By Kristine Guay
“So what’s new in your life, boys? Is there anything you can share with us or that you even want to share?” My partner’s mother breaks a momentary silence at our holiday dinner table while unscrewing the cap off of her container of bottled water. I reach across a plate of spinach-pie wedges to grab the etched glass wine decanter and fill my glass in front of me. My partner Janyce is cutting into a lamb chop, swirling a forkful around in the egg-lemon sauce on her plate. Over on the far left, my older teen, Connor, is scooping up another spoonful of rosemary potatoes from the ceramic bowl and dropping them in a pile on his plate.
“I’m getting my license soon,” says Connor.
“Hey, did I ever tell you what my dad did to me when I got my license?” Janyce’s sister Agni blurts out from the far opposite side of the table. I can see the top of her head from behind the vase of orange and pink pastel tulips as she hoists her little black dog up on to her lap.
“Ag!” says Janyce, placing her wine glass down and shooting her sister a stare before looking nervously over at me.
“It’s okay,” I say. “Let her tell the story.”
“Well, on the day I passed my test, I asked Dad if I could take the car to drive to Peggy’s house,” she says, looking straight at Janyce as she pauses to shift the dog to her other knee. “And he said to me that I had to wait for him to go with me because I couldn’t drive the car alone for another three months. He said it was because the insurance would take three more months before it would go into effect. Can you believe that?”
“That’s not true, is it?” asks Connor.
“Of course it’s not true!” says Agni as she starts to giggle. “You thought you were being smart, didn’t you, Dad?” She gives a jab to her father who is sitting beside her and looking down at his plate.
“I don’t think he heard you,” says Janyce.
“Oh he heard me. Just look at that smile,” she says.
Janyce’s dad picks his head up and grins. “It worked, didn’t it?”
“It worked until I got my first car myself, and I made a comment about needing to wait a few months for the insurance, and they looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. “The guy said to me, ‘You can drive the car out of here right now.’”
“I don’t get it,” says Connor. “Why would your dad tell you that, then?”
“We were going to try the same thing on you,” says Janyce looking over at me. “But too late now, huh,” she says to him. “Dad just wanted her to keep driving with another person in the car a little longer for the practice.”
“Oh! Yeah, well I don’t need any more practice. I’m ready,” he says.
I steal a sideways glance at my quiet younger teen, Aidan, to my left. It’s close to seventy-five degrees outside, but he wears a blue plaid flannel shirt buttoned up to the top, covering his black concert tee-shirt. The gaping metal tunnels in his ears are plugged up with a stopper of red, just barely visible from behind his shiny black hair. Behind me is only the sideboard table that I’d adorned with a rustic candelabra and a plate of shiny yellow packaged marshmallow peeps and boxed chocolate bunnies.
“Why do you let him do that to his ears?” whispers my Aunt Gail just over my shoulder. Nobody hears her say it but me, and yet I notice how Aidan sits a little straighter in his chair.
“Want to try some of the greens?” I ask Connor, motioning toward the bowl directly in front of his plate.
“No, thanks, I don’t like steamed daffodils,” he says.
“Those are wilted dandelion greens, wise guy,” I say.
“I’m all good, Mom.”
My partner’s father and sister are talking about something I missed, and Janyce is now leaning back in her chair, her plate pushed to the side. I dip my fingers in the shallow bowl of mounded mini jellybeans next to my flatware. Multicolor glass cordial glasses embellish the top of each dessert plate on the green tablecloth and remind me of the spring crocuses outside, just now beginning to push their way through the soggy earth.
“Is it okay if I go visit across the street?” asks Connor.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m done too. I want to go skate,” says Aidan.
“Sure, guys, you can go. Thanks for making an appearance,” I say.
I take in a deep breath. We all made it through the rushed first hour of a holiday meal in the new house, with all my new relatives.
As the teens perform their stiff goodbyes and get up from the table, I catch the end of Janyce’s sister’s and father’s conversation.
“I used to love YaYa’s shoes—remember those? They were so high and she was so short. They had those bows on them,” says Agni.
“Yeah, and she was always mad at us for wearing jeans,” Janyce chimes in. “I remember how she would be dressed and ready for me when I had to drive her to the Greek market. She was in her dress, those shoes with the bows, and she had her bag in her hand. We were only driving across town to buy feta!”
“Well, that’s how it was with the Greek women of that generation. You dressed properly to go out,” says Janyce’s mom.
“Okay, maybe to go out, but remember how mad she got at Dad when he was wearing ripped cutoffs to build the deck?” says Agni.
“That was hysterical,” says Janyce. “Remember that, Dad?” She turns to her father who smiles and looks down at the table while shaking his head from side to side.
I don’t add anything to the conversation; I watch my sons exit the room. On their way out, they pass by my long deceased Uncle Ray, who is leaning over Janyce’s shoulder to look into the main platter of leftovers still on the table. “Lamb and artichokes? Where is the ham and raisin sauce?” he asks, and I almost laugh out loud. I watch him in front of the brick fireplace tilting his head to listen to the Rembetika music playing from the stereo. He’s wearing a white button-down shirt with his white tee-shirt still visible, black pants, and gleaming polished shoes. Wisps of graying hair drape sideways across a partially balding head and half of his bottom lip is curled up in a crooked smile. His face droops slightly on one side.
“Who wants coffee and cookies?” asks Janyce. I start gathering and stacking dirty dishes as Janyce’s mom begins unwrapping the pink and green tissue paper from the small wrapped Easter package in front of her.
“Oh, aren’t these pretty,” she says.
“Those are from Athans Bakery, Mum,” Agni says. “I got you some filled with Nutella and some with mint. Those big ones have hazelnuts in them.”
“Oh, I can’t eat hazelnuts. I’ll have to give those to Daddy,” she says.
I pass Janyce on her way out of the kitchen as I’m on my way in, carrying the dirty dishes. She’s holding a bottle of ouzo in one hand and a plate of kourabiedes in the other.
“Kris and I are having some ouzo… Dad, are you having some too?” I hear her ask as I return to the entrance of the dining room. I stand perfectly still for a minute in the doorway as I watch my own grandmother, who we buried over ten years ago, looking at the pile of chocolates with the others. “I can’t eat hazelnuts either,” she says to the table. Then she fades away.
“Come sit and have ouzo with me,” says Janyce. She looks at me and pats the chair seat beside her.
“The teens were unusually silent, don’t you think?” I ask her as I lick white powder from my fingers and take a sip from my cobalt-blue cordial glass. Late afternoon sunlight streams through the windows and dances on the glassware. Nobody else is talking anymore, and we listen to the soft plucking of the bouzouki playing in the background.
“Well, they are getting older,” she says.
I nod in agreement, but to me that’s only part of the reason. It’s really more that the teenagers aren’t so comfortable with all the ghosts at the table. It seems that the smaller the holiday gathering, the easier it is for the relatives of the past to show up and make a comment or two. I was watching the two teens during dinner, anxiously looking at their cell phones, glancing out in the direction of the backyard while sitting straight in their chairs, all sullen and still. They couldn’t quite get comfortable with this holiday, the first one with my new relatives in a new house.
And yet to me, their fortyish mother, I only wish I could stop time during these moments and linger over dinner with my new relatives while all the relatives I remember so fondly pass in and out to get a closer look. That’s the real reason for the holidays coming around every year. It’s our yearly chance to welcome back all the ghosts to the table.
KRIS GUAY lives in Franklin, Massachusetts, with her partner and two teenage boys. She works as a communications manager in higher education. Her work has been published in Moms Who Need Wine and the Middlesex News, and will soon be in Corium Magazine. She writes her own popular blog called “Life with Teenagers” at www.2teen.wordpress.com.