We sit down at the table, which is loaded with food. A twenty-five pound turkey sits proudly in the middle, and it looks as if it’s done to perfection. There are huge bowls of mashed potatoes with garlic, yams, cranberry salad, stuffing (bread), steamed vegetables, and a fruit salad surrounding it. There’s also a platter of spare ribs, and another platter of assorted breads. Finally, there are three gravy boats placed strategically around the table so everybody can reach one. My pants will be in serious danger of bursting, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I’m seated beside Rembrandt and Jacqueline, and the kids are on the other side of Jacqueline.
“I’d like to say a few words,” Stephanie says. No one replies, but I catch the guys rolling their eyes. That tells me they’re used to Stephanie speechifying, and they’ve realized it’s useless to protest. “In my life, I’ve been blessed with a loving husband, three terrific sons, Antonio, Jacqueline, Nicholas, and Beth. Now, Megan has been added to our happy family, and I feel even more blessed than ever. I don’t care for the traditional meaning of Thanksgiving, but I consider it a time to bring my family close to my bosom. I’m grateful you all live in Minnesota as well, so we can have these family gatherings with minimal fuss and/or muss. That’s it. Dig in!” Stephanie smiles at everyone, and I smile back. That was sweet and fairly short, so I don’t see the problem. Stephanie starts plating generous portions of food, then handing them out around the table. I get mine after Rembrandt, and my mouth is watering as the tantalizing smell of spare ribs greets my nose. I glance at Rembrandt and see that he’s waiting for the others to be served first, so I don’t pick up my fork just yet. As soon as Stephanie makes a plate for herself—I notice that she gives herself far less than she has doled out to the rest of us—I pick up my fork and eat as fast as I can without breaking social dicta. Everything is fantastic, and I can tell where Rembrandt gets his cooking chops from.
“You are a terrific chef, Stephanie,” I say when I’ve taken the edge off my hunger.
“Thank you,” Stephanie beams at me. “Francisco’s mom was a sous-chef in Italy, and he taught me everything he knew when we first got married. I couldn’t even boil water back then.”
Conversation peters out as we all concentrate on our food. I notice that the guys are putting a serious dent in the reserves, yet, there’s still more left than what they’ve consumed. Jacqueline alternates eating a few bites of her food with helping Beth eat. Stephanie is more interested in making sure everyone’s plate is full than in eating. Me, I’m doing my best to clean my plate, but I’m slowing down. As tasty as everything is, there is only so much food I can eat at one time. Normally, I eat small amounts several times a day, so it’s a challenge for me to eat this much food in one sitting. I have to do it a second time later tonight, but I don’t want to think about that right now. I finish the stuffing because it’s my favorite, and Stephanie quickly adds another scoop to my plate. I nod my head in thanks, but inside, I’m groaning. I still have more than half my plate to eat, and she keeps adding to it as soon as I finish one kind of food. I realize that’s the key—I have to eat some of everything and not let one particular kind of food get down to nothing. I put that to the test, and it works like a charm.
“Mom, can I have more mashed potatoes?” Gaugin asks, his mouth full of yams.
“Yes, you may,” Stephanie says pointedly. “And don’t talk with your mouth full.”
“Sorry,” Gaugin says after he swallows. He holds out his plate, and Stephanie fills a quarter of it with mashed potatoes. Gaugin happily digs in, unaware that Jacqueline is shooting him a dirty look.
“Honey, remember your cholesterol,” Jacqueline says, her voice stern. “You know Dr. Ellis wants you to be more careful with your diet.”
“It’s Thanksgiving,” Gaugin protests, barely taking a break in his eating. “No one watches their diet on Thanksgiving.”
“He says you’re going to have to go on high blood pressure meds if you don’t get your weight under control,” Jacqueline persists, cutting up Beth’s turkey for her.
“Jacqueline, dear,” Stephanie says, an icy smile on her face. “Don’t you think this is a subject better discussed in private?”
“You’re not helping,” Jacqueline informs Stephanie, a flush staining her fair cheeks. “You know he’s supposed to watch what he eats, yet, you still make him all this rich food.” I notice that her plate is still three-quarters full, and I bet her plate holds more food than she eats in three days.
“Jacqueline,” Monet says, cutting his eyes to Beth and Nicholas who are staring at their mother with wide eyes.
“Drat.” Jacqueline stands up and rushes from the room, which causes Beth to start crying.
“Mommy! Come back!” She puts her fists to her eyes and bawls. Nicholas puts his arm around her and hugs her silently. She sinks into his arms, and her tears subside to sniffles.
“Damn it.” Gaugin throws his napkin on the table, jumps up, and strides from the room. “Jacqueline!” I can hear him bellowing as he disappears. I stare at the table so I won’t catch anyone’s eyes. I’m embarrassed to have witnessed this scene, and I’m wishing I could be anywhere but here. It’s a reminder to me that no matter how idyllic a family may seem from the outside, everyone has their dysfunctions.
“Well,” Monet says brightly. “How about those Vikings?” That breaks the tension as we all chuckle at his heavy-handed attempt to change the subject. We go back to eating and chatting about inconsequential topics. Stephanie tends to Beth and Nicholas, and it’s clear she dotes on them. Five minutes later, Gaugin and Jacqueline come back, hand in hand. Jacqueline’s eyes are red, but there’s a smile on her face.
“I’m sorry,” Jacqueline says to Stephanie. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have brought it up at the dinner table.”
“Don’t even think about it,” Stephanie says, waving her hand at Jacqueline. “I’ve forgotten about it already.”
“Are you OK, Mommy?” Beth asks, her large eyes fastened on Jacqueline’s face.
“I’m fine, Sunshine,” Jacqueline says, giving Beth a quick hug before leaning over and doing the same to Nicholas. “I just needed a timeout for a few minutes to get myself together.” Beth seems satisfied with that answer and returns to her mashed potatoes.
“Megan, would you like more turkey?” Stephanie holds up a slice of dark meat, and I am reluctant to demur.
“Sure, that sounds great,” I say, managing a smile. I’m stuffed to the point of uncomfortableness, and I still have a third of my plate left. I know I need to finish the whole plate in order not to insult Stephanie.
“More ribs, Rembrandt?” Stephanie asks, holding up the platter.
“No, thanks, Mom. I’m good for now.” Rembrandt’s tone is firm, and I have a hunch it’s taken many years for him to perfect his no. Everyone else is slowing down as well, even Gaugin. He’s on his third plate, whereas both his brothers are finishing their second. I’m still on my first as is Jacqueline. Antonio is on his second, and both of the children are still working on their first. Stephanie has finished her first plate, but she had half the amount the rest of us had in the first plate. I’m slowing down to the point where I’m just picking at my food now. Nothing tastes as good as it did a half hour ago, and I’m ready to stop now. I soldier on, however, grimly finishing the last of my food. Stephanie has stopped asking people if they want more food, thankfully, and is instead reminding us that we still have pie. Everyone groans in unison, but she doesn’t take offense at it.
“We’ll have espresso first and let the food digest. Pie will be in half an hour.” Stephanie’s voice says she’ll brook no opposition, and I’m beginning to see that while she’s charming, she’s also somewhat of a dictator. She likes things to go her way, and her sons allow it for the most part. I make a mental note never to cross her because I have a feeling she’s the type to hold a grudge forever.
After we finish our meal, we start clearing the table. I’m pleased that everyone pitches in, and it’s not the guys going to watch football while the women do the scut work. Once we’ve taken everything to the kitchen, Rembrandt washes the dishes while Monet dries. Gaugin is in charge of slicing up the turkey and putting everything in Tupperware. He put masking tape on each one with someone’s name on each one. The rest of us just clean things up as best we can, while Stephanie starts the espresso maker. The kids are in the living room watching SpongeBob SquarePants, and we can hear them chuckling in there.
Once everything is clean, we have our espresso in the living room. We watch SpongeBob with the kids, which is a terrible show in my opinion. Kids love it, though, so I keep my mouth shut. I’m sitting on the couch next to Rembrandt, and I’m soon hit with postprandial narcolepsy. In plain English, I fall asleep, only to wake up twenty minutes later. I’m hoping I didn’t snore; no one is looking at me untoward, so I’m assuming I didn’t make an ass of myself. The brothers and Antonio are all asleep, and Jacqueline is watching the kids. Stephanie is nowhere to be found. I look at the portrait of the family above the TV. It’s one of Rembrandt’s photos, and it’s fairly recent. Mr. DiCampo is an older version of Rembrandt and Monet, and he has kind eyes. The walls of the living room are a warm maroon, which gives the room a cozy feeling. I snuggle against Rembrandt, and he puts his arm around me in his sleep. Glancing downward, I see that he’s hard. I can’t do anything about it, of course, but it’s nice to know I still have that effect on him.
Incredibly, there’s an inch of space in my stomach, and it’s demanding pie. I sip at my now-tepid espresso and wrinkle my nose. I like my liquids either boiling hot or ice cold with nothing in between. I set it down on the coffee table and slip out of the room to use the bathroom. On my way back to the living room, I peek into the kitchen. Sure enough, Stephanie is in there cutting up the pies, scooping out the ice cream, and uncovering the bowl of whipped cream.
“Let me help,” I say, reaching for a stack of plates. “I’ll set the table.” I bring the plates into the dining room and set them at each place. I go back in and grab the silverware, then repeat the process.
“Thank you for helping,” Stephanie says, handing me the cut-up pies still in their tins.
“You’re welcome! It’s the least I can do. You’ve been so generous with lunch, I would feel bad if I didn’t give you a hand.” I take two of the pies and bring them to the dining room. I return for the third pie and the bowl of whipped cream.
“When you’re done with that, go wake up the boys. I’m pretty sure they’re all still sleeping.” Stephanie smiles at me, and it warms me to my toes. I push away my lecherous thoughts as she’s the mother of the man I’m dating, for fuck’s sake. There are a few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to dating. One, you don’t fuck your sister’s boyfriend. Two, you don’t fuck you’re boyfriend’s mom. I repeat this mantra to myself before going into the dining room, then the living room. First, I wake up Rembrandt, and Jacqueline wakes up Gaugin. Rembrandt takes care of Monet, who then wakes up Antonio.
“I’m ready for pie!” Gaugin declares, standing up and stretching. “What kind did you make this year, Rembrandt?”
“Megan and I made three. Pumpkin, apple cobbler, and strawberry-rhubarb. I also made vanilla bean ice cream and whipped cream.” Rembrandt says as he yawns. He shakes his head in an attempt to wake up, and I notice that Monet is pretty groggy as well.
“Apple cobbler! My favorite. You’re the best, bro!” Gaugin thumps Rembrandt on the back, then we go to the dining room. Stephanie has just placed the last of the espresso cups, and we all sit in the same seats as before. I’m glad to see that Stephanie has sliced each pie in fairly small pieces because I want to try each one. I grab a piece of the pumpkin pie first and add a healthy dollop of whipped cream on top.
“Strawberry-rhubarb,” Jacqueline says to Nicholas. “Your favorite!”
“It’s yummy,” Nicholas says, his mouth smeared with whipped cream. “I want another piece.”
“Finish the first piece, and then we’ll see,” Jacqueline says. She’s nibbling at a triangle of pumpkin pie sans whipped cream, but she seems to be enjoying it. Beth is savoring a piece of apple cobbler with ice cream, whereas Monet and Antonio are both eating pumpkin pie with whipped cream. I finish the pumpkin pie and take a tiny sliver of the apple cobbler. I add a small scoop of ice cream before dipping my fork into it. The crust is light and flaky, and the apples are a mixture of tart and sweet. The ice cream is very vanilla-y, and the combination melts in my mouth.
“Rembrandt, this is fabulous,” I say as soon as I swallow. I am mindful of Stephanie’s earlier remonstration to Gaugin, and I don’t want to draw her censure my way.
“Thank you,” Rembrandt says, looking pleased with himself. “I’m happy at how it turned out.”
“You should be, bro,” Gaugin says, nodding his head vigorously. He picks up another piece of the apple cobbler, despite his wife’s disapproving glare. I finish my own piece before snitching the smallest slice of strawberry-rhubarb I can find. I add another small ball of ice cream before taking a bite. When I do, I’m in heaven. I gobble down the piece as fast as I can, wishing I had room for more.
“This is by far my favorite,” I inform Rembrandt. “If you do start a restaurant, you have to add pies to the menu.”
“What’s this about starting a restaurant, Rembrandt?” Stephanie asks, tilting her head to the side. “I thought your eye was doing fine!” She sounds upset, and I’m sorry I brought it up. I had assumed he’d told his family, but I guess not.
“My eye is getting better,” Rembrandt says, his voice even. “But it’s not a hundred percent. If I don’t get there, I want to do something with cooking.” That’s an interesting way for him to state that. I don’t push it, though, because I don’t know the actual dynamics of his family.
“Well, you know I’d be willing to help you out there,” Stephanie says, her eyes flashing. “I know a thing or two about cooking.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Rembrandt says, reaching for his espresso. He sips it, keeping his eye down. Conversation dwindles as we finish up our desserts. I want another piece of the strawberry-rhubarb pie, but my stomach says no. I sadly put down my fork and stare at my empty plate. Soon, everyone is done, and we take the debris back to the kitchen. By now, it’s two o’clock in the afternoon, and Rembrandt and I have to be at my sister’s in four-and-a-half hours. Speaking of which, she texts me as we’re cleaning up the dessert plates. She tells me that Vivian is here safe and sound, and she sends a picture of Viv reading a story to the twins, Michelle and Ing-wen, one on each knee. They’re both snuggling against her breast, and it’s a really sweet picture. The twins are two with cocoa skin and big fluffy black curls. They are named for our former First Lady and the first female Taiwanese president, respectively. Ing-wen is called Ingrid by Americans. They’re two, and pretty damn smart for their age. Then again, I may be biased. Jasmine reminds me to be civil to Henry, and my temper flares. I text back, thanking her for the cute picture, but ignoring the second half of her text.
“Mom! Jacqueline and I have to go. We have to be at her parents’ house in an hour.” Gaugin says, opening the fridge. He grabs the Tupperware that has his name on it, then wraps up a quarter of each pie and puts all the food in a shopping bag.
“Megan and I need to go, too,” Rembrandt chimes in. He grabs his Tupperware, then turns to me. “Do you want anything else?”
“I wouldn’t mind part of the strawberry-rhubarb pie,” I say. I don’t want to be too greedy, but that pie rocked my culinary world. Rembrandt cuts a quarter of the pie, wraps it, and then puts it back in the bag he brought with him.
“Thank you, Stephanie,” I say, holding out my hand. “It was a wonderful meal, and I really appreciate you inviting me.”
“Of course!” Stephanie pulls me into a warm embrace before letting me go. “You’re family now.” I wince at her words, but I keep smiling. I don’t want her putting any ideas in Rembrandt’s head because he’s already too eager for us to live together. We say our goodbyes to everyone else before leaving.
“I’m sorry for bringing up the restaurant idea,” I say to Rembrandt as soon as we’re in the car. “I just assumed you’d mentioned it to them, which is my bad.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Rembrandt says, gripping the steering wheel tightly. “You didn’t know that my mom is, um, overenthusiastic about anything concerning her kids.” He takes a deep breath and tells me a story of when he was in a reading contest one year in school. He was a shy kid, and the idea of talking to stranger in order to coax them to give him money for reading was painful to him. Stephanie took charge and asked everyone she knew to pledge. Anyone who demurred was asked again and again until they finally gave in. Rembrandt was mortified by her tactics, and he didn’t want to collect the money once he was done. Stephanie once again took the reins in hand and hounded the supporters until they paid. Rembrandt won the contest and the prize was a hundred dollar certificate at B. Dalton. “I was ten, and even then, I knew what she had done was too much.”
“That’s pretty intense,” I say, patting Rembrandt’s hand. I squelch a tinge of jealousy because my mother would never have done that for me. It’s not that she didn’t care about me or my sisters—she did—it’s just that life had beaten her down to the point where all she was doing was surviving from day to day. She never recovered from my father leaving her as he was the love of her life, and my sisters and I were almost afterthoughts. “You’ve learned how to handle it, though.”
“It took decades not to snap back or sulk,” Rembrandt admits. “My father used to just look at her and say, “Stephanie” in a certain tone that would make her back down. Obviously, I can’t do that, but it helped me realize I can put my foot down without feeling too guilty about it.”