by Jane Limprecht
The blue sedan brakes at the end of Aunt Ronna’s block. The driver and passenger look like they’re consulting a GPS, but what if they’re onto me? My breath turns ragged. Halfway up the block in the other direction, a FedEx truck veers to the curb, its flashers on. Nobody jumps out with a package. Am I being followed? Do these folks know what’s under the quilted cover of my casserole dish?
I exhale slowly. This is crazy thinking. The couple in the blue sedan are probably confused after navigating Aunt Ronna’s and Uncle Hub’s neighborhood of looping streets and hidden cul-de-sacs. The FedEx driver is doing what FedEx drivers do, no matter that it’s Thanksgiving Day. Nobody knows I crushed sleeping pills into my creamy rich mashed potatoes. I’ve planned everything so the snores will start before the dessert plates come out. This afternoon, I need the whole gang temporarily out of commission.
Inside the front door, the aroma of Thanksgiving dinner greets me, along with ritual displays of welcome and reflections on how long it’s been since the family got together. I’m joining a small group today, just my mom’s sister, Aunt Ronna, aka Big Ronna; her husband, Uncle Hub; their daughter, Ronna Lynn, aka Little Ronna; and Grandma Inger, who ran a dairy farm in Wisconsin’s Norwegian Valley with Grandpa Emil until he passed away. Little Ronna’s husband is working a shift at the ER, where he’s a nurse’s aide, and their two unpleasant daughters are off somewhere, visiting boyfriends or whatnot.
I’m invited because I live here in Wisconsin now and my folks are seven hours away in Sioux City, Iowa. No one remarks upon my various failures—romantic, career, ethical. I’m the divorced one, the jobless one, the sneaky one who got caught in a lie about a driver’s license. The prodigal granddaughter-niece-cousin returns. With a slight twist. I haven’t repented.
Little Ronna directs me to the guest room to toss my puffy jacket on the bed. There, displayed in the curio cabinet, my financial salvation poses in her black metal stand: Big Ronna’s 1959 Ponytail Barbie. I lean close to the cabinet’s glass door to take in the curly black ponytail with frizzy bangs, the tilted crescent of black eyeliner and ocean-blue eye shadow, the scarlet lips. Barbie’s striped black-and-white knit bathing suit skims over her watermelon breasts and pinched-in waist; her bare legs stretch like taffy; her impossible ski-slope feet slip into black high-heeled slides—mules, they called them in 1959. Her white-framed cat-eye sunglasses dangle from the delicate fingers of one hand. I narrow my eyes and smile at her perfection.
Big Ronna played with this 1959 Barbie, so it’s not one of those never-removed-from-the-box treasures that bring in twenty grand or more. I’ve done my research, though, and even a Barbie that’s been played with can sell for several thousand dollars. My mom had a 1959 Barbie, too, in pristine condition until Little Ronna’s visiting daughters popped her head off during a tantrum that also decapitated crewcut Ken and Barbie’s little sister, Skipper. In a way, I’ll simply be reclaiming what should be mine.
After I return to the living room, Big Ronna ushers everyone into the dining room. We arrange our bellies around the old oak table, its gouges and blackened knife scratches covered today by the Thanksgiving tablecloth—beige easy-wash polyester with twirling red, yellow, and green leaves, the better to hide the likely gravy stains. Little Ronna has added the casserole dish containing my mashed potatoes to the tableful of standard Midwestern fare, wedged between the turkey platter and the turkey gravy, next to the sage bread-cube stuffing and the green bean hot dish, which is Uncle Hub’s signature contribution to the meal. Green bean hot dish counts as our lone green vegetable on Thanksgiving, even though the frozen French-cut green beans are swamped in cream of mushroom soup and grated cheddar cheese. During past Thanksgivings, Uncle Hub experimented with custom additions to the classic Campbell Soup recipe, but ever since the year of the green bean salt lick, with a jar-full of briny green olives studded atop the French’s crispy fried onions, he’s stuck to tradition.
The chunky Fostoria glassware that a great-aunt apportioned between Big Ronna and my mom sparkles here and there among the main dishes: a glass bowl of canned cranberry sauce, a relish dish with black olives at one end and carrot sticks at the other, a round plate piled with Pillsbury crescent rolls in the shapes of everyone’s initials. Since Little Ronna’s daughters aren’t here to perform their one task, the crescent roll shaping is a little lax this year, with two Rs for the Ronnas instead of a B and an L. From the sideboard, pumpkin pie tempts me with its crusty, cinnamon-infused fragrance. A stainless-steel bowl of freshly whipped cream, flavored with vanilla extract and a sprinkle of sugar, probably chills in the refrigerator. Finally, in an apparent nod to my checkered driving record, good old non-alcoholic milk fills everybody’s Fostoria glass tumblers.
Despite my aforementioned failures, I’m the undisputed queen of the mashed potato. After boiling the potato chunks for nine minutes, I saved some of the drained cooking water and mixed it back into the potatoes along with light cream, butter, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. I mashed it all together with Mom’s handed-down potato masher, the one with a wooden handle and a round metal grid at the bottom. For the final few stirs, I switched to a wooden spoon—never an electric mixer or, God forbid, a food processor. I’ll put sleeping pills in my potatoes, but I won’t let them turn gluey.
Right on cue, Uncle Hub plops a generous spoonful of my creamy rich mashed potatoes next to his turkey and stuffing, places four evenly spaced pats of butter on top of the potato hillock, and then drowns the turkey, stuffing, and potatoes in a river of gravy poured from the mouth of a blue-and-white china cow. Grandma Inger and the Ronnas omit the extra lumps of butter, although, as I expected, they’re all on board with the gravy. I’m fairly sure no one will notice the bitter sleeping pill taste in their potatoes.
Thirty minutes later, Uncle Hub has scraped his plate clean, twice. He shakes his head and blinks his eyes. He’s shoveled in a boatload of potatoes, although it could be the turkey and milk that make him sleepy. I’m not sure if that tryptophan story is true or a myth, and I’m not taking chances.
Uncle Hub pushes back his chair and plods to his La-Z-Boy in the living room, getting into position for the football afternoon. Big Ronna opens her mouth wide to yawn, catching the roar behind her hand just in time not to be rude. Little Ronna plants an elbow on the table and rests her pudgy cheek in her palm, eyelids fluttering. I say a silent prayer of thanks–It is Thanksgiving, after all—that Little Ronna’s husband had to work today. He might have recognized something was amiss, with everyone nodding off at once.
Well, not quite everyone. Grandma Inger is still chowing down, her gray head bent over her plate at the end of the table. This I didn’t plan for, but I should have known. You don’t run a dairy farm unless you have the constitution of a horse. As I monitor my relatives’ wakefulness or lack thereof, the question flits through my mind: why doesn’t anyone ever say someone has the constitution of a cow? Cows are sturdy creatures, for all their long-lashed beauty. Thinking about my grandma’s and grandpa’s dairy farm conjures up visions of whipped cream mounded on pumpkin pie. I pat my chest a couple of times to pull my attention back to my mission.
Grandma Inger keeps forking in bite after bite, proceeding counterclockwise on her plate from gravy-soaked dark meat turkey to gravy-soaked stuffing to gravy-soaked mashed potatoes to gooey clumps of green bean hot dish and back to gravy-soaked dark meat turkey. She demolished her I-shaped Pillsbury crescent roll minutes ago, and she skipped the low-value accompaniments like cranberry sauce, olives, and carrots. Before long, she’ll be ready for her pie.
As I watch, she looks up from her plate, grins at me with her thin lips, and points at her mashed potatoes. Criminently, does she suspect something? I inhale sharply, then let out a long breath and fake a smile. “Great food, huh, Grandma Inger? It looks like everybody else ate a bit too much, though.”
She continues to stare at me. My face feels hot. Should I excuse myself and slip out the door before she rats me out? Grandma swallows the bite she’s been chewing, opens her mouth, and says something about a moose. I keep my fake smile on my face and lean toward her. “Sorry, I didn’t hear what you said. Something about a moose?”
She points again at her potatoes. “Rutamousse. Mashed potatoes with rutabaga. I recognize that bitter flavor. The rutabaga.”
Suppressing my spontaneous grimace, I swivel my head right and left to see if anybody is listening, but the whole family is sacked out. I tasted Grandma’s rutamousse once, long ago, never again. If anything tastes more bitter than sleeping pills, it’s rutabaga. Plus, peeling and chopping a rutabaga is like peeling and chopping a baseball.
Grandma is still talking about rutamousse. “Norwegian-style mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving. No one ever makes it for me. But you did.” She reaches over and taps a shaky finger on the table as she surveys our sleeping relatives. “I was at your mom and dad’s house that year Ronna Lynn and her daughters visited.” Widening her eyes and cupping one hand to the side of her mouth, she adds: “The bratty girls who wrecked your mom’s fancy Barbie doll.” Grandma Inger gestures toward the guest room. “There’s another one in there. You should take it with you.”
My eyes flick back and forth from Uncle Hub to Big and Little Ronna. Dead to the world, all of them. Not literally, of course. Grandma hovers her fork over her mashed potatoes, ready to dig in for another bite.
I shoot my hand out to stop her. “Grandma,” I stage-whisper, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s have our pie now, you and me. I have to leave soon, and I don’t want to miss dessert.”
Grandma’s eyes brighten behind her giant, square eyeglass lenses. I cut two slices from the pie, nab the bowl of whipped cream from the fridge, and sit back down with Grandma to savor our treat. I don’t think she noticed that I took the casserole dish to the kitchen and swished out the remaining swirls of mashed potato. I don’t want her to eat any more after I make my exit. She’s already consumed too many crushed-up sleeping pills.
After our pie, Grandma and I lean back and pat our tummies. I help her out of her chair and onto the sofa, where she can watch the Hallmark Channel Christmas movie I’m queuing up. To heck with Uncle Hub and his football. He’s still snoring like a buzzsaw.
I’m breathing rather deeply myself, and I need to calm my pounding heart. After a few slow inhales, I sneak into the guest room, open the curio cabinet, and take out the 1959 Barbie. I put on my puffy jacket and tuck her, metal stand and all, into the roomy inner pocket. Peeking through the front window, I scan the street. There’s no blue sedan or FedEx truck in sight. That was crazy thinking, for sure.
On my way out of the house, I skirt the dining room and the kitchen to avoid any chance of encountering an awakened Ronna, Big or Little. I wave to Grandma Inger, but she’s hunched forward with eyes intent on the Hallmark Channel.
I leave behind my casserole dish with its quilted cover. It’s hardly a fair trade for the 1959 Ponytail Barbie, but even Grandma Inger thinks I’m only reclaiming what should be mine. I can snag another casserole dish at the Black Friday sales, since they’re a hot holiday item around here. I expect to have plenty of cash before long, though I’m not sure where I’ll be eating Christmas dinner.
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