A Study in Obscurity #1

December 2, 2020

Housekeeping never seemed to be a priority to her. I was fascinated by my grandparent’s home and even more so by my grandmother’s preference to read rather than remove cobwebs or attempt to peel off the candle wax that had been a part of the red rug since I could remember. When my children were little they assumed it was vomit, which did not seem inconceivable in that house. The coffee table was only a few inches from the sofa, so arranging the seating was always challenging and intimate. We would sit awkwardly on the same sofa a cat had unexpectedly appeared from beneath one Christmas. No one seemed curious about how the cat got there or how long it had been living in the house, or why it was not thin. They named her Noel. She became cat number 13.

I appreciated that my grandmother did not give in to the socially acceptable definition of female, especially as a wife and mother. She went back to school at 50 to get her college degree. My mom tells stories of being in class with her future mother-in-law. They all have the same theme: it was uncomfortable. My grandparents refused to move when everyone else in their neighborhood left for the suburbs during the white flight in the ’60s. She wore ties and pants and, although she would drag her red lipstick well beyond the outline of her lips, she did not seem to expect or need any outward validation based on her appearance.

To this day, she is quite possibly the most well-read person I have known. The last time she loaned me a book, well into her 90’s, she wanted my assessment upon its return. I had already forgotten most of the ideas in the weeks since I had read it and attempted to change the subject as I returned it. This never worked. She would not only remember details but would also open a philosophical discussion that would have challenged most of my peers from graduate school. At least that’s what I told myself as I smiled and nodded, wishing I could keep up.

Holidays were reliably unpredictable and, therefore, entertaining. The one thing I could count on was my brother’s controlled reaction setting off a laughing fit from which I would invariably have difficulty recovering. At one Christmas get together, we tried mincemeat pie for the first time. As my grandmother pulled the homemade pie from the dusty china cabinet, my brother and I exchanged a look of confusion. I could feel my breathing change as my too-old-for-my-age composure began to crack. The second before the fork touched my mouth, I conversationally asked what was in mincemeat. To this day, I still do not know the answer. My brother leaned over and whispered, “roaches.” In a mix of terror and hilarity fueled by my brother’s deadpan delivery, I could not find a way to swallow the mushed up roaches. My eyes watered. My hand covered my mouth. I panicked as I realized there was no good way out of this. I finally spit what I was sure was a mushed roach blob back onto my fork, thinking that was the most polite option, vaguely recalling something I had been taught about olive pits. It did not go unnoticed. I was humiliated that I had hurt my grandmother’s feelings in front of the family. I’m not sure she cared, but it left me with a concoction of uncontrollable giddiness and deep shame. But that’s me in general. I did not recover until we were back home. Telling the story to my mom later that night set off a new fit of hysteria.

One Thanksgiving, we all sat around the table as instructed, waiting for the ceremonious arrival of one dish after another. I can’t remember everyone who was there. Between the three boys, including my father, there had been a total of 7 wives at that point, so there was a frequent rotation. My brother was trying to catch my eye. I knew if I looked at him, it would begin. I finally gave in as his eyes went up to the chandelier above the table. Cobwebs delicately hovered, ready to release their contents and silky threads onto the food below with any movement. My brother began to blow gently towards the light fixture. It was a game we played often.

My grandmother asked my dad to come into the kitchen. I assumed he would be bringing the turkey carcass to the table for everyone’s enjoyment. I can’t remember if I was already a vegetarian at this point, but I was much more interested in my grandmother’s drop biscuits than any other part of the meal. There was some mumbling, the primary method of communication between the three brothers, and soon all of her sons were in the kitchen with her. There was scraping and banging as something heavy moved across the floor. Then it got quiet.

My dad returned to the table to quietly announce that there would be no turkey for Thanksgiving that year. Everyone took their seats. My grandmother was visibly upset. My grandfather asked a couple of times about the status of the turkey. He was hard of hearing and finally just accepted that it was not to be when his sons all motioned to drop it.

There has always been some confusion about the actual story here. I wish I could ask my dad. Two versions circulated among the family. One is that my grandmother forgot to turn on the oven. That’s a pretty humorous holiday story unless you are my grandmother. The other one, slightly more believable, is that she did indeed turn on the oven, but a rat had chewed through a wire, rendering it useless. They did replace the oven a few months later, so it seems unlikely that the people who drove a rusted-out car would go to all that trouble just to eliminate the rumors of the first theoretical story.

That was the last Thanksgiving at my grandparent’s house. My grandmother passed the tradition on to my dad after that, and the stories from his gatherings are no less eventful. Most of those involve martinis, a grand piano, philosophical debates, and, on one occasion, a drunk uncle, a handlebar mustache, and a piano bench, all on the floor.