Poppi was hosting Thanksgiving this year. Carter’s birthday was two days before Thanksgiving and he was happy to have it there. Although it wasn’t as spectacular as a birthday right before Christmas, it brought a bonanza of attention and a few goodies. He looked forward to the family traditions. Carter was turning nine; he thought that was a decent age. It was closer to being less a little kid, yet not so close to being grown up that he had to act it all the time. And between the spread on the table and his very own lemon zest cake (they also had the usual apple, pumpkin and pecan pies), his belly would grow at least two inches in a matter of an hour. He’d measured it once.
He got gifts, of course.The real important ones came on Christmas morning so he’d keep smiling when he got another pair of wild socks from Aunt Rosa and a used book he wouldn’t read from Uncle Phil. They flew all the way up from Texas so were forgiven. He usually got a little money. This year he’d asked his parents for a black ski hat, a half pound bag of gummy sharks, a Polartec hoodie (pine green) and gift card for the movie theater so he and his best friend Lou could go see a new movie during school vacation. And a pillow. The pillow was important; his was squashed to the point of no return and smelled of popcorn and dirty hair.
It was likely he would get most things or a surprise or two. But first: the feast.
It usually alternated between Carter’s house and Grandfather’s house. Every one called him Poppi. Grandmother had died when Carter was six but he still remembered her like she was a regular visitor. His mother said maybe she was, but also knew Carter had an exceptional memory. He was the only one who noticed she had moved the cactus garden from the middle of the buffet to left after dusting. He knew what the meals had been the last umpteen months if not years so his mother consulted with him on menu ideas. Everything he’d read–Presidents’ names, major world events and their dates and so n on–all the people he’d ever met and music he’d heard with full lyrics: right there when called on. There was no end to it, he was afraid.
In school, of course, this made him a sore thumb. Schoolmates called him a show off and worse. They also liked to pump his memory right before tests. It wasn’t that he was so smart; he just didn’t forget. It could be annoying. Like the day Carter had skidded into someone on the ice rink when he was five. He couldn’t get up until they lifted off a short, round woman. Carter’s stomach flip-flopped even now at the thought of how she’d smelled, spicy mixed with damp wool and bad breath. He could still recall her plumpness pinning him to the freezing ice and her soft curls tickling his face. She had pretty angel earrings.
He remembered Grandmother’s hands, the veins like little vines under white skin, her long fingers gentle on his face. The rattle of pans and squeak of drawers when she was in the kitchen, like a cooking band. He remembered how she walked with long strides, shoulders just so. She read him stories and sang him songs, Carter sitting on her lap.
Poppi had a good house. It was brick, two stories, not overly large, but with enough rooms to play a long game of hide and seek with the four cousins after dinner. It smelled like pine and burning wood because Poppi lit big candles on the dining table and kept a fire going in the family room. Carter’s house didn’t have a fireplace, just a big back yard with a homemade fire pit.
When it got cold in November, he went over to play play a game of checkers with Poppi. Grandmother brought tea in a big white pot. Carter thought sipping tea from small cups was good if funny but never let on. And ginger cookies came with tea. Carter knew she was pretty, with white hair so bright it lit up a dull room, her grey eyes smiling. When she talked it was as though birds entered the room; her words were like soft cooing sounds that seemed to float above chaos and noise, then land like snowflakes or feathers on Carter’s shoulders. That was why Poppi called her “Little Dove” sometimes. Carter felt good when he repeated the nickname.
(Voortman House and Park in Snow, 1900 -Albert Baertsoen, Museum of Fine Art, Ghent)
They all missed her. She had been a music teacher, and made music seem a biological need. She would play on the old grand piano after meals and she and Poppi would sing, then get everyone else to join in. No one minded. It’s how their family did things. Carter liked being there most after home, even though it was hard when Grandmother didn’t wake up one morning.
Poppi now had a certain way of making sure she was with them each Thanksgiving and Christmas. He always left her chair empty at the table; he put a place setting there. The grown ups accepted it. Carter didn’t think about it until Lance, his fourteen year old cousin, mentioned it.
“Do you think Poppi will still keep the chair at the other end of the table empty? I mean, Grandmother has been gone for three years now. It’s weird, right? It spooks me. He needs to move on.”
Carter shook his head. “It’s what he does. I don’t know who else would sit there.”
“How about one of our moms or dads?”
“That would be weird. It’s Grandmother’s seat.”
Lance flicked him with an index finger. “You’re weird, Einstein!”
So Carter had been thinking about Poppi. He wondered how it was to turn in without Little Dove on Christmas Eve. How he felt when he started to talk to her and she wasn’t there. Carter recalled odd things about her, like her shoes. She always wore real leather high heels until she was done for the day. Then she put on loose pants and sloppy blue slippers that had tiny white flowers on them. She said they were edelweiss and once sang a song from a very old musical, “The Sound of Music.” She’d sung on stage, he knew, and wondered if she’d wanted to be a star. In college she’d met Poppi and they’d “fallen so deep they couldn’t get out” she’d said with a chuckle.
Carter anticipated his ninth birthday but this year he had a surprise for Poppi. He’d had a half-brilliant idea that the family traditions might be tweaked a little and still be great. He had thought it out a long week before making his decision. He worried Poppi might be shocked at first. Cater didn’t want to cause trouble, but he wanted to add something of his own.
All of them were seated at the table and Poppi was in the kitchen getting the turkey, carving knife and fork. Carter got up and slipped over to Grandmother’s empty chair. Then he felt under the hanging flap of the yellow tablecloth and pulled up something. He set it on the seat and adjusted it just so. He heard gasps from his mother and Aunt Rosa and Lance snickering. Poppi was coming into the dining room. Carter sat in his seat just in time.
It was a good thing his grandfather had set the turkey platter down in front of his plate or there would have been a mess. Poppi’s hands went right to his heart. Hi eyes widened and his face paled. Uncle Phil and Carter’s dad rose to catch him in case he fainted. Cater felt his throat constrict. He was light-headed. What stupid thing had he gone and done?
His mother stood up, too. “Poppi, I’m so sorry–Carter didn’t tell me what he was up to! Carter…” She gave him a hurt look.
“Shush.” Poppi said and stood still a moment. Then he carefully walked over to the chair where Grandmother had reigned over meals for decades. He stood before the grey and white stuffed husky that sat at her place. It was over three feet tall. Its blue eyes gazed out over the table and a pink tongue was glimpsed at its mouth. One paw was atop the tablecloth. Poppi touched its back, then finally patted its head. He blinked back tears, then started to laugh.
“Good heavens, boy, you invited Oscar!” Poppi smiled so all his teeth showed, a rare thing since he was a more serious type. “She’d love this; he’s right where he belongs.”
The dining room started to fill with sounds of people talking and then clapping, and Lance came over and mussed Carter’s hair. Every one shared memories of Grandmother and Oscar, the real husky Poppi and she had loved for ten years before a truck got him. Carter had decided to give her this stuffed dog the Christmas before she passed. She’d kept it on the trunk at the end of their bed or near her chair in the living room.
When she’d passed Poppi had given it back to Carter; it had been a reminder he didn’t need. Oscar slept each night with Carter but now he was nine. He could share.
Carter went to his grandfather and hugged him tight around the middle. He felt a little shy about it but he felt great that everything was going to be alright. Poppi hugged right back. Carter had missed her so, but maybe they would gather by the fire and sing after dinner again, Oscar warming by the hearth, Little Dove humming along from afar.
Happy Thanksgiving, kind readers, and thank you for reading my blog! Best regards, Cynthia