The Taste of Mustard
It was a family tradition that every Thanksgiving, my grandpa would nod off over his turkey and stuffing. So it was no surprise when, halfway through dinner, his chin slumped onto his chest and his hand slackened its grip on the fork that was stuck mid-scoop in his mashed potatoes like a tired flagpole.
My parents and most of the extended family on my mother’s side had crowded around our dining room table, which was dressed with a hideous orange cloth. Earlier in the day I had painstakingly smoothed that cloth, making sure the edges hung evenly before laying out what my mother called her “good china,” a set of dishes whose white glass surfaces were molded into scallops that reminded me of frosting on a cake. That serving set was her prized possession, and on major occasions I was in charge of carefully pulling each piece out of the wooden hutch and wiping off the dust so she could fill it with marshmallow-smothered yams, Stove Top stuffing, or cranberry sauce that still held the shape of its can. It was as if she thought scooping food out of her fancy dishes and ladling gravy from a real gravy boat would cover up the store-bought taste.
That year, I was going through my mustard phase. The yellow bottle of French’s had become my constant table companion, and I dumped it on everything I ate. Scrambled eggs. Corn. Applesauce. I even spread it on my toast. The habit revolted my mother, who would wrinkle her nose and demand in her shrill voice, “Can’t you use butter like a normal person?” When I added a final touch to the Thanksgiving table by standing the mustard bottle to the right of my plate, next to my water glass, she glared at it, resentful of the blemish on her perfect spread and no doubt wishing she had an extra dish for it in her serving set.
“Krista, I see you’re joining us at the grown-ups’ table this year,” Aunt Gina said as we pulled out our chairs. Her voice had a bit of a question to it, as if she wasn’t quite sure I was in the right place. I nodded, my cheeks burning, and took extra care arranging my paper napkin on my lap, patting the corners down so it would stay put.
“She’s got Bert’s spot now, rest his soul.” My grandpa reached for the turkey platter. “Big shoes to fill, but Krista’s up to it, isn’t she?” Uncle Bert had died of sepsis the day after Easter. As the oldest of the children, it was my turn to move up in the world, so I had inherited his seat at the family table.
My Aunt Carol smiled at me.
“I remember when Bert used to chase Krista around and threaten to pull off her toes,” she said. “She would run screaming through the house, convinced he had taken them, and wouldn’t calm down until Mom sat her down and counted her toes for her.”
Mingled with embarrassment, I felt an odd rush of gratitude toward my Uncle Bert. I wished he could see me now, on my best behavior, wished he could see how dignified I had become, taking polite sips of water and squeezing out my mustard into artful curlicues instead of my usual haphazard squirts.
I sat back, admiring the festive yellow and brown mixture on my plate, thinking surely my mother couldn’t disapprove when it set off Aunt Gina’s silk flower and squash centerpiece so nicely. I ended by spreading mustard onto half of a biscuit and taking a large bite, earning a dirty look from my mother.
“Really, Krista,” she said, “I don’t know what possesses you sometimes. And Grandma Jeannie hasn’t even said grace yet.” My grandpa just winked at me and spooned horseradish sauce onto his yams.
Grandma Jeannie always said grace at Thanksgiving, even though the Lord went largely unheeded the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year. In years past, all of our Thanksgiving dinners had unfolded at my grandparents’ house, where my grandma made pies from scratch and shooed us out of the kitchen with her wooden spoon while my grandpa presided over the football game from his recliner. Back then she’d been solid as a tree trunk, with Rosie the Riveter arms and a bosom large enough to bury your fears in, but sixty-seven years and the deaths of two sons had left her frail while a minor stroke had taken away the use of her right hand so she could no longer cook large family meals. I missed her homemade rolls, the kind that had to rise all day under a layer of moistened towels instead of emerging from a can that popped when you opened it.
“Dear Lord,” my grandma began tremulously. I fidgeted and felt my palms begin to sweat, one wrapped in my Aunt Gina’s cool fingers and the other clutched in my grandpa’s scratchy grip. “We just thank you so much for those of us who are still here today, and we ask that you look after the loved ones we have lost—” tears began slipping from beneath her closed lids and her prayer dissolved into muffled sobs, which she directed into her napkin. Aunt Carol reached over and patted her hand. The rest of us lowered our heads, less out of reverence than out of shame that in the face of her outburst, all we could think was, when do we get to the turkey? After a long pause, which no one wanted to break, my father muttered an “Amen,” the only word he would utter throughout the entire meal, and we all dove for our forks. All except my grandma, who pressed her lips together and cast watery smiles around the table.
I shoveled turkey into my mouth, relishing the contrast of the warm meat with the cool tang of mustard. For the moment, the only sound was the symphony of clinking forks and wet chewing as our salivating mouths finally took revenge on the smells that had been torturing us all afternoon.
Uncle Art looked around the table.
“Where’s the dream salad?” His voice was accusing.
“Oh shoot,” my mother said, aghast. “I left it in the kitchen. Krista, would you?”
I obediently jumped from my chair and flounced into the kitchen, keen to show off my exceptional serving skills. A pink concoction made of red Jell-O, cottage cheese, and canned peaches, Aunt Gina’s dream salad was Uncle Art’s favorite and the crowning glory of the Thanksgiving table every year. My mother had reserved her largest and heaviest serving dish for it, a monstrosity of a bowl covered in white scallops and garnished with a white glass bow. It perched on the counter like a bride waiting for her march to the altar.
I stretched my arms around the bowl and lifted, but I was unprepared for its sudden weight. For a moment it teetered, and I was certain it would slip through my arms, but I managed to balance it just in time. My heart pounded and my knees trembled with relief that my mother hadn’t been able to see my near-miss. I took careful, shuffling steps toward the dining room, extra vigilant of the precious goods in my arms.
Despite my vigilance, I didn’t see my cat, Shadow, slip between my legs in search of her customary Thanksgiving can of tuna. The next thing I knew, I was sprawled on the floor with dream salad all over my skirt and blouse and the ruins of my mother’s best serving dish scattered around me. My ears registered the crash a split second later, as if it had been on timed delay.
I could hear the dining room erupt into chaos. My mother rushed into the kitchen and stopped short at the sight of my Aunt Gina’s salad all over her kitchen.
“Is she okay?” my grandma called, and I could hear the nervousness in her voice, a tremor that spoke of a life that had too often delivered her worst nightmare.
“Are you shitting me?” Uncle Art shouted. “Tell me that wasn’t the dream salad crashing like that. All year a man looks forward to one thing…” I could hear Aunt Gina shushing him.
“Oh Krista,” was all my mother could say. She knelt down and began gathering pieces of the bowl. I waited for her usual tirade—I can’t have anything nice in this house, can I? Everything of mine gets broken — but it didn’t come. Instead, silent, angry tears gathered in her eyes, and a shard of guilt wedged itself in my belly. Aunt Carol followed her in, took one look at me, and helped me off the floor. With the towel that hung from the refrigerator door, she began dabbing pink cottage cheese out of my hair.
“I’m sorry,” I said over and over again. “I didn’t mean it.” I began blubbering like a baby, like one of my younger cousins at the kids’ table, filled with shame that I had been unable to live up to Uncle Bert’s bequest. Next year, I knew, I would be stuck back at the children’s table while my cousin Joey got to eat with the grown-ups, even though he was a whole year and a half younger than me. My face burned with advance humiliation.
It wasn’t until my mother and aunts had gotten me cleaned up and given the serving dish a proper burial in the garbage can that we realized my grandpa hadn’t woken up during all the commotion.
“Dad?” my mother said, shaking his shoulder. “Dad?” She shook him harder. I watched, not quite comprehending, as his body lost its balance and slid forward, his head landing with a plop in his plate. Splatters of gravy and horseradish landed on the orange tablecloth. My grandma closed her eyes, her face growing pale and its hollows darkening.
Much later, my mother would clear the crusted remains of that dinner from the table in careless half-light. I would help her scrape the plates, hunched over the shadowed garbage can into which we directed dried meat, congealed gravy, and the occasional errant tear.
Much later, my grandma would move into a home, unable to keep up with the demands of her body, solidifying my mother’s role as family hostess.
Much later, my cousin Joey and I would both take our seats at the grown-ups’ table for another year of turkey and forced conversation. I would do so reluctantly, with a rock in the pit of my stomach.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED