Black Kettle Excerpt: FEAST
“It is the nineties, after all.” The uselessly inaccurate non-sequitur tumbled out of her mouth. Her lips quivered as a follow-up threatened. Delicately, she patted her own head to collect the moisture forming above her brow. I could feel the corners of my mouth turning up into a grin that I had to stifle.
“Woman, have you bumped your head?” The attempt at crisis diffusion was immediately halted with the delicacy of granite on glass. I loved his mother at that moment as nearly as much as I love him every day. She was as preciously rambunctious as my own Momma and the only woman I had ever seen stand up to her.
“Will you please pass the gravy?” A third voice chimed in.
“White or brown?”
Not yet articulate in the ways of diplomacy, the youngster whose dry overcooked turkey cried out for anything to make it palatable, weighed his words with a wise precision beyond his years. Opting over, “I don’t care” in favor of “Both, please. I love them both,” he proved quite the Solomonesque natural.
Sadly, he is the neighbor’s kid and had no commonality with the dominant gene pool in which this dinner was soaked. His parents had dumped him off on us as their oddly-timed “romantic retreat” took them to the Caribbean over Thanksgiving break. Leaving the boy with us, the ubiquitous “gays next door,” was considered better than dragging him along on this, the only, chance they’d have to be alone until Easter. Besides, we adore the kid, needed a prop to finish off the dining room setting, and must have not seemed the gay-proselytizing type. While he may one day make a fantastic homo–especially with his extraordinary smile and budding inclination for show tunes–we are just as happy that he might one day marry a prom queen as to be one. He is precious and always a joy to have in our home.
Two surrogate grandmothers, glaring at each other, reached for their own lumpy concoctions and passed them in the boy’s direction. Using the same ladle to dip into the two adjacent gravy boats, he reveled in the joy that congeals in a child with unlimited gravy and no parent to urge its moderate application.
“What else would you like, Honey?” With a quick twist of her head, my Momma both toothily smiled and menacingly glared at the two aims of her attention: a sweet boy and her own rival. “I have not bumped my head and your turkey is dry.” Pushing her butter–and-sugar-strewn sweet-potato casserole in the boy’s direction, she added, “The driest I have ever tasted. Here Honey, pile some of this on top of your turkey. It’ll make it not so blasted dry.” She puckered her lips and wrinkled her nose as the word “dry” lingered over the table with more acrimony than overcooked asparagus. I remained restrained at the edge of uncontrollable laughter only by the glint of mortification in my husband’s eye.
Driven, not by anything sinister, by a sincere appreciation for the candy-coated yam confection but appearing as an unwitting accomplice in her shameful game of blue-haired one-up-man-ship, he heaped a spoonful atop the now completely covered–and invisible–white meat.
Tacitly admitting that she had lost the battle over the poultry, my mother-in-love changed tactics. “Have you started thinking about which kind of pie you want for dessert? I have pecan, pumpkin, cherry, apple, and a sweet-potato pie that will send you over the moon.”
“If you bake as well as you baste, you’d better have a boatful of gravy too.”
“Momma!” I gasped and then nudged the stunningly handsome man to my left. He kicked my foot. Long ago, we learned to finish each other’s sentences. We could now communicate telepathically. In our shared consciousness, we were chortling.
The sound of silver against china filled the tense gaps of silence. Like a court reporter, I was taking copious mental notes in preparation for recounting every rousing moment of this meal. Clearly acquiring the penchant for drama that undoubtedly proved that I was my mother’s son, I began retelling the story in my mind, imagining the circle of friends hanging on my every word. I scripted the sips of swirled red wine where I expected my friends would be laughing. Oh, this would be one for the annals.
It was on. In fact, it had been since the moment of their neatly choreographed meeting at the airport for this first intra-family Thanksgiving since their respective sons–we–had together bought our seventh-floor condo overlooking the Bay.
From opposite edges of Appalachia, they planned their south-er-bound flights to converge at the same time so they could meet face to face on neutral territory, not ceding a moment of additional face time with us to the other. In fact, the Hatfields and McCoys, Capulets and Montagues, or Gagas and Madonnas might have carried less pre-ordained animosity with them to their meetings. They had talked on the phone a few times in their efforts to coordinate the timing of their arrivals; relations spiraled toward and into enmity rather quickly and, not completely unexpectedly.
“Who, in this glorious creation of God’s bounty, puts white gravy on Thanksgiving turkey?” My Momma’s first question of her counterpart set the gelatinous, yellow-ladled stage.
Through clenched teeth, they smiled for our sakes as they greeted each other with hugs that ensured their big hair remained big and their gold-chained bosoms maintained a five-finger distance from each other.
“Bless your heart,” my Momma said to his Mother, “You smell as sweet as a Woolworth’s.”
“Oh, Honey,” his mother’s voice reached through the ceilings of two octaves. “What a lovely blouse. Did they not make any in your size?”
He grasped my hand and squeezed with such unbridled strength that I could hear my knuckles chuckle.
Each grabbing the arms of their perfect own only child, they swung us and do-si-doed to maximize the opportunity to shoot hateful eye-darts at each other. We could not help but notice the precision with which they were shot. For all of their affected daintiness, the reality of their size made each of them as easy to hit with those regrettable glances as the barns neither of them had deigned to enter since their husbands–our Daddies–passed away.
Indeed, my momma and his mother were careful to prevent collateral damages. Without us, there would be no Thanksgiving.
We may well have been brothers. Both of us were capped by perfectly straight black hair;I grudgingly demur that his hair is darker and my hair is straighter though these nuances are well-developed over years of constant and loving scrutiny. Our unretouched eyebrows sat above four eyes as dark brown as “the” River that served as a natural boundary between our worlds and all those square states west of Jefferson’s purchase. When we smile, especially at each other, we expect–and feign surprise at the confirmation by our friends of our expectations–the room and all of those adjacent to it, to burst with light. We are, in our circle of friends, both interchangeable and inseparable. We are as one as two can be.
We both chose Gainesville as our escape into anonymity when we were pushed by our families and by tradition toward Lexington and Oxford. Grappling with the responsibility of gene carriage against the repressed inclination toward other beautiful men, we each found our footing in the hazy mirror of the Florida Swamp. There we met and, intrigued by the appearance of brotherhood, settled lovingly into a mostly monogamous and gorgeously intimate faux incest. Among us, there is no I.
“Oh, I wish I was able to dress as comfortably as you look.”
“Momma!” I have long-mastered the art of counterfeit indignation.
“I had those same shoes. I sure hope that nice, young girl that I donated them to at church is enjoying them as much as I did before they went so completely out of style.”
I learned the skill from him.
One of the oldest and grandest games of Southern genteel life is called “make the life of the girl who stole your son’s love from you miserable.” I have seen it play out over the three decades of my life as my aunts and cousins spread the miserable gauntlet across family feasts from The Birth to The Resurrection and all the secular celebrations between and outside of the Christian season.
There are no rules in the game, just transgressions. She who cries first loses. In this recently concocted version, the one where the son-thieving girl is instead a dashing young man, every bit as handsome and as charming as the son, the defensive line forms to blitz against a non-existent enemy. The UK-Ole Miss rivalry never produced an Iron Bowl, anyhow.
Years of training, though, could not go spoiled by technicalities such as lack of daughter-in-law. Our mothers, then, each independently arrived at the conclusion that the other was the rival–such was the closest incarnation of the ritual: “Get out of my way.” They must have each thought to the other, “I will out-cook you, I will out-clean you, I will out-dote you, I will out-love you, I will out-shine you, and I will out-mother you.” Though the “I was woman while you were mere girl,” may not have applied.
Lying in bed, as we discussed our mutually shared respect for Anderson Cooper’s perfectly silver hair, we also dug into the dynamics of our, what we playfully dubbed, “mama drama.” We knew that I should have been the object of his mother’s scorn and he my momma’s; spoiled as we are by our maternal critters’ implicit and demonstrable–my mother copping to my DUI when I was nineteen serving as the perfect example–willingness to fall upon daggers for us, we spared ourselves and each other. Generations of Eastern and Western Appalachian ladies never passed along the tools to deal with the possibility of outwardly exhibited womanless man-love. Furthermore, only Yankees read Tennessee Williams.
We playfully calmed my Momma and his Mother with an exaggerated attempt at diffusion, commenting upon the absolute beauty of our own best girls.
“Momma, you look absolutely stunning. How is it that you are more beautiful each time I see you?” I was not lying. For a plump woman she was as perfectly put together as any sixth-generation Appalachian woman could be. She lived in her skin, proudly owning every porcelain square inch. I admired every bit of her.
“You steal my heart,” he said, and calling across the squared circle: “If I didn’t know better, I’d think that was your sister.” Momma and I blushed in the sparkle of his charm.
“Now, I want you to know right off, that you are to call me Momma,” she confided loudly to him. This guerrilla attack had been sitting on her lips since the moment she heard that we would all be meeting at the airport. Nobody saw it coming until it was too late. She reveled in the completeness of her victory in that unreturned volley.
Two lovely southern boys gasped, expecting—hoping—the voice of God would intervene. Even the good Lord would not chime in on this one.
“Let’s get those bags, Momma.” He followed her directions with loving acquiescence. Of course, he knew, he daren’t call her “Mother,” for there was only one of those.
My momma gloated the same way I do when I’ve won a debate with him: effusing with proud and haughty, stiffening and repulsive self-adulation.
On the ride home from the airport, with four full-sized bags stuffed into our undersized Volkswagen trunk, they sat next to each other in the back seat. They addressed only us in the front seat, imagining the other out of existence. Voices emanated from invisible-to-each-other bodies behind us. Neither of us had the temerity to ask about the contents of the bags, but found out in short time that each had brought, among other cooking accoutrement and ingredients, their own cast-iron skillets. In hindsight, I am most thankful that they were only used for cooking.
In all reality, as any casual observer–the same one, perhaps, that deigned us brothers– glancing in their direction might have surmised, they may well have been sisters. Of course, that casual observer would not have known that one was Methodist while the other was Baptist. Despite the same blue shadowed, tarantula eyes, oversized earrings, freckled cleavages, big-done hair, huge white Aigner satchels, the pride of widowhood, descendence from Confederate royalty, and nearly-too-sheer pastel sundresses, the fact that one was from Mississippi while the other was from Kentucky meant that they had more than their faith to separate them. Were they not rivals for their sons’ unfettered affection, they would likely have been best friends, in which their bitter words were playful sibling jibes rather than soul-appointed, heartfelt, guttural attacks.
As adept at building dramatic expectations as Rogers and Hammerstein, we had been putting off the secret that we knew would have been the absolute pinnacle of the evening. Though our condo is replete with stunning views of both the Bay and downtown, spans and sprawls along the better part of two-thousand square feet, has four bedrooms, a great room that loosely houses a dining room and living area, and a kitchen with two ovens and a Viking range that Mrs. Paula Deen herself would drool over, we hesitated until the last minute to disclose our next dramatic reveal. Placing our mothers in their separate guest quarters, in rooms adjacent to each other on the hallway across the great room from the master suite, we pointed to the jack-and-jill bathroom and muffled the truth. Each in our own way, we disclosed that the mothers would share the bathroom for the next fifty-eight hours.
Manners prevailed ferociously.
“Good night, Momma.”
“I love you, Mother.”
We both kissed both women on the cheek and both women kissed both of us, but barely acknowledged each other as they both must have thought of how they would stake their claim on the powder closet.
“We can all go grocery shopping tomorrow, so get a good night’s sleep.” We scampered across the big room toward our own master suite, focusing upon each other the positive energy that we hoped would drown out the sound of coon-cats clawing at each other should a single ball of yarn fall between them.
“That went well.”
He had already shifted his attention toward spooning and slumber.
“Yes, it did,” I instinctively responded.
The next day was spent in preparation for the Thursday meal, the cooking of which was meant to commence with sunrise.
“We don’t need to get a turkey. I brought one.” My Momma began the morning.
That took me more by surprise than a junebug in July.
“That is one explanation for the smell I was too good a Christian to mention.”
“How you can smell anything over that Emeraude is beyond me.” My momma was in rare form. If anyone had asked me, she would have just won another round; I wondered how one goes about packing a turkey.
“Well, I sure as heavens can smell gamey turkey.”
He had on more than one occasional visit to a twenty-four hour drug store (there was a time when we were exceedingly safe, regardless of time-of-day), told me that he always got nostalgic for Kentucky every time he walked in. This familiar scent suddenly gave meaning to the sweet reminiscence.
Following the four-hundred-dollar trip to the grocery store, we de-sacked our treasure and showed them to what would be their labor-of-love space for the next twenty-four hours. After we had assigned our mothers’ cooking tasks alongside the map of the space in which they were to work, they moved with a deftness that betrayed both their sizes and their mutual animosity. Skilled in the passive aggression of kitchen management that had been passed down through generations, they each knew their jobs and could not risk anything other than perfection with their execution. They set about preparing that instant, breaking only for “nature” and a few hours sleep before they plunged full-force into the work when the sun rose in the morning.
As every good Southern woman knows love is measured in calories, garnished with butter, and evidenced in the flakiness of biscuits and crusts. It was against every inclination of our lineage that we remained equally svelte.
As any good Southern mother also knows, no wife is good enough for a good Southern son. These women were in uncharted territory, having ventured from Mason and Dixon to south of the panhandle: another boundary that had not in either of our family’s spoken lore been surveyed. Nonetheless, they shared the kitchen space with amazing precision and efficiency.
They cooked and baked, simmered and steamed; they spoke not a word. The amount of coordination required to prepare the spread in utter and complete silence, save dicing knives, clanging pans, and whistling kettles, is a testament to the righteous power of Christian gentility. They each had their own time-and- love-encrusted skillets and each insisted upon their own green beans–casseroled versus bacon-fatted, stuffing–cornbread versus apple-pecan (only one of which could actually go in the bird), and gravy–white sausage versus brown giblet.
Pies from one oven, placed in succession one after the next, cooled on the dining table, displayed upon quarter-folded terrycloth towels. Good sons, when we returned–after carefully extracting ourselves from the culinary circus–from the public kitchen downtown where we helped prepare food for the “less fortunate,” set the table. Serving at the Unitarian Church that coordinated the Thanksgiving meals as well as Christmas-toy drives and Easter-egg hunts in the appropriate seasons have been annual rituals since arriving in Tampa after graduation. We are, if nothing else, socially conscious and verge on the self-righteousness that is our birthright.
In the face of our conspicuous-consumed altruism, we saved the starched-linen napkins for home. We had already self-fulfilled our Nordstrom’s registry in self-indulgent anticipation that we would never truly be registered…or married.
This year was the first year that both mothers joined us here, in our “big-city-boy apartment.” There were to be five giving thanks as we feasted, including the neighbors’ tow-headed eight-year-old son. There was enough food to feed twenty five. Of course, our cornucopian excess was tempered by guilt. We displayed embarrassment by the extravagant plentitude of the food that migrated into the common area.
We had invited our extended other-family over on Friday, to celebrate after dropping off Momma and Mother at the airport, for the “Leftover Tea” (to benefit Hillsborough House–the local AIDs charity) which we had carefully planned as the most fabulous stop of the long-weekend circuit. We were not yet ready to expose our best girls to shirtless bartenders, feather-hat-coifed drag queens, or go-go boys. This day was meant to expose our parents to each other on Thanksgiving, a big enough plate to hold the meal for the largest appetite. Besides, the neighbor kid’s parents would not be home until Friday morning.
When the turkey was finally ready, we took possession as the true preparers sought out and used every possible serving tray, specialty utensil, and charging plate available from our well-stocked, solid-maple-wood kitchen cabinets. Good Lord, it looked like Williams Sonoma projectile-vomited silver and stainless steel from our kitchen to our dining room.
The carved turkey was, among the fanfare saved for men in these instances, proudly carried out and placed in the center of the table. Implicitly claiming the marathon session in the kitchen as our own, we called out for and received congratulations. One of the oddest and most misogynistic of all holiday traditions, we felt no remorse–gay or not–for assuming the patriarchal role of swooping in at the end of the work performed by women to take the glory. The good southern women, wise to tradition and not ready to shake things up, instinctively deferred to us as we led the ten-foot-long parade with the sliced bird on a shimmering serving tray.
“And no, I have not bumped my head.” My precious full-mouthed Momma rejoined.
“Well, it is not the nineties, just in case you gentle folks from Mississippi have been deprived of calendars in this, the third millennium since the birth of the Christ baby.”
The neighbor’s kid dug his fork into the stew of meat and fixings that had taken on its own casserolishness. He reveled in every bite and, if we watched for more than a few seconds, we could see the contents sloshing around in his over-stuffed open mouth as the flavors mixed together in ever-changing combinations which seemed to excite his palate in ways that he was yet unable to describe with the words he had learned up through the first half of the third grade. “This is the best Thanksgiving ever.”
We concurred in exuberant affirmation, heaping still more food–this season of sweaters masked the approaching doom of swimsuit preparation season which commenced on January second–on our own plates and smiling into each others’ faces with more tenderness than gastronomic contentedness.
Mother glared at her rival, her rosy cheeks flush with the oscillating hiss and purr of a declawed wildcat as she switched her glance to her son. In his shining brown eyes Mother saw the boy to whom she had given birth twenty eight years earlier: the boy who bubbled with brand-new excitement every day she picked him up at school from the age of six until he was sixteen; the boy whom she had shipped off to college half way across the country on the theretofore most painful day of her life; the boy who held her chubby diamond-ringed hand as they buried her husband of thirty-five years on the most painful day of her life ever and since; the boy who held the lasso around her moon; the boy who fell in love with no woman other than her. She lived in those eyes in that forever moment. I, too, have been lost in those eyes. I loved her for the way she loved him.
The angry gaze was returned with equanimity.
Finally, my Momma (bless her heart!) rose to her feet, her stubby hands rested on the table as though she were about to read from the Lords’ word. Surveying the audience whose–all except the young diplomat who continued on his adventure in eating–jaws dropped in horrified expectation, she convened her single-sentenced sermon.
“And speaking of babies, I will never,”
Where is this coming from and where to? Not usually one to interrupt my mother when she rises during a meal to share her wisdom, I panicked. “Mother, please don’t.”
“Ever,” she continued undeterred.
I flashed back to the day I told her that I was gay. She had just lost Poppa and I knew that she would not risk losing the only other man in her life over something as trivial as not liking girls. My gamble on timing was right. She repressed her disappointment in the way only a Southern momma can: “I will pray that you find the right girl someday, Sweetheart.” I accepted that; slowly leading up to this meal, I carefully unfolded the narrative of my inclinations. Over the ensuing years, she accepted that tendencies were prelude to love, and never missed an opportunity to confirm my happiness. “I love him, Momma, just like you loved Poppa.” In terms she understood, she blessed our union: she blessed our love.
“I’ll call you Momma!” My sweet Kentucky love sensed my rising anxiety and sacrificed himself at her alter for my sake.
“Honey, let me help you get the pies,” even Mother worried.
“Have a grandchild.”
Aghast and confused, and completely taken by surprise by the turn that had just occurred, we all looked at the neighbors’ kid who continued to shovel food into his mouth which, apparently, led to a tapeworm farm. Oblivious that he had become the icon of all the horrendously misplaced anger in the room, he stretched his fingers toward adjacent boats of gravy–both just out of reach.
“It’s not her fault, Momma. It’s not her fault at all.”
“Well then who in God’s name is at fault then? It’s my fault? Is that what you’re saying? Am I to apologize?”
She had hinted at anxiousness over our inability to procreate naturally, but had not aired her distress clearly enough for me to know that it truly weighed on her heart. Perhaps it was pretense, as she grasped at hay straw in an attempt to pin down the nuanced affronts to tradition that she faced. I know that things would have been easier for all involved if the love of my life were a mother-in-training. Alas, it was not. I loved a man just as much as I loved her and I could no easier un-love one as the other. Stuck between humiliation and hurt, I instantly forgave her.
My head was so flush, I could hear gravy wallerin’ in my ears. Just as generations of southerners had learned over years of dinner-table eruptions, such inane, illogical, and irascible outbursts could only be salved by sincere embraces.
We three now-standing adults, linked by all the types of love granted by Jehovah to humanity, walked in her direction, arms outstretched.
“Honey,” all of the vitriolic histrionics faded away from the pudgy Kentucky woman. This is another genetic inclination of good southern women: reconciliation and forgiveness in victory. If only the Yankees had Southern women to teach them after the War perhaps Reconstruction would not have lasted half a century.
“Momma,” both my beau and I harmonized.
“Look at these boys, you big fat dummy,” Mother–now playfully–added.
“How dare you call me,” Momma held on to the last morsel of indignation she had left, then let it fall from her like a cornbread crumb from her chin.
“The only thing around here that you should apologize for is your lazily strung beans and your dry damn turkey.” With that truth, the last bit of anxiety melted like the last pat of butter left in the room. Four full-grown adults stood in a giant hug, grinning into a great big pot of contentedness.
“That’s two things!”
With that, the tension in the room snapped in a way that–she admitted aloud– her stringy beans should have hours earlier.
Momma attempted to dry her eyes with the stiff cloth napkin that Mother handed her but was successful at only smearing makeup into a concoction that began to resemble the child’s food plate. We all hugged, choking back tears and tryptophan.
“I love you with all my heart.”
“I love you, too, Momma.”
“I just want you to be happy.”
“Well, of course I’m happy.”
“Which beans did you like better?”
“Momma! Don’t start back up.”
“Will you please pass the gravy?”