You know how this goes. Relatives you haven’t seen in years – some you can’t remember ever having seen – gathering around the table to eat and share what they’re thankful for … in this case, not having seen each other for the past year.
Your cousins are all there, little Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Older now, they wince when your crazy Uncle Russia enters the room who, you’ve always suspected, must have done something naughty to them when they were children. But they’ve adjusted well, having forcefully asserted their independence before the fragile candle of their youth had been snuffed out entirely.
The younger ones, the Caucasus triplets, stop clawing at one another long enough to suckle from a vodka bottle your uncle passes between them. The terrible twos … or something.
Then there’s the older generation. Your crazy uncle has a younger sister, Ukraine, who’s hosting this happy reunion. The former occupant of her house ran off in the middle of the night, leaving portraits of himself hanging on the walls. For some unknown reason, your aunt hasn’t bothered yet to take these down. She also hasn’t bothered to replace the maid who, you suspect, is still pilfering the porcelain dish ware. Wait … did I say porcelain? That’s long gone. It’s the kitchen utensils that you now see sticking out of her bag.
There are even whispers – did someone invite the family therapist? – that your aunt isn’t quite right in the head. This makes sense to you. Not just because of the whole maid issue, but because of the glares she is now shooting at your uncle from across the table. That wouldn’t be weird in itself, your uncle is kind of an asshole, except you’re pretty sure you saw them canoodling in the closet earlier when you were coming out of the bathroom after having thrown up the kholodets. It’s always been a close family.
You don’t have time to deliberate this matter further because Belarus – some guy your uncle brought, his shoeshiner apparently – has gotten into an argument with your aunt over who can make the best mashed potatoes. He won’t tolerate dissent, and flings the plate across the table at your aunt. Mashed potato all over her face, she sits there silently before slowly beginning to chew. Yes, she agrees, damn fine potatoes. Your uncle watches the whole thing, a grin on his face the size of Jeremy Irons’ in The Lion King. At this table he’s the one whose inflicted all the scars – including those he bears.
Sitting below him on the floor, the Stans eat the scraps your uncle tosses down. There’s no room for them at the table, even with Central Europe not in attendance this year. They’re spending the holiday with the other side of the family.
Your cousins are already making excuses on why they need to leave before dessert.
“You better not make me come over there!” Your uncle snarls.
“We’ll call our father!” They cry, in unison.
“Your father will do what I tell him.”
This silences them. They tie on their bibs, the ones you typically wear when eating lobster except there is no lobster to be had. Only humble pie.
Suddenly your uncle looks down the table at you. He’s got that glint in his eye, revealing that despite his old age and crutches, he’s still the same mad man who stared you down at the playground that one time.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing here anyway?”
Damn. What the hell was I doing here?
Your cousins look pleadingly at you, Aunt Ukraine eyes you from her potato slathered face. It seems that even the Caucasus triplets are watching you now, having temporarily stopped their suckling.
You slowly stand from the table. This, you realize, isn’t your family at all. You just happened to have grown up on the same street as them.
And you can’t think of anything you’re more thankful for than that.