He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
-Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, referring to King George III.
One cold morning in late December 1997, a woman stood in front of a butcher shop window. Was this a better idea? she wondered. Christmas was just around the corner, and whether one celebrated or not, walking down Main Street in small town America, it was impossible to not be touched by its fervor. The street lamps were lit like candy canes, the radio stations played the Christmas essentials, nativity scenes awaited the baby Jesus, and just last night the temperatures had dropped and the first snow had fallen. At work they had already exchanged secret Santa gifts, she had sent out her Christmas cards, and she had only a few more items to check off her list. She was shopping for last minute gifts, when the hanging turkeys in the butcher’s window caught her eye.
The Thanksgiving holiday was still on her mind. For her family it had been a normal affair. For her, it had been something different. A shift had taken place, unnoticeable to others, but for her, undeniable.
Her mother had hosted the Thanksgiving dinner just a week ago. She had showed up with her children and the salad they prepared. It was a basic salad, and her daughter had chosen a homemade sweet and sour dressing for it As the eldest child, and a 47-year-old woman, she was the natural one to help her single mom put away coats and serve drinks as others arrived. So, when her brother still hadn’t shown up, and people were itching to eat, it was up to her to find out where he was and when he would arrive.
They were a modified group: her mother, her brother, her father, her father’s new wife, her mother’s brother, his wife, and their adult daughter who had Down’s syndrome. They all lived in the same small town but saved their gatherings for two times per year, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Her father, John, had been her uncle Kip’s best friend in college, and that’s how her parents had met. Her father and his wife, Lisa, were a happy couple. They had met on a dating site, moved in together, then married in a quiet but beautiful outdoor ceremony. They were easy for her to be around, and tended to participate in these events for a chance to see the grandchildren. The grandchildren, her kids, were 10 and 12 this year.
The events of that Thanksgiving began predictably: drinks, chatter about the weather and the road conditions, Christmas music playing on a sound system her brother had given her mother for her birthday earlier that year, then more discussion about the sound system. The h’ordeuvres – olives, crackers and cheese – were tasty and her kids helped themselves. They played with her mother’s dog, who she always avoided, as she had with all her mother’s dogs. Although her mother had spoken of expanding her dining room table, she had set it ornately without enough seats for everyone. Several places were set at her kitchen island, across the room.
After her brother, Jay, arrived, people immediately plated their food and found seats around the table. “Do you have a seating plan?” She asked her mother. “No, whatever you want!” She replied in a familiar high pitch exclamation. Her kids had already seated themselves at the kitchen counter, alongside her cousin who had been sitting there most of the night, sweetly laughing at her father’s jokes. No one was taking the fourth seat at the counter next to her children, and most of the adults were now filling the seats at the table. She took the seat next to her kids. It was when she sat down that something began to stir in her.
The others were enjoying their meals from what she could tell, although with the way the kitchen counter chairs were situated, their backs were to the large table, and she couldn’t see the other adults. She could hear their laughter and the stories her mother was telling – stories of the past, of her mother and father and uncle at college, then of her brother’s band, an Eagles tribute band, and their recent local performances. They laughed about a story of her father visiting her in New York City and getting lost in Central Park. She tilted her head waiting for someone to call over to her, prompting her into the story, of which she had played a central role, or so she thought, but that didn’t happen. Her food sat on her plate in front of her; none of it looked appetizing. Her daughter, who sat next to her, was trying to get her attention, her son wasn’t eating and she knew she needed to persuade him to eat his vegetables, but she was sinking.
Her body felt heavy with pain. The weight started at her heart and filled her up, as if with liquid concrete. Her mind was hovering just over the floor now. As she heard muffled conversation around her, she wondered if she’d cry. Or, what exactly would happen?
Nothing happened to her, of course; she ate a little, took a sip of her wine, a lite unsatisfying red, then turned to her children and tried to converse. They discussed the new additions to their Christmas lists, and she asked her cousin about her job. Her cousin had been working in a school kitchen for the last several years, but she didn’t answer any of her questions, and now her kids were antsy. They moved to the couch where she started a game of cards with them. The adults at the other table continued to laugh and to eat, as far as she could tell. Her cousin, who had been left at her kitchen counter seat, started crying. She could see her cousin’s head was shaking as she stared down into her plate. Soon her father came to comfort her, and the heaviness of the moment passed.
It was then that she felt the distinct maddening inside if her unlock. She felt her chest expand and her eyes open wider. A dark, jagged and heavy rock that had been entombed in her long ago, began to emerge, as clear and sharp as a newly cut crystal. This family was fractured and she had been holding a piece of the remains. She would have to do something with it.
Her planning began before the Thanksgiving leftovers had been finished. Their next gathering would be Christmas, and she would take control, leave no room for error.
They would go to the church that she had attended on and off as a kid, even though her parents were atheists. As an adult, she had been taking her kids to its Christmas Eve service for the last several years. After the service, everyone would meet at her place for dinner. She would set a full table that would fit all of her guests. There would be plenty of delicious and warm food and her daughter would help with the place settings. She wanted a large turkey with stuffing, something her mother had replaced with beets and quinoa at her Thanksgiving dinner. Also, green beans with almonds, and sweet potatoes with brown sugar. She wanted several pies, marzipan, and champagne. Dessert would be in the living room, around the Christmas tree, where the kids would open a few gifts, saving most of them for Christmas morning. The Carpenters’ Christmas collection played as she made her shopping list and hummed to herself. She remembered to write ‘candles’ on the list, and then called her friend to ask if she could borrow her carving knife. She told her brother to drop off his large silver serving platter at her house.
Then she sent out the invitations.
In years past they had had larger holiday gatherings. She had grown up living next door to her favorite cousins, her mother’s sister’s family. Christmas Eve and Christmas morning were always with her cousins, both girls, the same ages as she and her brother. To her, they were like sisters. Early Christmas morning, they would open stockings at one of their houses, then their uncle Kip would show up dressed like Santa Claus with a huge box of gifts for all of them.
As a child, her uncle had been a constant companion, a caretaker, a joke teller, a gift giver. He took the four cousins on trips, taught them things about the world, and had sleepovers at his bachelor apartment. There they learned to play guitar, ate homemade waffles with strawberry syrup and played with the kittens he rescued.
Her mother and her aunt were best friends. They had both divorced and remarried, they worked at the same company together, they read the same magazines and smoked the same brand of cigarettes: Parliaments. It was natural for their kids to spend most of their time together, sharing babysitters each summer, swapping dolls, following day time TV, eating SpaghettiOs, and putting on plays for their parents. The moms were busy and they casually tended to the kids, leaving lots of time for the childish antics that kids get up to. They also spent vacations together.
It was on one vacation that her cousin said to her, “Jim molested me.” Jim was her cousin’s stepfather. She and her cousin had been on the beach that night just outside their hotel, where it was dark enough for them to feel as if they were completely remote. They had stolen cigarettes from her mom’s purse. It was while they were trying to light them that her cousin blurted it out. She had never heard anyone use that word before. Molest. But she knew what it meant. She asked just one question, “Did it happen more than once?” Her cousin nodded, then told her to never tell anyone, and she didn’t. Their vacation ended and she didn’t speak of that night for two years.
It was her mother who came to her one day while she was lying on her bed doing her homework. “What do you know about your cousin?” she asked. In the midst of a fight, her cousin had told her own mother about Jim, and the rest of the family had then found out. Her aunt did not divorce her husband, Jim the molester; instead, the family moved away. Eventually they divorced, the daughters left the house for college, and the mother remarried, but by that time the fracture had set in.
Her mother and aunt spoke less and less, the cousins rarely got together, and their favorite uncle faded away. An occasional family reunion, wedding, or funeral would bring them together, but it was nothing like the regular family get-togethers they once had. She went on to graduate school, and once she was in her clinical training, she understood what that night had meant so long ago. She wrote long letters separately to both her cousins and shared with them what she had learned: what Jim did was a traumatic crime that they could report. Neither of her cousins responded to her letters.
Around that time, she found out that one of Jim’s kids, a boy she knew long ago when he would spend weekends or a full summer with his dad, a very blond smiling boy who had joined in with her cousins in their summer escapades, had died of HIV complications. That’s all she knew, and only because someone had read it in the paper. She called her mom, but she didn’t know much either. Digging around on the internet later, she found out he had been a drug addict, and homeless for some time. His mother had written a nice memorial message for him that made no mention of his father.
There was also a daughter. She was older and had been around less frequently when they were kids. She had always struck her as fearless and beautiful, more worldly and sophisticated than the rest of them. It turned out she had spent time in the women’s prison out near Marionette, for a violent robbery to support a drug habit. According to her brother’s memorial, she was now living with her mother and her two children.
But Jim remained, like a tyrannical King who hadn’t been overthrown but reigned on with terror in his wake. There had been no coup, no rising up of the family to accuse him of his crimes. Instead, they lived on, with split and severed souls, some more broken than others. For her mother and uncle, it lurked in their mild manners, averted eyes, and soft hands. The human connection was lost; neither her uncle nor her mother gave hugs. They did not reach out to their nieces.
On one trip home from graduate school to visit her mother, she asked, “Why was nothing done all those years ago when you found out about the abuse?” Her mother said something about how she had tried. “You tried to call the police?” Her mother’s eyes grew wide. She hadn’t thought of that, but she quickly added that she had found out where he lived.
Jim had moved back to that town and he was living with his elderly parents. He had several sisters and brothers around. All of them had children and grandchildren. It was a big, close family, her mother said. She went on to say that one day she caught sight of Jim at the local grocery store and almost followed him out to the parking lot, but decided not to.
“Where does he live?” she asked.
Her mother wrote down the address for her.
Later, after she began her own therapy practice, she decided to report him. Neither of her cousins wanted to be part of the report, and the nice police officer who took her call said he couldn’t do anything without their statements.
And so it was that the family was fragmented, with very little contact or communication. One of the cousins stopped speaking to her mom, the other stopped speaking to everyone else but her mom. As for her mother and uncle, they never spoke of it. Their twice annual gatherings were mild and removed; it was quiet laughter and light conversation. Occasionally, there was music or a quick game of charades, and the event was over, until the next.
She knew there were homes like this across the country, it’s likely they were next door to her. Distant smiles, averted eyes, families going through the motions but otherwise drained of life by the unspoken specter of trauma. Families like this are like indentured servants working without freedom, a king in a castle on a hill somewhere. What were their holidays like, she wondered. Who came to visit? Who was seated at the table? What games did they have to play?
For her, the unraveling had begun. The years of disquietude were emerging. No one in her family had been as powerful as that King, Jim the violator. Not one person had ordered him to the guillotine. Not for her cousins or for the multitudes of girls who sat at dinner tables silently losing their appetites.
The 24th of December arrived just as ordered, with a light and steady snowfall that finished the white coat of earth in the Midwest that makes all days and nights and people and events feel equal and present in its penumbra. It had taken a full week of shopping and several strenuous errands to gather all the necessities for the special evening, and she worked tirelessly into the final day. She had spent time, with explicit help from her reluctant children, decorating the house with pine scented candles, Christmas carousels, mistletoe, poinsettias and gold napkins held in gold rings at each place setting. With just enough time and her kids happily playing in the new snow, she basted the turkey once more, placed a pie in the window sill, and dressed for church.
The arrangement of carols at the Christmas Eve Mass was solemn and sentimental. She watched her brother, whose voice she followed, stand tall at the front of the church with the rest of the choir, jumping elegantly from Deck the Halls to King Wenceslaus. The small white pillar candles were passed out and the church lights dimmed, while the congregation joined in for a final refrain of Silent Night. A glowing light filled the pews as she looked from her brother to her nearby mother, her uncle and aunt, and her father and his wife, all quietly singing the familiar words. At the conclusion, she held her children’s hands, thanked the female pastor, and walked out into the cold night of Christmas Eve.
At her house, she went from room to room lighting each candle, carefully adjusting ceramic Santas and fluffing pillows with stitched smiling snowmen; the house was ready for the night to begin. Her family arrived with car doors slamming and boots stomping at the doorway. She had drinks ready, each according to their preference: her father, a bloody Mary; her uncle, a full-bodied red wine; her mother and her aunt and her father’s wife, a light white wine; and for her brother and her kids, Ginger Ale. She was sipping on a dirty martini she had made for herself and occasionally popped a green olive into her mouth as she checked on the turkey and chatted with her aunt about the Christmas Eve sermon. The kids were hopping around asking when they could open their first gift. “Could it be before dinner?!” She responded in a way that everyone could hear, “We will eat our dinner all together in the dining room and then we will move to the Christmas tree room for dessert and you will be able to open a few gifts.”
Because they were hungry, it didn’t take long for everyone to find their seats at the table. Her daughter had made pretty name tags for each place setting, arranging them so that couples were seated together and it was easy to converse with one’s neighbor. She began by placing the bread and the cheese, the sauces, the butter, and the water pitcher at the table, then the green beans with shaved almonds and the sweet potatoes with brown sugar, and it wasn’t long before dishes were passed and plates were filled. She alluded to the turkey that was coming, but to which she was making the finishing touches. It was a lemon garlic turkey with rosemary and sage seasoning, a recipe she had learned of during her time in southern France. This sparked conversation about traveling in Europe, and her mother launched into a familiar narrative of traveling in a Volkswagen bus with her father through France, surviving on cheese and baguettes and red wine. They all laughed at her mother’s anecdote of a Christmas Eve in 1974, running out of gas in an Italian olive tree grove, where they met other Americans and created a feast of olives and lemons and sardines and bread and wine. As she served them, she encouraged their stories and laughed along and included her children and her brother in more conversation about favorite Christmas stories and favorite Christmas foods.
When it seemed as if the meal had almost reached its crescendo and the anticipation of the rich turkey was unbearable, she exclaimed, “Oh I almost forgot, the champagne!” Enlisting her brother’s help, as he had formerly been a bartender, they popped two bottles of champagne that she had carefully selected the day before. Her mother exclaimed, “Oh my, Veuve Clicquot!’ She admitted a small laugh and confessed she’d splurged on the champagne this year. “How about a toast?” she asked with a young innocence. It was, in fact, the first full course meal she had put on for her family, and suddenly she wasn’t sure of her authority. Her dad took up the task and raised his flute, “To a beautiful meal, a lovely evening and a special family event.” Everyone raised their glasses and her uncle asserted, “Now where’s that turkey!”
With a smile, she turned toward the kitchen with the water pitcher in hand, announcing, “I will return with your main course.” The snow had now begun to accumulate and pushing the back kitchen door open took some effort, but she was steeled against the now frigid wind that wanted to blow right through her. The silver serving platter was perfectly rounded, an elegant shining dome fit for a king, she thought, as she carefully placed the lid and firmly wrapped her hands around the side handles.
In the dining room, all eyes were on her, as their appetite for the meat course had ripened in a way that she could almost see saliva on the corners of her uncle’s mouth. There was a soft applause as she set the large, covered tray in the center of the table.
A low vibration emerged from within her, like the growl of a mother wolf preparing for attack. She knew if she spoke human words at that moment, only an incoherent but primal sound would come out. Something dangerous. So instead, without words, she waited one brief second to make sure all eyes were on the platter. Then she lifted its heavy lid.
The first gasp was her mother’s, though it was more like a screech, quickly followed by her uncle’s shout of “No!” Several people pushed their chairs from the table and stood, slowly backing away. Her children looked to her – she placed a hand on their shoulders, bent to their ears and whispered, “Trust me, you’re OK. Run to the Christmas tree room now and I’ll be there soon to open a few presents.”
Her father’s wife and her aunt also left the room, but the rest stayed circling the table. They looked from the platter to her. “What have you done now!?” Her mother seethed with what looked like cool tears sliding down her red face. Her father was silent as he moved closer to her; her brother was steady. He was the only one who had remained seated, while her uncle paced, putting his hands to his head. “This can’t be,” he repeated.
But now it was her turn to sit down, and she did so calmly. She took a large helping of green beans and sweet potatoes and a chunk of bread from the basket, which she slowly began to butter. After she had taken a few satisfying bites, mixing the beans and sweet potatoes on her fork in exactly the right amounts, she looked up at the others staring down at her. She took her napkin off her lap, and gently wiped her mouth. She then reached for her thin glass of champagne and lifted it to the head at the center of the table. He still had a look of shock on his face as he stared open eyed to the ceiling.
“To the death of a King!” She toasted and took a sweet sugary sip.