The first time I lived apart from my mother in Colorado was when I left to study at the university one hundred miles away. An only child, I was burdened with the guilt of leaving my widowed mother alone but thought a clean break would be best for both of us. I didn’t call her and didn’t visit until the holidays were upon us.
The weekend before Thanksgiving I went to a dormitory party where I met Elliott, a Philosophy major. After drinking several beers from a red plastic cup, I was greatly impressed with his intellectual ramblings. I saw in him a bit of my late father (a physician and amateur philosopher) and invited him to accompany me to my mother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. I thought Mother would adore Elliott, and that his presence would ease the tension of our delayed reunion.
Elliott and I took the bus to my mother’s house on Thanksgiving Day. He’d neglected to bring enough cash for his ticket, so I paid for both our fares.
Mother greeted me at the door as if I’d been gone for a decade instead of three months. I pushed away from her embrace (my face reddening) in order to introduce Elliott. Mother’s eyes widened when she noticed his shaggy hair and ragged jeans. Although I was nicely dressed, I felt his shabby clothes were justified: he was a 1960s Socrates and it was too cold for him to wear a toga.
Every Thanksgiving Mother picked up senile Great-Aunt Becky from the nursing home to join us for dinner. Becky was in her late-80s that year. Her hair had been styled for the occasion and floated ’round her head like a wispy silver cloud. She recognised me at once and clung to my hand with such affection that I could hardly escape her grasp.
The house was warm and beautifully decorated. Beethoven’s seventh symphony drifted through the air. Mother had stacked a pile of classical LPs on the stereo. As each record ended, we heard the “thwack” of a new LP hitting the turntable.
Logs crackled in the fireplace. The air was thick with the scent of oranges impaled with cloves, roast turkey, baking pastry and fresh pine boughs on the mantle with a nod toward Christmas.
Mother had laid out all her best holiday finery with one exception: instead of linen, Mother had used a plastic tablecloth, because Great-Aunt Becky liked to write with her food. She didn’t talk much, thanks to her senility, but still found ways to make dinner conversation.
I sat with Becky on my left. Elliot and Mom sat across from us. The turkey platter was our centerpiece.
“Elliot?” Mother raised her eyebrows, offering him the carving knife my father used to wield.
Elliot shook his head. “No thanks. I’m not into performing any male-gender-assigned roles.”
Mother reddened and Becky dipped her finger in the gravy tureen. With a shaky finger she wrote LAZY on the tablecloth between us.
Mother carved the turkey and asked Elliott about his philosophy. He leaned back in his chair and puffed out his chest.
“Life should be spent in pursuit of pleasure. I don’t believe man was created to work in an office from nine to five,” he proclaimed.
Becky finger-painted SHIRKER, and grinned at me.
“You’re a hedonist,” Mother said to Elliott. “But how will you pay the rent?”
“I live at my parents’ house. I can stay there as long as I like.”
Becky dipped her finger in gravy and wrote MOOCH on the table.
Mother pursed her lips and addressed Elliott. “Then you’re a cynic, like Diogenes, who wore rags and lived in a barrel.”
“Yes, I reject societal conventions. I cut my own hair and wear secondhand clothes.”
Becky wrote SLOPPY, and giggled.
Mother stared at Elliott. “What if you want to get married? How will you support a wife and family?”
Elliott stuffed a forkful of potatoes into his mouth. When he’d swallowed, he said, “I suppose my wife would have to be willing to support me.”
Becky sucked in her breath and wrote ARROGANT on the table. I dipped my finger in the gravy and added a word of my own. Then my great-aunt finally found her voice.
“ARROGANT ASS!” she hooted, to my mother’s chagrin.
Dinner ended awkwardly and only Becky ate a piece of Mother’s special pumpkin pie. As we cleared the dishes, I gave Mom a hug and told her I wanted to stay for the weekend. She smiled and wiped away a few tears.
Later that afternoon, I escorted Elliott to the bus stop and handed him his ticket. He tried to kiss me but I ducked away, and both of us realized that we’d never see each other again.