The Admiral told everybody to take what he called their pier assignments and Charles Wesley Bartlett and eleven other members of the family sat down at their places at the dining room table. Charles’ grandfather remained standing and intoned a prayer in a deeper than usual voice, as if to say, “Listen up, God, this is the Admiral speaking.”
Charles’ Grandmother was strapped in her special padded chair next to her husband of nearly 60-years. She had a proper place setting of a china plate and polished silver utensils even though the people at the nursing home had fed her that morning through a tube in her stomach and she no longer appeared to recognize her hands as belonging to her.
Charles was expected to hug and kiss his grandmother during these annual visits, but he had avoided this duty once he became a teenager. His parents pretended not to notice.
The Admiral ended his prayer, as he did all his prayers, with “God bless America.” Everyone said amen. No one dare cross the Admiral, except for Charles’ Uncle Alan.
"You know,” Alan said, “I don’t even know why we’re having turkey. It’s not like we don’t have other things to eat.”
That was true. The table could hardly contain the bowls and platters of food, the string beans, the sweet potato casserole, the black-eyed peas, the cornbread, the rolls, the cranberry, and all the rest.
“We have turkey,” the Admiral snapped, “because that’s what Americans eat at Thanksgiving.”
“I see,” Alan said. “Well, we wouldn’t want to be unpatriotic.”
Uncle Alan was a folksinger which, according to the Admiral, was another way of saying he was unemployed. He lived in an apartment off of Guadelupe in Austin, but he spent 200 days a year living in his 1999 Astro van crisscrossing the country from gig to gig.
The turkeys in question looked like a science experiment. The Admiral had forgotten to buy the several gallons of peanut oil necessary for the turkey fryers. When he had gone out late the night before, the three local grocery stores had run out. But the Admiral had committed to his plan of deep-frying two fifteen-pound birds, and what the Admiral set out to do, he did.
When it came to cooking, the Admiral knew what he wanted, but he didn’t know how to get there. That’s where Charles’ mom came in: she had done the thanksgiving cooking since Grandmother had forgotten how to turn on the stove. The one thing the Admiral had contributed to the meal each year was deep-frying the turkeys. This year was to be no exception.
Lacking oil, the Admiral fired up the fryers at 1100 hours, filled them with water, and cooked the turkeys for 90-minutes at a rigorous boil. The birds were steaming hot, but boiled turkey made for an awful smell, and an even more awful sight. The wrecked birds had come apart in the fryer, of course, and had to be scooped out with a slotted spoon and the parts arranged precariously on the platters. The flesh was pimply and white. The meat fell off the bone.
Uncle Alan clanked the carving knife and fork together with a flourish. “Okay, citizens,” he said, “who wants some boiled bird?”
Grandmother had no short-term memory. She lived in a nursing home in Austin not far from her only son and was on what the Admiral called shore leave for the day so she could spend time in the house that she had helped him build by hand when he retired from the Navy Shipyard at Norfolk. She had become hunched and docile over the years, rocking contentedly back and forth; they hoped she was contented. They hoped she didn’t feel the same loss and sorrow they felt.
She no longer made sense on the rare occasions when she’d speak. But she had an uncanny way of reciting things she had heard from all her years of faithful church attendance. Even now, long after she had forgotten who everyone was, she could say the Lord’s Prayer, parts of the Apostle’s Creed, and the whole King James Version of the 23rd Psalm. She sometimes mumbled other theological words one would hear in church, “incarnation,” for example, and “potluck.” She had become like a ghost. She was there, but she wasn’t there.
There was enough food to feed the whole Atlantic fleet. Charles’ mom never cooked like this at home back in Greenville. There were homemade rolls and Sally Lunn bread, watermelon rind pickles, okra gumbo, oyster stuffing, gravy, Virginia ham biscuits. The big meal began decades ago when Grandmother had insisted that the Admiral invite every lonely sailor home from the shipyard for her cooking. Charles had heard about Grandmother’s Thanksgivings for as long as he could remember. They ate in shifts, some years as many as a hundred men who had no home except for the United States Navy or who didn’t have the leave to make the trek all the way back to Montana, Chicago, or Lake Ponchartrain. Thanksgiving was a feast then, and as long as the Admiral was in charge, it would remain that way.
The southerly wall of the great-room in which they sat was lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. When there was a lull in the eating, everyone gazed out onto the miles of vast hill country: cedar, buffalo grass, and Texas sky. It was so warm they had opened the doublewide glass doors that led out onto the back porch. Sparrows flitted onto the birdfeeder that sat on a pole set into the ground just outside the spotless windows.
“Looky there,” the Admiral said in an almost child-like way.
A family of five deer had emerged from the not-so-distant tree line. The buck with an eight-point rack approached the dining room tentatively.
“They do this all the time,” the Admiral said. “They’re hardly afraid of a thing.”
Charles’ grandmother perked up, leaned slightly forward, cleared her throat and said, “Let us now receive our tithes and our offerings.” Her dentures clicked when she spoke. “From those to whom much is given,” she said, “much is required.” She scanned the room and looked as astonished as everyone else, then tucked her chin to her chest and gently resumed rocking.
Charles’ mom fought back tears and excused herself to the bathroom.
By now the buck had walked to the bird feeder not ten feet from the windows. He bowed his head and lightly tapped the pole with his rack. Bird feed rained down. The does nibbled at the grass and the seed. It was a relief to see such peaceful animals up close. It made Charles think of the lion lying down with the lamb.
“I tell you,” the Admiral said quietly, “the things are practically tame. Nothing fazes them.”
“Let’s feed them some turkey,” Uncle Alan said. “That’ll faze them.”
The Admiral glared at Alan.
“Look at the time,” Alan said, looking at his bare wrist. “I’ll pull the truck around to the porch so we can go get the tree.”
Alan got the keys from the nail by the refrigerator, and whistled through the garage to the driveway.
The protocol, and the Admiral always had a protocol, was the same every year. When dinner was over, some would climb into the flat bed of his neglected red Dodge pickup that he hardly ever used and drive out into the back meadow to cut down a Christmas tree; others would stay behind and clean up the table. When lunch was out of the way and the tree was gotten, the Admiral put on the Navy Band’s Christmas CD, and everyone would decorate the tree.
Charles scraped the last bit of turkey off his plate into his napkin and squeezed it into a tight, greasy wad. He heard Alan from the driveway around the side of the house trying to crank the reluctant truck engine.
“I didn’t tell that boy that the clutch has gotten real tricky,” the Admiral said. “But I guess he’s smart enough to figure that out.” He shook his head sternly. “I guess.”
The moment the Admiral stood up, the truck roared to life. The deer stood stock still in their circle around the bird feeder and cocked their heads. The engine sputtered, backfired, then revved up again as Alan pounded the gas. Tires screeched and they could hear Alan screaming out “Whoa, Nelly” in the split second before a blur of red shot into the back meadow from the driveway. Alan gripped the wheel with both hands and was bouncing along in a supersonic arc towards the porch. The deer scattered except for the stag that had stalled too long. There was nowhere for him to run except onto the porch. Alan was howling. The truck honed in on the house like a torpedo, plowing ahead over rough ground and snapping the bird feeder in two. Seed stung the windows. The stag was doing an jittery tap dance on the wooden porch. He was frantically looking for a way to escape. Alan jerked the wheel and slammed on the brakes grinding to a stop at the bottom of the porch stairs.
Sand and dust rose up in a plume. There was a nano-second of silence. Charles thought he could hear Uncle Alan sigh. The engine rattled back to life and gasped, then violently backfired twice Pop! Pop! before wheezing out.
The stag couldn’t stand it. He twisted in a frenzied, tight circle, looked left and right and left again, and then, to everyone’s complete surprise, he ran right into the dining room through the open porch doors.
The deer slipped on the slick, hardwood floor. As he got his feet, his legs were churning cartoonishly, but he wasn’t able to get traction on the floor. When he finally did, he lurched forward, shattered a lamp, and careened off the piano. Charles instinctively threw his turkey wad at the animal, and the Admiral stood between his wife and the deer jabbing the air with his dinner fork.
Charles’ two grown sisters who had been silent the whole morning bolted out of their chairs and knocked over gravy and a full pitcher of unsweet iced tea. Oyster stuffing became airborne. They were screaming madly like the end of the world was close enough to reach out and touch.
The deer bounded towards the bedrooms about the time Charles’ mom emerged from behind the bathroom door. Her eyes went wide one second, and the next they narrowed to slits, she leaned back like a pitcher in a wind up, and she did something Charles couldn’t fathom: she roared. This would have stopped the pitiful animal in its tracks, but he was on tile now and had even less traction than he had on the wood floor. He slid onto the floor and slammed into the wall of bookshelves. The house shuttered. Charles’ mom took another long breath and roared again. Books rained down like hams. In that moment Charles could tell that his mild-mannered mother was, after all, an Admiral’s daughter.
The deer staggered up, shot back into the great room, jumped over the couch, knocked over the Norfolk Pine, and flew out the doors onto the porch, over the rail, and into the meadow. On solid ground he regained his grace and strength and disappeared into the cedars.
Uncle Alan trudged up the steps of the porch. He warily leaned into the doorway and looked around at the wreckage.
"While ya’ll clean up,” Alan said slowly, “I’ll be glad to go get the Christmas tree.” He had a wry smile on his face. “Would anybody like to come with me?”
Charles immediately stood up and thanked the Admiral for a nice dinner, stepped over a broken chair into the warm afternoon, got into the cab of the truck, and counted the seconds for Uncle Alan to take him away.
* * *
The cedar was trimmed to stand exactly 9 feet tall. A place had been cleared for it near the piano. A live tree in the great-room fit decidedly better than a crazed deer or, for that matter, a boiled turkey.
Charles’ dad had helped the Admiral in from the garage with the footlocker that held the ornaments. Charles’ grown sisters and their husbands had begun putting them on: 12 gold balls, 12 green, 12 silver, 12 red. Charles saw that his grandmother had awakened from a nap and was watching the activity. Lights from the tree shone in her eyes and it almost looked like she wore a knowing smile.
Charles’ mom gently set the cardboard box containing the crèche on her mother’s lap. It was her way of trying to include her. Grandmother looked at her own helpless hands, and then into her daughter’s unfamiliar face. After a moment, she locked a blank gaze back on the tree.
Carol Bartlett took out the manger-scene figures one by one and set them on the upright piano. Baby Jesus lay rigidly in the ceramic hay.
Charles stood on the other side of the Christmas tree, watching his mother trying to engage her mother. If love were a picture, this would be it. He absently hung the chrismons on the tree; he carefully hung the manger, a shepherd’s crook, a scallop shell, an angel. Mainly he watched his grandmother through the branches of pungent cedar. And he wished he could do what his mother was doing.
Charles had only begun to admit this to himself, but his grandmother had always frightened him. He knew he should feel differently, and he wanted to, but he didn’t.
Charles didn’t remember the intelligent, vital woman everyone said she once was. His older sisters who had been married off for years now, had fond memories of their grandmother, but he had none. She had never baked cookies for him or read him a story or tucked him into bed. As far as he knew, she had never called him by name. About the time he started remembering things, she began forgetting. And for reasons he did not understand, he always tried to keep his distance, to keep somebody or something—like a cedar tree—between him and her.
By now, Uncle Alan had gotten into the Admiral’s special eggnog and was purposefully singing off key with the Navy Band. He made no bones about despising the Navy Band. Charles’ two brothers-in-law were flaked out on the couch. Charles always felt sorry for them; who would want to volunteer to spend their whole lives with either of his sisters?
"The crèche is missing a sheep,” the Admiral said to Charles’ mom. He stood at the piano looking at the manger scene. That was the kind of detail the Admiral would never miss: four sheep, one cow, one manger, one Jesus, three kings, five shepherds, an angel, a star, Mary, and Joseph. Everybody present and accounted for, sir. A single sheep, however, had gone AWOL.
Carol Bartlett unfolded and refolded the tissue from the open box that sat on Grandmother’s lap. No sign of the lost sheep. She took the box under her arm and said to her mother, “The manger is out, the tree is up, and your good Thanksgiving meal is over.” She kissed her mom on the cheek. “Now, Momma, we’re ready for Christmas.”
Grandmother’s head was cocked down in a disinterested way, her hands were balled up in her lap, and she was rocking again. Behind where she was sitting, a Texas sunset had set fire to the sky, and early stars shone like cat eyes.
Nightfall would mean that the big view outside would disappear, and the big house inside would begin to feel small. One sister and her husband opted for a movie in Round Rock, and were giggling in the bedroom supposedly “getting their coats.” It was only 78-degrees outside. The other sister retired to the other guestroom with her husband and their new baby. Uncle Alan was sitting cross-legged on the porch now with his guitar. The Admiral and Charles’ parents, who were in the study looking over some papers, would take grandmother back to the nursing home soon.
The great room was empty except for Charles and his grandmother. She was across the room, eyes closed now, a little fidgety, drawn up into a ball, and he was still standing across the room behind the cedar. Somebody had dismissed the Navy Band, thank goodness. Alan’s easy voice floated in from the porch mingling with the smell of cedar and the still-warm evening air. The last colors of sunset were melting into a clear, starry night.
Charles decided he would go to the movie with his sister and brother-in-law. But he decided he’d go to his grandmother first and give her a hug, or pat her on the head, or touch her somehow, and tell her goodnight. How difficult could that be? What harm could that do—to her or to himself?
He walked over, stood by her, and touched her boney shoulder. He had not noticed how thin she was, swallowed in that awkward chair of hers. She didn’t acknowledge his presence. He knelt down beside her, much like one of the magi in the manger scene. She smelled of her favorite Noxzema face cream.
Hugging her was difficult for lots of reasons, not the least of which was her chair that got in the way. But he tried. With all of his might Charles tried. He didn’t have a clue what to say. Maybe he didn’t need to say anything. There was so much he wanted to say, to tell her, the her she once was, the her he never knew. He thought about saying what his church said at the greeting, “The peace of Christ be with you.” It was a little formal, perhaps, and it didn’t convey anything of what he thought he felt, anything of what he wanted to say, but she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. He had said the words enough in church to know that he could actually get them out. If he tried to say something else, he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to finish.
So he did. He said, “The Peace of Christ be with you, Grandmother.”
When he said it, she lifted her head. A flash of warmth crossed her face, and in the instant before it was gone she spoke. “And also with you,” she whispered. “And also with you.” These were among her deeply remembered words, emerging from beyond the place of mere language, floating along the pathways of things last forgotten.
She drew her chin into her chest again and gazed in the direction of her knotted hands. Charles awkwardly, carefully took her brittle hands in his and massaged them lightly. She opened her fist and in her right palm sat the missing ceramic sheep. It had a chip off one of its black ears. Its white body had yellowed slightly over the many years. A single lamb.
Jesus was the great shepherd of the flock, the keeper of many, but Grandmother Simons was the shepherd of one. She clung to it. Charles weighed the bones of her hands in the cupped palms of his. He wanted to kiss her fingers, to feel them on his cheek, but he didn’t dare such extravagance. He did pause, however, holding her hands for a long moment like rare china. He gave them a soft squeeze before returning them gently to the folds of her lap.
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...