep snow, I was plenty glad to have a flashlight with me, thanks. It was a massive flashlight, a huge metal cylinder that I needed to hold with both my mittened hands. Star Wars was still six months away from being foremost in every kid's mind, so at the time I waved the flashlight around and pretended it was the Bat-signal, summoning my favorite creature of the dark to help a little kid who was walking down a deserted country road all by himself in the middle of a snowy November night.

I waggled the flashlight all around, mesmerized by the way the light caught the millions of white flakes as they blew through the bright beam. This seemed a whole lot nicer thing to look at than the skeletal trees that stood sentry over the little road I was on.

In a few moments, I reached the end of the old stone fence that marked the border of our property, and here I shuffled off the road and into a pile of snow and leaves that marked the beginning of an old trail that cut through the woods to the bridge near our neighbor's house. It was a shortcut, I kept telling myself, and safer than being on the road, where I might get clipped by a passing car or plow whose driver wouldn't see me in the whiteout.

But as soon as I walked down that trail and into the woods, I wished for the road again.

I can still see that path, revealing itself to me only step by shaky step as I stumbled over stones and roots and slipped on snow and tried to keep the flashlight beam trained ahead. I strained in my mind's eye to see the path as I always knew it in spring and summer, almost obscured by tall grass and ferns.

CRACK!

I stopped immediately and whizzed the light off to my left. Was that ice from the brook? A stick in the dark forest that lay just beyond beam of the flashlight? If it was a stick, what broke it? I stood, shaking--not from the cold--and strained my ears for some sign that whatever made the cracking noise was coming closer. But all I could hear was the gentle sssssssshhhhhhhh sound of uncounted snowflakes hitting the ground. I hustled down the trail.

In another few minutes, I came to the bridge and without peering into the darkness underneath the span, without breaking stride, I leapt off the path and scrabbled up the side of the embankment, half-expecting something to grab me by a pantleg and pull me back. Nothing did, of course, and in a second, I was back on the road. Better still, to my right and up a little, I could see the faintest glow: the porch light of the Balboni house.

I ran across the bridge and up the back of the hill, which was so steep and slippery I was crawling up it by the end.

It was worth it, though. Especially when I reached the top and realized I was in the Balbonis' back yard and could see figures through a sliding glass door directly in front of me. There was Mrs. Balboni, seated with her back to me, and her two daughters, Melissa and Holly on either side of the table. Mr. Balboni was nowhere to be seen, but he traveled a lot for work and I suspected he was out of town. They were just finishing dinner and eating dessert, which I interrupted rather dramatically by hurling myself up against the glass of the door.

Boy, did they scream.

Mrs. Balboni recovered first, and hauled herself out her chair to let me in. I say "hauled herself" because, as I may have neglected to mention, she was 8 months pregnant.

"It's a wonder you didn't shock me into labor!" she cried, as she brushed the snow off me and sat me in her chair. I blurted out everything about my mom hurting herself and how we needed to get to the hospital.

Mrs. Balboni moved with a speed I would not see again in a pregnant woman until my own wife was quick with child and pissed off at me for something I did. In moments, we kids were bundled into her husband's four-wheel drive Blazer and she drove us back to my house.

When we got there, my mom was on the floor in the kitchen, talking on the phone with my father, who was calling from his job site in Maine. I breathed much easier then. It seemed like the adults were finally back in charge.

Don't ask me how, but after Mom got off the phone with my father, we all managed to lug my mom out to the car--no easy feat with four kids under the age of 12 and a pregnant lady. Then it was off the hospital in Manchester. We kids stayed in the car while Mrs. Balboni slung one of Mom's arms over her shoulder and together they struggled through the automatic doors of the hospital. Seeing Mrs. Balboni in her condition, the orderlies hopped to help her, and didn't realize their mistake until my poor mother slumped legless to the floor.

I'm fairly certain we spent the night in the waiting room, it being safer than four kids and a pregnant lady trying to make it back home in the storm. I remember a nice lady in hospital greens bringing me and my brother something eat, our own dinner long forgotten. I remember my brother saying in a tear-choked voice, "Better eat it while you can, kid. There's no Thanksgiving for us this year," which I think rather shows where his priorities were. I remember a doctor coming out and telling us my mom had a herniated disk and might require surgery. I didn't know what that was, but it sounded scary. My brother obviously thought so too, because he stopped crabbing about the ruination of Thanksgiving, but it didn't make him any less blubbery.

Aside from the above, though, most of it was a blur, until Mrs. Balboni drove us back to our house the next day. I remember the bright sunshine of that new morning, just four days before Thanksgiving, and I remember how sparkly and smooth our road looked, all plowed and so different from its appearance in the total darkness of the night before (which now, for some reason, seemed not so dark in my memory).

But what I remember best was seeing a familiar blue pick-up truck in our driveway.

"Dad!" my brother yelled, pointing.

As longtime readers know from other entries, my father was not exactly the most consistently great dad when I was a kid, but I had never had another father and so had no point of comparison to other dads. It didn't matter anyway. My father was home, and I had never been so pleased to see him before in my life.

No matter what flaws my father had at that time--and there were many--he possessed two laudable qualities that were beyond reproach. One was that, no matter how much of a workaholic he was, if we needed him, really needed him, he would drop what he was doing and come to us. Being away from your family over Thanksgiving to earn a really big paycheck was one thing. Leaving your family to fend for themselves during a medical crisis was something else.

The other quality my father had was his ability to engender staunch loyalty in the crews who worked for him. He stuck up for his people. When they needed time off, he covered for them. If they were broke til payday, he'd use his supervisory capacity to get them an advance. He did this because he knew that it was a better way of getting good work out of a crew than by being a micro-managing, by-the-book asshole.

It also gave him a more than ample reserve of goodwill among his men, as he discovered that night, when one of his senior people told him to get going, get home. They'd work the shutdown themselves and cover for him for a change. In fact, a couple of guys--including the roommate I'd spoken with--pitched on the job site, off the clock, to make sure the shutdown finished on schedule. I don't know what my father said to these men to express his gratitude, but I can tell you that he never forgot what they did. (To this day, among the crew he's supervising at a construction site in New England at this very moment, two of the men working for him are men who worked that Thanksgiving shutdown almost 30 years ago. The only reason the rest aren't working is because they're either dead or retired.)

And so, my father had driven all through the night, most of it in near white-out conditions. Twelve hours later, here he was, having pulled into our driveway just 10 minutes ahead of us. He was going to join us for Thanksgiving after all.

The only problem was, mom wasn't. She was in the hospital--indeed, may have been in actual traction--for the next week or so, recovering from her back injury. We spent most of the next two days at the hospital with her (my brother and I being forced to sit in the waiting room and read comics, it being an era when kids were still barred from hospital rooms, unless they were patients). She was fine, of course, but when you're a child and your mother is hurt and nothing like that has ever happened to you before, you can't help but be worried about it. We were so focused on her and how she was doing, we didn't even think about the upcoming holiday. Even my brother hadn't mentioned Thanksgiving since that first night. In our minds, we had bigger birds to cook, you know? My father was obviously in the same mind-set. At least until the day before Thanksgiving.

Because when Wednesday morning rolled around, my brother and I were eating breakfast in the dining room when we suddenly heard our father cry from the garage, "Holy-o Jesus H. Jesus God! What the Christ am I gonna do now?!?"

We ran to the garage and found my father standing dumbfounded in front of the giant deep-freeze that occupied most of the back wall. He was holding a round object in one hand and staring down at it, Hamlet-style.

But it wasn't Yorick's skull my father was holding. It was our Thanksgiving turkey, still frozen rock solid. The way it worked was, Mom was supposed to take the turkey out and put it in the refrigerator on Monday or Tuesday. Wednesday morning, she'd run it under hot water to thaw it completely, and then in the evening, she and my father would prep it and stuff it and throw it in the oven to cook all night so that on Thanksgiving morning we'd wake up to the mouth-watering aroma of a perfectly cooked bird.

Now, our bird was cooked all right.

Once again, my brother started crying. "I told you we weren't going to have any Thanksgiving!" he wailed, punching me in the arm for emphasis.

My father lobbed the cannonball of a turkey into the sink and even as he instructed my brother to start boiling water to throw on it, he was already grabbing the phone. He called Champagne's, the local grocery store. They weren't even open the day before Thanksgiving. He called a few Shaw's and Grand Union stores off in Pinardville and Manchester. No one had a turkey left in stock, because they had carted what was left over to a food bank that morning to contribute to Thanksgiving dinners for needy families. One manager at the Shaw's offered to give my father the number for the food bank, but he indignantly declined. "We'll eat goddamn frozen turkey legs like they was popsicles before I'll take food out of a poor man's mouth!" he cried to me and my brother.

It seems so quaint now to paint this as a dilemma, but I'm sure there are enough of you out there who recall (and the rest of you will just have to rely on your best imagining) just how hard it was to quickly thaw a solid-frozen turkey in the days before a microwave oven was a regular feature of every kitchen. To be sure, my father had offered to buy my mom an Amana Radarange, but she had asked instead that we put the money towards a dishwasher, which is exactly what he did, buying it and installing it in the kitchen as a birthday present for her the previous March.

My brother remembered this with some bitterness. He had been absolutely besotted with the idea of a microwave oven, whereas a dishwasher meant a chore for him. Sure, no more washing plates in the sink, but we still had to load and unload the thing. As he stood there at the sink, aiming the faucet of hot water and occasionally interrupting this to let my dad pour boiling pots on the petrified bird, he began wailing about our sad lot.

"Why couldn't we have gotten a Radarange?" he bellowed, kicking his foot against the edge of the dishwasher. "Why'd we have to get this instead?"

After a long while of this, between my brother's squeaky bitching and the bird resolutely failing to thaw in any way, my father had had enough and began roaring at my brother, who was crying again. "If you don't shut your yap, I'm gonna stick YOU in that goddamn dishwasher!"

And then the kitchen went dead silent. My father stopped shouting, my brother stopped crying. All that we needed to complete the moment was a little bright noise--DING!--and perhaps the appearance of a lightbulb over my father's head, as he stared at the dishwasher.

My brother stared at my father, then at the dishwasher. "No way!" he said.

My father opened the door to the machine. "Why not?" he said. He reached in and flipped the catches that allowed him to pull out the top rack, which he handed unceremoniously to me.

I'm sure my expression was worth a photograph. "You're going to run our turkey through the dishwasher?!" I cried.

"Ayuh," my father replied, grinning. "Gimme that goddamn bird," he said to my brother.

"But--but it'll taste SOAPY!" my brother wailed, clutching the frozen carcass to his breast like it was a beloved puppy.

"We won't put the soap in, will we?" my father said, wresting the turkey away from my brother and impaling it on a prong in the middle of the bottom rack. Then he shoved it in, slammed the door shut and ran it through the wash cycle. Twice.

By nightfall, that bird wasn't just thawed, it was almost boiled.

Still, I must confess, once my father whomped up his famous stuffing (a recipe he still keeps secret, but which involves pureed giblets, a pound of sage and 12 cartons of Zesta crackers) and had that stuffed bird in the oven, it was starting to look like a Thanksgiving turkey. And by Thursday morning, the place sure smelled like Thanksgiving.

Indeed, by about noon, and with only the barest assistance from us, my father had resurrected the holiday for us, complete with mashed potatoes (into which I had poured a little too much milk), a sweet potato casserole, and assorted vegetables culled from the ample preserves my mom had just put up that fall. I hadn't been so impressed with him since the time he made French fries from scratch.

Although we usually had Thanksgiving dinner sometime between 2 and 3, we were all famished enough that we decided to eat early. By 1:30 the three of us were stuffed and sitting around the wreckage of dinner. Which was just as well, since my father glanced at his watch and, realizing the time, leapt up and started ordering us about. Leftovers were quickly hustled into covered casserole dishes and Tupperware containers. Within 10 minutes everything was put away--at least until around 6 that night, when we would get everything back out to make turkey-and-stuffing sandwiches, to my mind the best meal of the holiday.

My father hustled us into his truck and we tore off down the deserted roads. Visiting hours were almost over at the hospital and my father didn't want to miss seeing my mom on Thanksgiving. My brother was excited too, but for other reasons. "Remember how they gave us food the other night? Maybe they'll have pie and we can get a piece," he hissed in my ear, reminding me that the only part of the traditional dinner that we had missed was some kind of dessert.

When we got to the hospital, it was much quieter and more empty than when Mrs. Balboni had driven us there the previous Sunday. They were obviously running on a skeleton shift. My father checked in at the desk and my brother and I started to take our by-now familiar positions in the deserted waiting room when the nurse at the desk suddenly called to us.

As we walked over, my brother whispered, "Pie! We're gonna get pie!"

The nurse towered over us, imperious as a nun. "Can you young men be quiet and well-behaved?" she asked.

Well, duh, what did she think we would say? Of course, we both nodded solemnly.

The nurse cracked the barest smile. "Then if that's true, I think we can let you upstairs to see your mother for a few minutes."

So, we didn't get pie that Thanksgiving, but I'm pretty sure even my brother didn't mind, once we got off the elevator at the third floor and stood in the doorway of the second room on the right, and saw her in her bed, smiling at us. I realized then that I hadn't seen my mother in four days, the longest I'd been away from her ever.

Forgetting my promise to the imperious nurse, I yelled "HI MOM!" and ran to her side.

Then I started bawling.

Later, my brother had the nerve to call me a big crybaby.

But for some reason, I didn't mind.


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Comments:
Who needs the lame Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade when you've got MM to bring you good cheer?! Many thanks for the great tale.
 
Wow, I completely forgot about the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. :D When I saw you had a new post, I just started reading. (And felt a little better about burning my pies. ;_;)

Have a great thanksgiving, MM. :3
 
Great story, MM.

I just got done reading it to TJ and boy, it sure was hard to choke that last bit out (I've always been a sucker and a crybaby). Thanks, and happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
 
I've pretty much read your collection. This is the best by far.

Happy Thanksgiving old man.

Your pal the Bunny.
 
Happy Thanksgiving to all at the Magazine Mansion.

Thanks for such a "grateful" story.
 
Now, we wait for your brother's rebuttal...;>

Great story. Of course, I teared up at the end!
 
Okay, I'm all teary now. But in a good way. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.
 
What a special Thanksgiving story-Thanks for the good read.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!
 
Awwwwwwwwwww.

*hugs*

Happy Thanksgiving!!

K
 
I'm an emotional reader, but you, my dear Mr. Man, get me choked up far more than any other author, period. Your craft touches me profoundly and for that, I am thankful. May you, TB, AL, and HLS have a magnificant life, and may G-d watch over you and grant you peace.
 
"'We'll eat goddamn frozen turkey legs like they was popsicles before I'll take food out of a poor man's mouth!' he cried to me and my brother."

This is a great line, and it's an attitude I deeply respect. Your father is to be commended.
 
Darnit.

You made me cry in the office.

Thats not fair!!!!
 
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