Stranger at the Table
a narrative essay
Gregory Lee White ©
The year I turned twenty was the last Christmas Eve I would spend with my mother’s family. For more than ten years, Christmas Eve was held at my Aunt Jane’s house because she was the eldest sister with the largest house. She and my Uncle Randall had built the house and the rooms were enormous. The kitchen-dining room was large enough to park three, maybe four, cars inside it. The cabinets were honey colored with black hinges and handles and had so many coats of varnish on them that you could see your reflection if you stood just right. The window above the sink looked onto the back yard and the cornfields, already plowed under for the season. The faux brick linoleum floor gave the room the feel of the lobby in a hunting lodge. For them, I suppose that is exactly what it was, most of the time.
As we pulled under the dark carport, my mother started fishing in her purse for a stick of chewing gum and offered me half. The only thing I could think of was that I wished my stepfather had parked at the edge of the driveway, a faster getaway with no chance of being blocked in.
I offered to carry the presents in, making sure not to crush the bow on the gift I had wrapped for my cousin, Holly. Each September, we drew names from an old candy dish and Holly would brag when I picked her, which somehow happened almost every year. If it happened one more year, someone would claim we rigged it. According to her, I had the best taste so she knew it would be something good. That year it was a fawn-colored cashmere cardigan with simple gold buttons. I was lucky enough to find it seventy-percent off, tucked towards the back of the sale rack as if someone meant to come back for it.
I always dreaded these gatherings. We had blood in common but that was about it. Unlike the rest of the cousins, I lived three hours away in the city. While my childhood was spent in skating rinks, movie theatres and libraries, the cousins, six other boys except for Holly, went on motorcycle rides in the rain, shot bows and arrows at birds and deer or played hide-n-seek among the stalks of corn, long after dark. While I was in the city sitting perfectly still, trying to get a squirrel to take an acorn from my hand, they were shooting them out of trees with bb guns. While my cousins were hitting home runs or sliding into third base, I was on the other side of the state standing out in right field, praying the ball would not come to me. Luckily, it rarely did.
Then, of course, there was the other thing that made me different from them. I was gay. I had come out a few years earlier, when I was seventeen. For me, being exactly who I was meant to be was not a choice, as some suggested. Funny word, choice. I could choose not to have brown hair. A trip to the drugstore could fix that. But, when all was said and done, it would grow out brown just as my DNA designed it, despite anyone’s personal feelings. However, this was no hairstyle. To this extension of the family I rarely saw, I had a problem that no one knew how to handle. It was something to be prayed over, preferably in silence. Overnight, I became a stranger, less worthy of hello and goodbye hugs. They had fewer things to say beyond, “How have you been?” followed by a simple, “That’s good.” They no longer asked, “What have you been doing?” Because they did not want to know the answer.
Without knocking, Mama opened the side door that led into the kitchen and we walked inside. Aunt Jane hovered over the stove, lifting lids and stirring pots. The scent of baked turkey filled the room when she opened the oven door. A ham was on the counter, resting in its pan on top of two dishtowels and there were already casseroles on the dining table.
“Put your coats in there, Susie,” said Aunt Jane, pointing to the utility room. “I need you to put Reynolds Wrap on these dishes. Sheila’s going to be about thirty minutes late.” Susie, or Susan, is my mother – the prettiest of the three sisters if you ask me. She used to be in beauty pageants. Sheila was the youngest and would not be bringing her fourth husband this year because they were talking divorce. Three, my mother corrected, because she married one guy twice so that didn’t count. Besides, there was nothing to be surprised about. Sheila was late every year. Her perfume would tell us when she arrived.
Mama took my stepfather’s coat from him, I handed him the gifts then followed my mother into the utility room. Just inside the door were coat hooks and the room was dark except for a night-light plugged into the wall. I could see the washer and dryer and the two giant freezers where, no doubt, the carcass of a deer was cut up and wrapped in freezer paper. Fishing poles leaned against the window with two tackle boxes below them. The room was sour and meaty with a yeast-like undertone to it. It was the smell of blood-bait coming from the tackle boxes, the best thing to catch catfish according to my Grandfather. He would know. He had more fishing trophies than the pay lake that handed them out. I wrinkled my nose and Mama kissed me on the cheek before we went back in the kitchen.
Holly was there, shaking the box meant for her. She smiled and waved, then carried them into the den where I knew the Christmas tree was. She must have told them we were there, because my grandparents came out of the den behind Holly and through the doorway, I could see Uncle Randall’s legs propped up on a recliner. He didn’t get up.
My grandfather, Pepaw we all called him, reached out to hug me. I was a foot taller than he was and when my chin rested on his shoulder, I could smell his cherry chewing tobacco and the mints he kept in his shirt pocket. It was his smell, the kind that lodged into the memory and stuck there. “How you doin’, hon?” he asked, and squeezed again. Pepaw wasn’t afraid to call his grandsons ‘hon’ or kiss them on the cheek goodbye or hug them hello. As usual, he asked me if I had a girlfriend yet. Considering he married by grandmother when she was only fifteen, he must have considered me a late bloomer. At twenty, I should have already had a wife, two kids and another one on the way.
But the way he asked, with his soft and raspy voice, was always in a tone of concern, never judgment. I did not hold it against him and always said, “No. Not yet.” What would it accomplish to tell him I had met a man (a thirty-eight year old man, no less) and would be moving in with him next month? My mother already knew and I was sure she had already told my grandmother and her sisters.
My cousin Robbie came in the back door with a rifle in his hand, wearing camouflage and a hat with flapped ears. Jane fussed at him for being late and told him to get in the shower. He smiled from one side of his mouth, grunted, and disappeared down the hallway.
When everyone was finally seated around the table, including the late Sheila and two more cousins, Uncle Randall finally strolled out of the den and took his place at the head of the table, which everyone had left vacant, knowing it was his seat. Freakishly tall, baldheaded, beady eyes and a long chin – you knew his opinions without ever having to ask him a single question. Stern was embedded into the lines on his cheeks and the way he walked. I don’t think we ever said more than fifty words to each other. And when he began to say grace with that hoarse voice of his, all heads bowed.
I squinted my eyes open and looked around at each of them. Even in this, I was different. They thanked a God that was jealous and judging, fearsome and vengeful. They had never heard of my version of God, one who was loving and accepting and did not make mistakes. But, looking at Aunt Jane through the slits of my eyes, I knew not to say anything. No one could talk her out of that outdated, sparkly, blue eye shadow. Theology? No. It wasn’t worth mentioning.
After dinner, presents were tossed fast and ripped open. I was carefully lifting the tape from the seam of mine and watching Holly at the same time. It made me feel better when she pulled back the tissue paper, ‘aahed’, and put the sweater on, right away. It was Jane that drew my name that year. Inside the box wrapped in Santa Clause paper was a thick, quilted vest. Perfect for duck hunting season, she said. It looked like a navy blue life preserver and smelled like new Tupperware. I smiled and thanked her.
On the other side of the room, Uncle Randall had just finished with a “two niggers walk into a bar,” joke and had started in on a “what’s the difference in a queer and a …?” I blocked out the last line. He had no idea he was such a jerk.
I looked at him in his recliner and Jane sitting on the couch opposite of him. I wanted to ask, “Uncle Randall? What’s the difference between a bigot and an asshole?” then I would point to the space between them and say, “about two feet.”
But I didn’t. Because, what they thought was unimportant. I didn’t know them. They didn’t know me.
The next September, name-drawing time, my mother called to tell me that Jane and Randall said I was welcome, but they would really prefer I not bring my “friend”. I left my name out of the candy dish that year and every year after.
In my own kitchen, I sat down to make two lists: one of ingredients and one of people. That Christmas Eve, I baked turkey and ham. I stirred my own pots and placed casseroles on my dining room table. With rolls baking and pies cooling, the smells of Christmas were the same as they had always been. It was the mood that was different, a feeling of acceptance. My guest list consisted of friends who, like me, were not welcome home for the holidays because they loved differently. As I refilled wine glasses, I looked around at each face and wondered how many of them would have been sitting home alone or eating Christmas dinner from the microwave. It was better and I knew it. That year, there were no strangers at the table.