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Gathered Together, Surrounded by Love

Gathered together

In early morning hours of Thanksgiving Day, there was nothing missing from Anita’s face. She saw her face, twice, in the mirror. The first time was after the cats woke her. They were not allowed in the bedroom, so they roamed the house and slept on pillows and chairs until five-thirty when they decided they were starving and thus woke Anita with feathery, persistent cries.

Anita threw off the bedspread and sat up. The air was damp and smelled of sleep. Outside was dark and wet. Mist clung to the ground, not depressed enough to fall but not excited enough to take flight. A regular Midwest autumn. As she walked downstairs, past the hall mirror, Anita saw a figure reflected. But her glance was fleeting, just long enough to assure herself she existed in body as well as in mind. The cats meowed at her ankles and led her to the kitchen.

The cats kept meowing as they anticipated their breakfast of gelled tuna and heard Anita’s soothing words. Once they were fed, Anita crept back upstairs to her bedroom, past her husband, Martin, who was breathing heavily, and into their bathroom. She shut the door and turned on the light over the sink. She loved the small room, her own space. She closed her eyes and stood on her toes, feeling the light on her lids like the sun.  She read somewhere that bright light triggers the processes necessary to feel alive in the morning.

After a few seconds, Anita fell back on her heels and opened the cupboard, pulling out a hair tie and face cream. She swept her hair back and scooped out a large helping of cold cream, working it into the wrinkles by her eyes and alongside her nose. She stretched and yawned to cover every bit of skin. Her eyes rested on her reflection but did not register more than her habitual movements.

Anita didn’t notice anything missing from her face, she didn’t notice anything not missing.

She was far too busy considering the day, reflecting on the lists she made the night before. Lists full of details so she wouldn’t have to think, wouldn’t have to worry. First item on the list was what to wear. Once she had wiped her face, Anita pulled out the jeans she always wore and one of Martin’s many MSU T-shirts. She grabbed her notebook and closed the bedroom door behind her. Second item on the list; make pies.

The kitchen was bright and cold. Anita turned on the oven and slipped off her rings, putting them in her back pocket. She slide out heavy containers of flour and sugar and grabbed sticks of butter from the freezer. Using her largest knife, she sliced the butter, then crumbled it into the sugared flour with her cold fingers. She sliced large chunks of fruit for the pies; apples, rhubarb and blueberry. Her family’s favorites which she made every year. She pressed the dough into three, greased pans, evened it over the sides. She spread the fruit in the pans and layered everything with sugar, butter and cinnamon. She placed the top crust on gently and poked holes for the steam. While the pies baked she wiped the flour, butter and fruit juice off the counter.

Eventually Martin came downstairs. Anita got out boxes of cereal, a bowl and the gallon of milk. Martin grabbed the paper and sat down. Their bodies danced a touch-less tango as they maneuvered around the fragrant space.

“Martin, when you’re done, I need your help.”

“I wonder what time people arrive.” He rustled the paper and flipped its pages.

“Depends on the roads. Anne will get here around ten. Your parents, around eleven. My father, I don’t know. What’s the weather?”

“Weather should be clear. Good. Not like last year.”

“Dad’s driving down. He wanted to.” Martin flipped through the paper to the sports section. “Martin, when you’re done, I need your help on a few things.”

“State lost in overtime. Dammit. Glad I didn’t stay up to watch it. And Kentucky won. For cryin’ out loud!” The cats began to meow at Martin’s heels. “Just a second.” he said casually.

Anita turned off the faucet and repeated, “Get potatoes out of the garage and clean them.” Anita dried her hands and pulled out a new cutting board to chop celery and onions for the stuffing. Her hair fell into her face and she brushed it back.  “Martin? Are you listening? When you’re done, I need you to -“

“Just a minute! Just a minute. Let me get dressed first.” Martin folded the paper shut and left the kitchen. The cats followed him, meowing.

Anita sighed, pushed her hair out of her face and studied her list.

Story Break

A half hour later Martin was still upstairs and Anita had finished the stuffing. She washed her hands, dried them and went to the garage to get the potatoes, holding the cat in one arm so he wouldn’t escape. She dumped the potatoes into a colander and rinsed them vigorously.

Martin came into the kitchen wearing a nice button down flannel and a red cashmere sweater that Anita had given him for Christmas two years ago, which she had got on sale the January prior.

“Where were you? I need help.” Then she looked closely at her husband, “Martin, what are you wearing? You can’t clean potatoes in that. You’ll get wet! Here, just put on this apron. Roll up your sleeves.” Anita held out an apron but Martin was already pulling off his sweater and rolling up his sleeves.  “Here.” She pushed the colander in front of him. “Peel these. I washed them, you need to peel them and put them in water to boil.”

“Why bother washing them if I’m just going to peel them?” Martin began to peel in rhythmic clicks.

“Martin, just do it. My hair needs fixed, I’ll be right back.”  Anita went to the downstairs bathroom.

It was light outside, the trees shook from an invisible wind. Anita opened a drawer looking for a hair tie. She looked up to the mirror and remembered she’d need to shower. As she lifted her hair into a ponytail she gasped. On the left side of her head, where there was always an ear with its attached lobes, pink rim, and pointy tip that came from her dad, there was nothing but a patch of smooth skin.

“Where is my ear!? I’m missing my ear! What’s the matter with me?”

Anita clamped her hands to her head, feeling for her other ear. It was still there, the one on the right. She looked at the distorted image facing her. Instead of an ear there was a plain surface of soft, smooth skin. She touched it, and felt a sensation from her cold fingertips. She snapped. It sounded faint. She’d have to keep her hair down and turn her head when anyone got close. She’d have to manage.

She just hoped her missing ear hadn’t fallen into one of the pies.

Story Break

At nine-thirty there was a knock on the back door, it opened and Anita’s twin sister Anne came in with shopping bags hanging on her arms and a frosted Tupperware container in her gloved hands.

“Good morning! Happy Thanksgiving! I’m early, but I didn’t know how the roads would be.”

“Oh the roads, how were they? When did you leave?” Martin asked his sister-in-law as he kissed her cold cheek and took the container from her.

“Oh, quarter to nine. Roads were fine. A bit of traffic. Not at all like – ”

“Last year, I know. Good. Which way’d you come?”

“Up 96, we had all that rain last weekend, you just never know where it’s flooded. It was clear, except by the Casino, so much traffic there, almost all the time!”

“Is there? Even on Thanksgiving?” Martin asked as he took Anne’s coat.

“Oh yeah. It’s bad. That interchange is a nightmare. Buses pulling in and out. They have cars there from Ohio, Indiana, all over. We slowed down for a half-mile or so. I rarely go around there now, unless like today, I have to.”

“I was just reading about people who go to the casino, go over for the day or so, and the average age is something like seventy. People spending the retirement money they don’t have.”

“That’s so true. And real sad. Is Dad driving down?” Anne asked as Anita stepped over to her sister and hugged her, then stepped back and smoothed her hair over her missing ear.

“Your Dad is driving down, he said he wanted to.” said Martin. “He should be ok.”

“Fine. Oh you won’t believe who I just saw in Meijers, Sandy Pevense. One of Mom’s old friends. She looks real good, real healthy. She was out with her husband, getting a few things, said she was hosting Thanksgiving this year. She just finished treatment last summer.”

“Oh, really?” asked Martin as he stirred the bubbling potatoes on the stove.

“Oh yeah, she had cancer, real bad. They had to drive to Lansing twice a week. But then they got in to someone right in Battle Creek which was good. Their kids don’t live here anymore, but they came back for a bit. Her husband must be eighty-five. But they look great, sound great, mile-a-minute. Now, I have to heat up the meatballs, where should I do that, on the table?” Anne started unpacking a large crockpot from her bag and uncoiling the plug.

“Yup. Right there, the plug is behind you, you have bend down to find it, see it?” Anita pointed to the wall behind her sister.

“These just need an hour or so. I added more brown sugar this year for Dad, he likes them sweet. And here is the stuffing.”

“Anne, I’m doing stuffing.” said Anita. “Oh fine, we’ll have more than enough. Dad should be here soon. Anne, can you check on the pies? If they are done, move them to the counter to cool. I’ve got to jump in the shower. Oh hey! Look who it is! Good morning Jon, Happy Thanksgiving!” Anita and Martin’s son Jonathan walked into the kitchen in a t-shirt and pajama pants.

“Hi Jonathan, Happy Thanksgiving. I’d hug you but I’ve got my hands full of meatballs.”

“Hi Aunt Anne. Happy Thanksgiving.” Jonathan sat at the table, picking up a few boxes of cereal, silently choosing the Corn Flakes.

His mother said “Oh Jonny, I’m sorry, I forgot to get cereal, that’s all we have. But there is more milk, do you need milk?” Anita self-consciously smoothed her hair and reached for the milk to hand to her son but somehow her hand missed it and instead she ended up knocking it over, spilling milk all over the table, her son, and the meatballs.

Jonathan jumped back with a noise and ran back upstairs to change his soaked clothes. Anita rushed to the sink and grabbed a roll of towels. “Oh what was I doing, what was I doing? What’s the matter with me?”

“Oh look, no harm done. Most of it went onto the floor.” Anne said as she mopped up the mess and even laid a few towels on top of the meatballs which were fortunately frozen.

Anita looked at her hand. Her index finger wasn’t there, it just wasn’t there. On her right hand, it was gone. First her left ear. Now her right index finger. Did she chop it off when she was making the stuffing?

“First my ear, now my finger? What is the matter with me?”

She shoved her right hand in her pocket and helped her sister mop up the mess with her left hand. Once it was clean she quickly returned to the bathroom and shut the door. The lights were warm on her face but she did not pause. She had to check, to make sure nothing else was missing. She slapped her cheek softly but with striking energy.

“I can do this. Get it together.”  She’d keep her hair down and move her hands rapidly. “I can’t let anyone see, I can’t ruin this holiday.” She told the face in the mirror.

Story Break

By eleven the sky was clear and bright. The ground was wet but not icy.

Martin’s parents, Mary and Phil, arrived a later than expected. They came in with a flurry of cold air and shuffled off their coats and boots and handed bags of food to their son as he greeted them.

“Happy Thanksgiving. We brought salad, and rolls and a hot pumpkin dish. Sorry we’re late. The traffic was bad on 94, an accident or something. Someone going too fast, I suppose. It took them ages to get to it. We were sitting there for twenty minutes before a police car even went by, isn’t that right Phil?”

Mary!”

“What?” She turned to her husband, “Oh the accident? It wasn’t a big one, just a car rear-ended or something. No ambulance. I’m sorry, Martin, I didn’t mean. . . “

“It’s fine, Mom. Otherwise roads were ok?  Martin asked his parents.

“Oh just fine, weren’t they Phil? Just fine, all clear. Not like last year. Oh hi Anne, Happy Thanksgiving. Kids with Dan this year?”

“Mary, Phil. Happy Thanksgiving. They are. Sad they cannot come. They’re doing really well though.”

“Oh that’s lovely. How’s Dan’s mother? She all right? Getting out?” Mary asked.

“She is, thank you. She has a new friend, a nice man, real nice. He’s from over near Saranac. My kids like him a lot, so does Dan.”

“Oh how about that? We had neighbors from Saranac. That’s great. They met at church?”

“No, he was an old friend of Dan’s father, they knew he and his wife twenty years ago, now they’re both gone, so these two got in touch, hit it off.”

“Oh that’s nice. Good for her.”

People kept talking and after a while Jonathan came back downstairs. Anita apologized to her son. Martin handed out mugs of coffee and cans of pop.  Even Anita’s Dad arrived safe and sound.

Everyone mingled while Anita busied herself with things in the kitchen and prevented anyone from seeing her deficiencies.

Story Break

By twelve-thirty, it was time to start the appetizers and someone turned on the Lions game. Anita heard her son and husband discussing the Lion’s defense and felt warm and happy. In fact, it was one of their better Thanksgivings. Apart from the missing ear and finger. And now, she thought, part of her foot. She didn’t have time to check, but it felt like her little toes on her right foot had vanished.

“The cats are getting into the food!” Jonathan yelled from the kitchen and brushed the cats off the table. “When are we eating?” He swirled what was left of the dip with what was left of the carrots and went back to the family room. Anita sat in the dining room, it looked beautiful.

She’d just bent down to rub her good foot when Martin called out that dinner was ready. One by one everyone lifted themselves up and slowly made their way to the kitchen. Everyone praised the food, saying it looked delicious. Anita smiled, it warmed her to her toes that they were pleased. Plates were filled and everyone moved into the dining room.

Once the family was gathered together, Martin asked them to join hands and bow their heads.

Let the Lord make us truly grateful for what we are about to receive.

Today is a day to be grateful. We have each other, and this wonderful food. And yet. . . Lord, you do not make it easy. The challenge of faith is not something separate from faith, it is the very nature of faith. You love us and provide for us, but you also abandon us. We’ve been through misery and sorrow. It has been difficult. And somehow, year after year, we meet on this day, and find love for each other. Gathered together, surrounded by love. That is, perhaps, what you want. Not a life without sorrow, but a life full of love. That is very difficult. But somehow, you got us here. We are here. Together.

Lord, please watch over Jonathan. my parents, and my father-in-law. Let their health continue. Watch over Anne’s family, it’s been difficult… And please keep our Anita safe. Thank you for giving her to us, and letting us love her. Letting us shine in her love, her warmth. We are grateful.

Amen.

Then everyone joined in saying the Lord’s Prayer, and thanked Martin for his touching prayer. Anita felt funny, she excused herself and returned to the kitchen. The table was covered in food. Beautiful, thoughtful, offerings.

After a few minutes, her father, who had always been a fast eater, came into the kitchen to refill his plate.

“Everything is so delicious.”

“Thanks, Dad.” She sat there as he picked through the potatoes and put a few heavy spoonfuls on his plate. He pulled out dark meat and turned back to the dining room.

“Hey, Dad?”

Anita’s father stopped and turned. Though his gaze was generous, kind, it was also empty. As if he had forgotten something but wasn’t sure what it was, his eyes resting while his mind remembered. Anita wanted to hold him. Wanted him to say something to her, something warm. She wanted to tell him she loved him. She wanted more than anything for him to see her. His face was gentle, patient.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Dad. I’m glad you’re here.”

He looked at her and at the food. Then he began to nod, his face caught some recognition, a memory, perhaps. He smiled, and said softly, “Anita.” Then he returned to the other room, plate piled high with potatoes and a bit of dark meat.

Anita closed her eyes. Balancing on her good foot, she hopped upstairs. She felt a need for her bathroom, to be in front of the lights. She shut the door and stood over the sink. Her body felt airy like she was on the cusp of falling asleep. She sank to the floor, feeling for her leg and feeling nothing, air. It was gone. The right one soon followed. Her body slowly began to disappear, like it was relaxing, breathing out, falling asleep. She felt warm and safe.

Downstairs, everyone family finished eating and drifted into the family room to watch the Game. Anne remembered she’d brought pies. She took orders and returned to the kitchen, hearing footsteps of her father behind her.

“Hi Dad, you want blueberry, right?”

“Yes, please. Just a little bit.”

“Vanilla or pecan?”

“Praline. That sounds good.”

“Here’s your plate, take a napkin.”

“Thanks, Anita,” said her father, pausing for thought.

“Dad. I’m Anne.”

“Anne. Anita. Twins.”

“Dad, Anita isn’t here.”

“I know that. I confuse names. Always did.”

“That’s true. You used to call us after the cat.” She paused and then asked “You ok, Dad?”

“I’m fine. Pie looks delicious. Anita’d be pleased.” He smiled.

“Ha.  She would have found something wrong just because they weren’t hers.” Anne was silent and looked at the cabinets she’d helped choose, fifteen years ago. They argued over the wood, Anita wanted dark wood, Anne thought they would date the kitchen. Anita persisted, the cabinets still looked wonderful. They made the room warm. Everything about Anita was warm. She had that gift.

“Dad? It is right? Gathered together here? At first I thought no, but. . . she would have wanted it. Right?”

Her father put down his plate and leaned over and kissed his daughter’s forehead. She was slightly taller. He nodded “She wants us here.” Then Anne smiled, wiped her nose and eyes and sliced the pie.

After a while, the cats awoke from their nap in the sun and ran feverishly upstairs. They meowed and pawed at the bathroom door, knocking it against the latch until it opened. In the warm bathroom with the bright lights, they sniffed a bunch of clothes gathered together on the floor. The clothes, still warm, had two rings in the back pocket and smelled vaguely of pie. The cats curled tightly against each other on top of the clothes and quickly fell back into a deep, peaceful sleep.

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