As Thanksgiving's bounty gives way to the holiday rush, I find myself looking backward rather than forward. I think of people who have not crossed my mind all year--the assorted aunts, uncles and cousins who appeared once a year at the holiday table and then disappeared.
Once their faces were as familiar to me as my own, but time and distance spare no one--especially time--and so some of the memories are a little frayed at the edges, but they're not lost. Late at night when the house is quiet, I see them in my mind's eye, gathered around the table as before.
Last week I hosted Thanksgiving dinner for the first time in many years. Maybe that's why after dinner I found myself blathering on about old times to my guests, conjuring my old beloved ghosts as we finished our bottle of wine--in retrospect, all that wine might have contributed just a bit to my sudden transformation into a Chatty Kathy doll.
I should point out that I'm usually wary of nostalgia, which depends too much on ignorance for my taste. But then we all tend to paint our personal past in pretty colors, regardless of its true hue. I am no exception.
It's a fact of life that each family has its oddballs and malcontents, and there's certainly no shortage in mine. First I told my guests about Uncle Willy, who was virtually mute. To this day, I'd swear on a Gutenberg Bible that I'd never heard him utter more than two words in my presence--and each of those monosyllabic. Then there were my odious male cousins--whom everyone called Frick and Frack for some unfathomable reason--whose sole purpose in life was to make me miserable. A minor character was a passive-aggressive maiden aunt who turned gift-giving into a test of wills.
"How'd she do that?" My friend Sally interrupted, pouring herself another glass of wine.
"She insisted on giving everyone on her gift list a fruitcake." I quickly explained that I was not a fruitcake hater and baked them myself for the holidays. But my aunt's cakes were those cellophane-wrapped bricks that you could buy for a couple bucks at the supermarket, though she always claimed the cakes were home baked. Essentially inedible, most of the bricks were tossed out along with the dessicated Christmas trees, though my mother managed to choke down hers, but only after dousing it with enough whiskey to pickle a boatload of sailors.
"I've got you beat in the aunt department," Sally said. "Let me tell you about my Aunt Jeannie."
Jeannie wasn't her real name, as the innocent need protection as much the guilty, and it turned out that she wasn't Sally's real aunt. "She sort of attached herself to the family."
"Attached?" I asked, imagining a suckerfish latching onto a passing shark.
Sally shrugged. "It happened before I was born, and I never did get the story, but throughout my childhood Aunt Jeannie was a fixture at every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. My dad used to call her a batty old maid, which wasn't very nice, but he had his reasons."
An awkward silence and then Sally continued. Sally's Aunt Jeannie was a quiet,unassuming woman who had led a quiet, unassuming life. She worked as a cashier and for recreation watched TV-with bowling programs being a particular favorite.
"Sounds pretty ordinary," I said.
"Yes, but there depths in Aunt Jeannie--dark, mysterious depths." Sally gulped her wine and her eyes clouded. "Jeannie always remembered her adopted family for the holidays. She was always fair in that she gave everyone the same gift. The teenagers and kids each got a couple ten-dollar bill, fresh from the bank." Sally's brow wrinkled, and she sipped more wine. "She did the same thing for the adults--everyone on her gift list got the same thing, only it wasn't the same gift year after year, like your fruitcake aunt."
"Hey, wait a minute." I could insult my family, but others didn't have that right.
"I didn't mean it like that," Sally said quickly.
"That's okay," I said, leaning closer. I wasn't sure where Sally was going with this, but there was definitely blood in the water. "So what was the problem?"
"With the gifts themselves--the first one I remember my parents receiving was a Chop-O-Matic. Jeannie must have seen the commercial on TV and thought it was a great idea for gift."
I recalled the flashy commercial in which a fast-talking pitchman chopped a refrigerator full of produce into neat slices and dices in a matter of seconds, ecstatic over the possibility of so many perfectly julienned french fries.
"I was still a kid so when we got the Chop-O-Matic, so I couldn't wait to use it, but when I tried to chop a potato, the only thing that got chopped was my finger. The cut was no big deal, but the disappointment..."
"I know what mean," I said, and I did. The first time was always the hardest, when you realize that things don't always work as advertised.
"Every Christmas that I can remember there was a white elephant gift from Aunt Jeannie under the tree--every one from an infomercial." Sally went down the dismal list. There was the EggScrambler (Scramble an egg in the shell!); the dangerous RoboStirrer (It stirs so you don't have to!); and even a Bacon Bowl (Now you can make a bowl out of bacon!). Most of the gifts were destined to be regifted to some other poor schmuck or shipped off to Goodwill and Salvation Army stores, though a few tender-hearted souls hung onto the stuff because they didn't want to "hurt" kind Aunt Jeannie, who meant well."One year she sent a Tiddy Bear."
"A what?" My teenaged nephew said, looking up from his phone for the first time.
"It's not what you think." Sally spelled it out. "It was a tiny stuffed bear you attach to your car's shoulder strap to avoid strain." Sally stopped. My nephew had lost interest and was back working his phone.
"Why did she do it?" I asked Sal.
"For years I've asked myself the same question. I used to think that maybe she was a frustrated cook. Most of her choices were cooking aides, though the Christmas she sent the Snuggies still gives me the creeps."
I grinned and said, "It's a blanket with sleeves, right?"
"That doesn't help," she said, and I poured us both more wine. "I even wondered if she had some kind of bizarro egg fetish--how else to explain the Egg Shell Extractor or the Egg Genie? But in the end I think she was just gullible. She really believed in those idiotic commercials."
There was another explanation, but I didn't raise its specter to Sally, who had suffered enough. It was entirely possible that Jeannie was keenly aware of the havoc she wrought with her unwanted gifts. I asked Sally if Aunt Jeannie was still in the gifting game.
Sally shook her head and her eyes took on a faraway look. "She died last year, a week or so before Christmas. It was sudden, but not entirely unexpected--by then she was her nineties. I think the whole family sort of heaved a communal sigh of relief--the long nightmare was over at last. But Aunt Jeannie had one last surprise." Sally drew a deep breath.
"A week before Christmas everyone in the family received a package with Jeannie's return address on it."
I thought about that. Had the old woman had felt a cold wind at her back and trimmed her sails in preparation that final journey? Or perhaps it was simply her habit to do her holiday shopping early.
"Jeannie's final gift," Sally continued, "was the last gift I opened last Christmas. It was a Shoedini." Seeing my puzzled expression, Sally added, "It a shoehorn on a stick."
Of course it was.
I poured the last of the Thanksgiving wine and we raised our glasses to Aunt Jeannie.
"Do you know I still have the stupid Shoedini? I didn't have the heart to throw it away, it being her last gift."
"Are you sure it's the last?" I asked. "Jeannie sounded like a tenacious woman. You can't know how far ahead she planned."
"It's...it's not possible--is it?"
I laughed and said, "Happy Holidays, Sal."