I'd rather slam my hand in a car door a few times rather than head to Pop's for Thanksgiving this year. It's the first Thanksgiving since Mom has been gone and I just don't know if I can take the heartache. Pop has called every other day for two weeks to keep confirming that I'll be there. At first I lied and said that I may have to work that day but I couldn't keep it up. I finally told him that I'd gotten someone else to pull my shift at the call center and that I'd be there. He sounded so sad on the phone that there was no way I could beg off.
Thursday dawned a sleek battleship gray and a cold wind kept tugging at the remaining leaves on the trees. It was as if even the weather was dreading the day. I took one of the pills the doctor had given me for my anxiety attacks and pulled on my heavy blue sweater. I kept trying to think of some reason why I couldn't go, why I had to be somewhere other than Pop's today, but I just couldn't think of one. I fed the cat, grabbed my keys and pocketed the pills on my way out the door.
Pop opened the door with tears in his eyes as he fanned the smoke away from his face. He shouted over the smoke alarms that he needed a hand in the kitchen. I pulled the charred remains of a bird that had been doomed from the start out of the oven and rushed the smoldering ruin outside. Pop was opening windows and clicking on the ceiling fan when I got back in. "I don't understand it, I did it just like the book said!" he gasped.
"Pop, the oven is set to broil. You're lucky you didn't burn the house down! Let's go outside while this clears."
"Yeah, I need a smoke."
We stood on the sidewalk and he lit a Pall Mall from a half empty pack. It was starting to sleet flurries but they seemed to fall as if there was no hurry. Pop looked back at the house and shook his head, "I don't know what the hell we are goin' ta eat now. I've got some burritos in the freezer but that doesn't sound too appetizing. Is there any of the bird left? Maybe we could salvage some of it?"
"The bird is toast Pop. There isn't much more than ashes left."
He looked crestfallen and took a long drag on his cigarette. "Aw screw it!" he tossed his butt down and crushed it with his heel. "Let me go get my coat and I'll take you out to eat."
"There is no place open on Thanksgiving. Even McDonald's is closed!" but he ignored me and went in for his coat.
"Come on, I got a plan B lined up. We don't need the car. It's just a few blocks down." He shoved his hands deep in the pockets of his old hunting coat and sniffed against the cold wind that tugged at us. He walked with a quick step and I found myself huffing a bit to keep up.
"You're not taking me to Ed's are you? I don't want to have chili dogs in a bar for Thanksgiving."
"Naw, I ain't takin' you to Ed's. I done thought of that, but Ed's boy is up from Miami so he closed up this year. No, I got something else in mind." He clammed up and we walked in silence for a while. "I must have spent half the night fixin' that damn bird." he swore, "Damned shame for it to turn out like that. I don't know how your mother did it, year after year. She never seemed ta spend more than an hour fussing with meal, and then- bang, you have a feast to sit down to. Hell, I spent forty-five minutes just pealing potatoes last night! Oh well, I know we will get a good meal where we're headed. Damned shame about the bird though." He was talking more to himself than to me and I just let him talk. "You know what I am going to miss the most this year? Your mother's stuffing. My God, she could make a stuffing that would melt in your mouth. I can see it in that ol' silver tureen. I don't know what she did to it that made it so good but I could never get enough of it."
He bit his lip a bit, "It's strange. At night, I still reach for her. I know in my heart of hearts that she is gone, but I still reach over to her side of the bed. Sometimes I slide my foot over, just to try to feel her feet again but..." He gripped himself a little tighter against the slap of the cold wind. "During the day, I'm all right. I don't miss her so much. I'm busy in the workshop most days, and I don't think too much about it. But as I lay there in the dark, she's there with me. I've almost felt her, I swear."
Then he did something I've never seen him do. He sobbed. Not full on, breaking out into tears, but just choked up a little. He quickly looked away for a second as if he was really interested in what the hardware store had on special this week and when he turned back, he was just as straight faced as always. It was weird to hear him talk like that. All my life, he has been this hard ass, tough as nails, and to see him just heartsick for the loss of his wife, just for a moment. It was weird. I think it was the first time I saw him as someone other than my Pop. He was just an old guy trying to get along without the love of his life at his side anymore. He seemed so much more human, and suddenly so frail all at once. "Pop, I uh,"
"We're here," he said as he pulled open the door to a tiny Chinese restaurant. I stepped into a little room with a dozen tables and absolutely everything was either red or gold. The floor, the ceiling, the walls, everything, right down to the bells that hung from the front door that announced a customer. Pop looked at me with a "whadja think ?" smile. "Pretty spiffy, ain't it?" he said.
In a moment, a shapely Chinese women of indeterminate age in a red sheath dress appeared from the gold beaded curtain at the back of the room. "Ah Steve," she gushed, "I had so hoped that you would come in today! Come, sit down. I will bring you some tea," and with a bustle, she disappeared into the back room. We were the only customers, so we sat down in the large, overstuffed booth. "You're going ta like this," he smiled. She came back with a teapot and some dainty cups. She made a great show of pouring the tea.
"Rose, honey," Pop said, "I want you to meet my son. This is Roger."
"How do you do?" and she bowed to me. "You are most welcome, and I look forward to seeing you often." she bowed again and hustled off.
"Hey Pop, what did she mean, see me often?"
He gulped down his little glass of tea and grinned, "Cause after Christmas, Rose is going to be moving in with me," he said matter-of-factly. It was at this point I learned what being truly thankful was, because my hand unconsciously slid to the pills I had had the foresight to bring.