Chapter Four; Part Three
“Rembrandt did most of the work,” I say, smiling at Rembrandt across the table. “He’s a true gourmet in the kitchen. I basically sat around and looked pretty.”
“That’s not true,” Rembrandt protests. “You made all the pie crusts, which is arguably the hardest part.”
“It was fun, especially as you’re such a patient mentor,” I reply, winking at Rembrandt. I notice that Viv is smirking at me, and I smirk back at her.
“Let me know what you want,” Jasmine says, holding up her spatula.
“Sweet taters!” Ing-wen says, holding out her plate.
“Pumpkin!” Michelle chimes in, holding up her plate as well.
“Blueberry!” Jason gives his opinion, and he’s quickly followed by Jenny.
“Grammy, pumpkin and blueberry, please.” She bats her eyelashes at Jasmine, who smiles at her in return. She turns to look at Jordan, who nods his head.
“Just a small piece of each, Ma,” Jordan says. “We don’t want her to get over-sugared.”
“I understand,” Jasmine says, nodding her head. She does exactly as Jordan requested and gives Jenny a sliver of each of the pumpkin and blueberry pies. She’s been giving each of the kids ice cream with their pie, too, which they all like.
“Pumpkin?” Jonathon asks it more like a question than a statement. Jasmine cuts him a piece and he thanks her gravely.
“Henry, what would you like?” Jasmine ask, turning to that man.
“I’d love a piece of the sweet potato pie,” Henry says. “And, is that real whipped cream? I’ll take a scoop of that as well.” Jasmine cuts him a generous portion of the sweet potato pie, much to my dismay. I was counting on having leftovers because the last time I brought one, I was the only person who ate a piece. That was four or five years ago, however, and it was before half of these people became a part of the family. Jamal also requests a piece of the sweet potato pie, and it’s down by half by the time Jasmine gets to me.
“Sweet potato and pumpkin with whipped cream for me,” I say, holding out my plate. Jasmine cuts small pieces of each and puts them on my plate. I don’t protest because I can always have more later if I have room for it. I take a bite of the sweet potato pie, and I almost regret asking for a piece of each. I take a bite of the pumpkin pie, however, and it’s just as good as the sweet potato pie. I close my eyes so I can fully appreciate the complex and delicate flavoring of the pies. I notice that conversation is at a minimum around me; I assume that everyone else is preoccupied with their pie as well.
“Yo, Rembrandt,” Jamal says, setting down his fork. “This sweet potato pie is for real. You steal my mama’s recipe or something?”
“Thanks, Jamal,” Rembrandt says, a smile lighting up his face. “I got the recipe from a friend of mine who lived in the South all her life. In return, I shot her wedding for her.” He quickly adds, “I’m a photographer.”
“My mama would kill somebody for this recipe.” Jamal finishes his piece, looking as if he wants to lick the plate.
“I’ll give it to you no problem,” Rembrandt says. “Make your mama proud the next time you see her.”
“Right on.” Jamal holds out a massive fist, and Rembrandt reaches over to dap it. I have a hunch the two of them could be good friends. Jamal is a teacher at an alternative high school for at-risk youth, and he’s a chess fiend. Rembrandt was a chess whiz as a child, but gave it up when he hit puberty. He probably wouldn’t mind a game of it, come to think of it.
“OK, I have got to try the blueberry cobbler,” I say, once I’m done with the sweet potato pie and the pumpkin pie. They are both delicious, and I’d give the slight edge to the sweet potato pie. “I’ll take it with a small scoop of ice cream.” Jasmine stares at me, but she doesn’t say anything. I know what she’s thinking, however. She’s thinking that I’m being excessive by having a third piece and that I should restrain my impulses. She, herself, had a tiny piece of pumpkin pie, and that’s it. Pressing her lips together, she cuts me a small slice of the blueberry cobbler and adds a little scoop of ice cream on the top. When I bite into it, I swoon. The crust is light and flaky (yay, me!), and the filling is plump, tender, and sweetly tart. The ice cream is just as delicious as it was at lunch. Even though my stomach is protesting mightily, I finish every bite.
“It’s a good thing Thanksgiving is only once a year,” Joanna says, groaning theatrically. “Can you imagine eating like this more than that?”
“Once a year is enjoyable,” Coral agrees. “It would be a chore if we had to do it more often.”
“It would be like eating at a buffet every day,” Joanna says. “Too much food at once isn’t good for you.”
“More coffee, anyone?” Jasmine asks, standing up and looking around the room. Half of us say yes, including me, and Jasmine goes back into the kitchen, taking as many plates with her as she can. I get up and start gathering the rest of the plates. Once I have as many as I can carry, I bring them into the kitchen and set them in the sink. Jasmine is starting the coffeemaker, and I begin to wash the dishes.
“Leave them, Megan,” Jasmine says. “I’ll run the dishwasher later.”
“OK.” I turn off the water, giving in without an argument. “Everything was fantastic, Jasmine. You went all out this year, and I really appreciate it.”
“Thanks,” Jasmine says, her cheeks flushing with pleasure. “I really like it when the family is all here, so the least I can do is cook.”
“You should be proud of yourself. Jordan and Coral have grown up to be fine, upstanding adults, and you must love having more of your grandbabies here.” I smile at Jasmine, my heart feeling full of love for her. She took care of me and Viv with no complaints, starting when she was eleven. For the next seven years, any time Viv or I needed something, we’d go to her. She’s the one who taught me about girl things like periods, bras, and boys. She’s the one who listened to me babble about my first date with Freddie Pinkerton when I was fourteen. Some of my girlfriends had to lie when they had their first dates because their parents refused to let them date until they were sixteen. My mom was too drunk most of the time to even remember her name, let alone care if her fourteen year old daughter was being groped in the backseat of a car. When I told Jasmine, however, she read me the riot act and refused to let me go. She was at Macalester at the time, and she came home that night to lecture me about being too young to date, especially a senior who had a reputation of liking to bust cherries. She didn’t use those exact words, of course, and I don’t know how she knew about his reputations. Quite honestly, that was one of the reasons I wanted to go out with him in the first place. I was tired of being teased for being a virgin, and I thought I might as well do it with someone who’s had plenty of experience. Jasmine convinced me to cancel the date, however, by pointing out that I would be bored silly on a date with Freddie. She’s not wrong—he was a jock who was always in danger of flunking his classes.
“My children are the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Jasmine says simply. “They make every sacrifice I’ve made worth it.” She takes a deep breath and adds, “Megan, I don’t think I’ve ever truly thanked you for finding Bob for me. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t brought him home.”
“Jasmine, it’s the very least I could have done after all you’ve done for me throughout my life.” I hug Jasmine and give her a kiss on the cheek. “I don’t think I would have survived my teenage years without you. You never had a childhood, and you never complained about it. I could never repay all I owe you.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Jasmine admits, turning off the coffee machine. She starts pouring cups of coffee, and I take two and bring them into the dining room. I go back into the kitchen, and I find Jasmine sniffling over the coffee.
“What’s wrong, Jas?” I ask, alarmed at her show of emotion.
“I never thought I’d see Daddy again. The fact that he could be here for Thanksgiving is beyond my wildest dream.” Jasmine looks at me and adds, “But I’m so damn mad at him for leaving us.” She bursts into tears, and I put my arms around her to pull her close.
“It’s OK,” I say, stroking her hair. “You have every right to be mad at him.”
“How the hell could he do that to us? To me? I cried myself to sleep every night for six months solid after he left. I thought I had done something wrong and that he couldn’t stand being around me any longer.” Jasmine is crying so hard, she’s slurring her words. Sorrow washes over me that both my sisters had blamed themselves for our father leaving as had I. Not when I was three, of course, but even as young as five, I kept asking myself what I had done that was so awful that my daddy would leave me. For whatever reason, I decided it was the fact that I wouldn’t eat my vegetables without fussing about it for at least fifteen minutes every time that had made him leave. After that, I ate my veggies without any complaint, hoping that would bring him home.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I inform Jasmine, my own eyes filling with tears. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault but his own. He made the choice. He’s the one who has to take responsibility for it.”
“I want to be happy he’s here—and I am! But, I also want to punch him.” Jasmine looks appalled for admitting that out loud, but it’s perfectly reasonable to me. “I’m such a horrible person.”
“No, you aren’t!” I say fiercely, shaking Jasmine by the shoulders. “You are one of the most loving and compassionate people I know. Not many people would have even invited him to Thanksgiving dinner so readily, you know. You can’t expect yourself not to have any negative reaction at all.”
“Thanks, Megan,” Jasmine says softly. She hugs me before finishing up pouring the coffee. We take them into the dining room and hand them around. Jasmine has a smile pasted to her face, and I’m struck by how similar it is to my fake smile. One thing we learned in our family was to hide our pain from the outer world, even to the detriment of our own mental health. When I was in seventh grade, I sunk into a deep depression. I could barely drag myself out of bed, and school was pure hell. It’s not that I was bullied—I wasn’t, not really. It’s more that I didn’t have any close friends, and I was so intensely lonely. I knew kids who had divorced parents, but I didn’t know anyone whose father had left them. Plus, I was one of the poorest kids at school (there’s an old joke that Edina stands for Every Day I Need Attention), and I was very self-conscious about wearing secondhand clothing. At the time, I had no idea how my mother could afford to keep our house in Edina, but after she died, I found out that she came from money. I never met my grandparents on her side—on either side, come to think of it—because they refused to come to America from Taiwan, and my mother could never get her shit together enough to take three daughters to Taiwan. Hell, she unraveled the one time she planned a week’s vacation up north, cracking open the whisky bottle not an hour after we arrived. She spent the whole week the same way she spent her time at home—drinking all day and passing out at night. There was no way in hell she could have managed taking us all to Taiwan.
Anyway, I was cutting myself on a regular basis. Not deeply as it was more to just feel something than to cause myself real pain or harm. The scars are mostly faded by now, but there are a few on my thighs that are still visible. My life my seventh grade year was dragging myself out of bed half an hour late; forcing myself to go to school; sleepwalking through my classes without paying attention (though I still managed to get Bs); going home; sleeping for hours; struggling to care to finish my homework; cutting myself; writing bad poetry; then going to bed for the night. Notice that I didn’t mention eating, which is something I rarely did that year. That’s when my history of eating disorders started, and I went from being anorectic to bulimia to overeating and back to anorexia again, rapid-cycling through them all. I had an English teacher, Mrs. Basinger, who noticed that things were not going well with me. She asked me to wait after class, and I was sure I was in trouble. Instead, she told me she was concerned about me and asked if there was anything I wanted to tell her. I was stunned that she had a) noticed and b) cared enough to ask me about it. I couldn’t tell her, though, how much I hated my family life because it felt like a betrayal to my mother. She tried a few more times, but I refused to open up to her. I still remember her fondly, however, because she was the only teacher I had before college who gave a shit about me.
“I wish Mom were here,” Jasmine says, her eyes still teary, once we’re back in the kitchen. “I wish we would have gotten her help.”
“We tried,” I remind Jasmine, my voice sad. “Numerous time.” When I was fifteen, Jasmine and I planned an intervention for our mother. We waited until Viv was asleep, then we confronted Mom on her drinking. She was three sheet to the wind at the time, and it did not go over well. She accused us of hating her and not wanting her to have any fun. She began to weep big, boozy tears and wailed about how we were so ungrateful. She gave up her whole life for us, and this was the thanks she got? This went on for a solid hour, and by the end, I vowed never to bring it up again. I felt guilty, and angry, and a whole host of other emotions. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was precisely why my mom went on that rant, although it wasn’t a conscious decision. She knew on some level that if she made things unpleasant for us, we’d back off. Which we did for a year. Then, Vivian’s fourteenth birthday, my mother decided to make her a cake the night before. She was drunk at the time, but managed to make a chocolate cake. She put it in the oven, kept on drinking, and passed out at the kitchen table. I was up in my room studying at the time. I smelled something burning, and went downstairs to see what was the matter. When I went in the kitchen, I was greeted by the sight of smoke pouring out of the oven. I rushed over to turn it off and to throw water into the cake pan. I tried to wake my mother, but she was out cold. I dragged her out of the kitchen and left her lying on the hallway floor because even though she was a petite woman, she was still more dead weight than I could carry. I went back into the kitchen to make sure nothing was on fire. Once I was done, I was furious at my mom. I went back to the hallway where she was still passed out, and I kicked her in the ribs. I wasn’t wearing shoes, and I didn’t kick her hard, but it brought me to my senses. I couldn’t live like this any longer. It was eating me inside, and it was making me hate my mother. I spent most of my time at home holed up in my room, and I dreaded going downstairs.
I’m not proud of what I did next, but you have to understand that it was the accumulation of several years of drunken behavior on my mother’s part. I filled a pitcher of water in the kitchen, brought it out into the hallway where my mom was still lying, and I poured it into her face. That woke her up, and she struggled to sit up as she was sputtering. I threw a towel in her face, and she looked at me in confusion. When I saw the vacancy in her eyes, much of my anger dissipated. She was a drunk, made old and addle-brained before her time. She was lying on the ground in a faded pink housedress, her chicken legs splayed to the side. I held a hand out to her, and she grabbed it. She tried to pull herself up, but she couldn’t. I grabbed her under the shoulders and gently hauled her to her feet. She couldn’t walk, so I allowed her to lean on me as I walked her, slowly, into the living room. I deposited her on the couch, then went back to kitchen to make sure I had put out the fire—literally. That was the moment I knew my mother was going to die before too long if we weren’t able to get her to stop drinking. I called Jasmine to let her know what had happened. She was a newlywed, and I’m sure the last thing she wanted to deal with was more family drama. I didn’t think about that at the time, however, as she was my lifeline while I was slowly drowning. She was coming over the next night for Viv’s birthday, anyway, so she said we’d talk to Mom again. Neither of us was very hopeful that anything good would come out of it, but what else could we de? Jasmine also promised to make a cake for Viv, and she did. It was a triple layer double chocolate cake, which was the hit of Viv’s slumber party. I managed to snag a small slice before it was completely demolished by Viv and her five friends.
Once the girls went downstairs, Jasmine and I corned my mother in the kitchen. She’d been good for the party, so she wasn’t drunk yet. She’d had a couple, of course, but she was what passed for coherent in those days. I started by telling her what had happened the night before. She didn’t remember it, of course, and she denied that it happened. Outraged, I pulled the ruined cake pan out of the garbage and showed it to her. Even then, she refused to believe it, claiming that I had done it to embarrass her. I lost my temper and screamed at her, telling her what a shitty mom she was. She burst into tears, but I couldn’t stop the ugly words from leaving me mouth. I told her how embarrassed I was that she was my mother, with Jasmine trying to get me to calm down. She kept putting her hand on my arm, and I kept shaking it off. Thirteen years of pain, embarrassment, and shame came pouring out of me, and by the time I was done, my mother was sobbing into her hands. It felt like I was screaming at her for hours, but it was probably only five to ten minutes. When I was done, I was sorry that I had been so mean, but I couldn’t deny that I meant every word I had said. When my mother could talk again, she addressed her words to Jasmine, refusing to look at me.
“You don’t know how hard it is being a single mother,” Mom said to Jasmine, her voice tremulous. “I have done my best to keep you girls together, and I’ve done it, haven’t I? You’ve always had a roof over your head, clean clothes to wear, and food to eat. I don’t know what more you could want from me.”
“Not burning the house down for one,” I retorted before I could stop myself. “I do most of the household chores with Viv doing the rest. Jasmine did it all before she moved out. I can’t remember the last time you did a load of laundry or actually cooked us dinner.” Even though I was still angry, I was able to keep my voice calm.
“You’ll understand once you have children,” Mom said to Jasmine, still ignoring me. “It’s a lot of work, especially since your father left. How can you blame me for having a drink every now and then?”
“Every now and then?” I said, raising my voice in the process. “You drink from the time you wake up until the time you pass out. You’re an alcoholic, Mom. Why can’t you just admit it?”
“I never wanted you in the first place,” Mom said, finally turning her eyes towards me. “I just wanted one child, but your father wanted a big family. I wish I had never listened to him.”
“Mom, stop,” Jasmine said, shooting a nervous look my way. I didn’t know what to say because that’s the first I’d heard of that.
“It’s true.” Mom’s eyes burned into mine, and I was taken aback by the venom I see in them. “I loved Vivian from the minute I set eyes on her, but, you. You, I never felt as if you were really mine.”