November 28, 1991
New York City, New York
Susannah walked briskly up the brick steps leading to the entrance to Maria Silva's apartment, eyeing her watch, anxious over the delay in her schedule. She rang the intercom, and waited to be buzzed in. She felt her face flush from the hot air being circulated by the aging heating system. Maria, a retired RN, lived on the fourth floor, Susannah on the sixth in the same apartment building. Though the neighborhood was marginal, the building was well-maintained, it was close to her job and the subway, and the security was excellent. Frankly, the one-bedroom apartment Susannah shared with her daughter Emma was better than Susannah could realistically afford on her nonprofit's salary--but then she'd never planned on being a single parent. She'd never planned to raise a child in the style to which her low-income clients were better accustomed.
"Emma, your mama is here to pick you up. Hello, Susannah. You look tired, dear. Let me fix you some tea." Without waiting for the reply, Maria walked heavily over to her stove and turned the gas burner on under her kettle.
"Mama! Up!" Emma clamored to be held. But no sooner had Susannah picked her up, Emma wanted down again. Fighting off her mild buzz of exhaustion, Susannah watched as Emma toddled back to her abandoned pile of blocks. "Thanks for watching Emma for me today. I don't think she would've been too happy if I'd taken her in with me."
"She's no problem, no problem at all. Emma is delightful. Un encanto de niña. It's too bad you had to work today at all. Thanksgiving is a day for people to be with their families."
The lump in Susannah's throat that she had done her best to ignore all day started to press in. She took a deep breath, and swallowed hard, twisting her watch and resisting the comforting urge to check it again.
"I know, but Mitch didn't mean to get the flu. It's my job to make sure there's coverage in case something comes up. Something came up. I won't have to go in the rest of the weekend." She took the steaming cup from Maria's hand and settled herself awkwardly on the kitchen chair, one eye on Emma, who was still happily stacking the old-fashioned wooden blocks into a tower, then knocking them over. Susannah's own kindergarten had had blocks like those. The tea's spiced aroma was soothing, as were the cooking smells emanating from the oven. Susannah could envision the roasting turkey, cornbread dressing with chorizo, with burnt sugar as the top note. Flan maybe?
"I wish you'd reconsider and stay for dinner," Maria coaxed. "I have made so much food, my sister is bringing more, and there is only going to be ten of us to eat this year. There is plenty. My dear, you shouldn't have to be alone, this year of all years."
"Won't we be in the way? I don't want to intrude." Susannah closed her eyes, feeling tempted in spite of herself.
"You won't be, there is plenty of room," Maria insisted. "Let me take your coat. Go play with your daughter. My son will be by in a little while to help me set up, and the rest of the family will arrive around four or so."
Susannah thought about her small apartment with its tiny efficiency kitchen. She had bought frozen turkey dinners, and a pie from the bakery. It made no sense to try to cook just for her and Emma. No one else would be with them this year. Maybe, just this once, she could relent, let someone else take the reins for an afternoon. Even Emma was now looking at her, expectant.
"Okay. I'll stay. You're very kind." She thought for a moment. "I'll be right back. I bought a pumpkin pie."
November 26, 1992
Los Angeles, California
Melissa hated hospitals. She couldn't help it. In her mind, hospitals were where people went to die. After the last couple of years, if she never saw the inside of one again--well, that didn't matter. Nancy was here, so she was here. She stepped out as the elevator doors opened, and walked to the room where her friend was currently staying, waiting for her "counts to come up." What a way to spend what might be her last Thanksgiving. No, no, no. She couldn't give into those thoughts. She had to be strong and positive.
"Are you going to die?" was the first sentence out of her mouth. She stood dumbfounded at her stupidity. What was she, like five?
Nancy didn't seem too perturbed. She only smiled and beckoned Melissa forward.
"How are you?" Nancy looked pale and tired, her balding head covered with a silky kerchief, her voice was still warm. "There's a chair in the corner, bring it over and sit down near me."
"I'm fine. Work's fine, slow right now with the holidays but it'll pick up again by the middle of January." Melissa's personal life was still a mess, but at least her photography career had finally taken off last year. "Where is everyone?" Melissa looked around. Her get-well card was up on the little bulletin board along with some that were clearly homemade. Where were the roses? Where was her family?
"I'm not allowed any fresh plants or flowers until. . ."
"Your counts come up. I should have realized. Next time I'll send fruit," Melissa added.
"I can't have fresh fruit, either," Nancy countered. "But chocolate is always welcomed, especially by the nursing staff." She grinned. "Brittany has a cold, so my mother's staying home with her. Eliot and Ethan will be over later with pie and left-overs. As to your other question, the answer is no, at least not yet. I've got way too much to do. I've got books to illustrate, my children to raise. With Dr. Karlin's help, I hope to be around for many more holidays to come. I've already promised Hope and Michael that we'd go to Washington next year. I think you should come with us."
The East Coast's frozen winters held no charms for Melissa. All of the associations were negative: cold, snow, winter, death. Gary.
"Maybe," she said slowly. Maybe by next year she'd be ready.
November 25, 1993
"Hey, Nancy. What's your poison?" Michael's voice could be heard even over the din in their immaculate, perfectly decorated living room. Even their sofa, with its soft down-filled, slip-covered cushions, was perfect. Nancy nestled down into its pillowy goodness. Would it be rude to take a nap? How could they afford this place? How did Hope even find the time to decorate it, with juggling work, her kids, and Michael?
Nancy gave herself a mental shake. Stop thinking about other people's lives, and focus on your own present moment. Be free where you are. "I'm not drinking, Michael. The chemo. It just doesn't agree with me," she said. "But I'd love some tea or even just some sparkling water."
Hope was in the kitchen, probably throwing the salad together. Nancy knew the rest of the meal had been carefully choreographed weeks ahead of time, down to the type of butter and the placement of the perfectly folded napkins. Perfect. There was that word again. This was a big group to feed: Michael, Elliot, Hope, Melissa, a number of other people Nancy didn't know well, probably from Hope's workplace, four kids. Maybe there was something she could do to help.
She set the glass of fizzy water down on its ceramic coaster, and roused herself reluctantly from her nest.
"Nancy, don't even think about asking," Hope told her the moment she entered the kitchen. "Everything is done! The turkey is resting. The dressing is in the oven. The scalloped potatoes are done, the creamed spinach, the relish, the pies. . ."
Nancy waited patiently as Hope listed every dish, down to the sculpted butter (but it's so easy, you just get these little molds from Williams-Sonoma) and the hand-shaped sourdough rolls. It was exhausting even to listen to, but she supposed for Hope it was just another project.
"Maybe I could just sit down and keep you company then? It's been a long time since we've spent any time together," Nancy said quietly. "I've missed you."
"Oh, Nancy. I've missed you, too," Hope sounded sincere. "Work's just been crazy. With the new administration, we may finally get a chance to make a difference. Clinton's not everything we hoped for, the Republicans are still a pain in the ass, but I think we have a chance. But we'll talk later. You're still staying through the weekend?"
"Absolutely." The buzzer for the oven went off. "It sounds like it's time to get this show on the road. Shall I get the troops moving toward the dining room?"
"Yes, please," Hope said. "And send Michael in. He needs to carve this bird. Then maybe you could just help me put the dishes on the buffet and help serve the children's plates? We've had to add a children's table this year." She paused thoughtfully. "Gary always said he belonged at the children's table."
"Do you ever hear from Susannah?" Even though Nancy didn't really like her, she felt sorry for the woman. Single parenthood, on top of being widowed at thirty-five. She shuddered. Damn it. That wasn't going to happen to her kids, to Elliot.
Hope shook her head. "Not really. Just holiday cards. I did invite her last year and the year before. I invited her down this year. Maybe if we had gotten closer, if they had been together even a year longer. I think we just bring up painful memories for her."
"Maybe eventually the memories won't be so painful; Melissa came this year." Nancy ventured.
"Maybe. Maybe she just needs more time."
November 24, 1994
Ellyn could not for the life of her understand why she had thought hosting Thanksgiving dinner for eight adults and four children was a good idea. She had no idea why Billy had let her go through with it, either. Her house was not child-proofed and really wasn't big enough to do this sort of entertaining anyway. She hated to cook. She planned cities, not menus. But that didn't matter, Thanksgiving was here, so were the guests, and damn it, this was going to work.
Ellyn knew she was not going to be able to pull off the kind of six course soup-to-nuts affair that Hope seemed to be able to manage so effortlessly every year. She didn't need to be perfect, she didn't need to compete-- well, not on the domestic front. She was happy to cede victory to her best friend, Supermom.
Ellyn had ordered pies and rolls from an excellent bakery, and the turkey from a catering company someone at work had recommended. She was making her grandmother's recipe for stuffing. Dressing. Whatever. The recipe for creamed spinach with jalapeño peppers was one she had made a dozen times. Thank God for Laurie Colwin. Reading Home Cooking had changed her life. She knew the kids wouldn't eat it, but then they probably wouldn't eat it plain either. She certainly wouldn't have. Nancy wouldn't care if her kids missed vegetables for one meal but Ellyn knew Hope might object, so she had picked up a bag of Birdseye's frozen mixed to have on hand, just in case.
Speaking of the Domestic Goddess. . . "Are you sure there isn't anything I can help you with?" Hope said, eyeing the cutting board. Ellyn moved it quickly to the sink and started scrubbing it down. She wondered if she had bleach. Hope probably bleached everything in her kitchen, even the floor.
"Nope. Everything is under control," Ellyn said firmly. "The creamed spinach casserole is done, it just needs to be reheated. The turkey is in the oven, so is the--dressing," Ellyn settled on. "The cranberry relish is in the refrigerator, the rolls are ready to warm as soon as the turkey comes out. The pies are in their boxes on top of the refrigerator. You can whip the cream for me when we are ready for dessert, if you like."
"I'd be happy to, sweetie. Just let me know when." Hope was silent for a moment. "It's so good to see you again, Ellyn. Having everyone here together, even Melissa. I wasn't sure if she'd ever come back to Philadelphia. The last few years have been so busy, for all of us. We've all moved so far away. It's good to have a place to return to, a place that feels like home." Hope's eyes filled with tears. "I love what I'm doing in Washington, but I miss us. I miss that time, when we were so important to one another. God, I'm such a sap." She wiped her eyes.
Ellyn turned around in time to see her brush away the tears. She left the cutting board in the sink, wiped her hand on her apron, and walked back to hug her best friend.
Ellyn giggled. "If this was a television show, they'd be playing that Simon and Garfunkel song, Bookends over the scene.
Hope pulled away. "I like that song," she said indignantly.
"I know you do. That's one of the things I love best about you."
"My love for Simon and Garfunkel." Hope looked exasperated.
"Of course. And other sappy songs of the sixties and seventies. It proves to me that you aren't perfect." She squeezed Hope's hand. "Can you help me? We need to get the food to the table and the people to the food."
"Yes, I can." Hope smiled. "I still don't get why you don't like Bookends. It's a good album," she insisted. Ellyn just rolled her eyes.
November 23, 1995
Hope never would have believed that Ellyn's little townhouse in Philadelphia would turn out to be the place they all ended up migrating back to every year. But in a way it made sense. Looking back, that time in their lives was briefly, if just for moments, idyllic. Or maybe she was just kidding herself. Michael and Elliot had lost their business. Nancy and Elliot had divorced. Nancy had gotten cancer. Gary had died.
Sometimes Hope wondered if his death was the catalyst for all of the other changes. If Gary had survived the accident, would Michael have left advertising for good? Would Elliot and Nancy have moved to California to stay? Would she have taken the job in Washington, and uprooted her family? And Susannah. Maybe Hope would have eventually gotten closer to her with Gary there as an anchor. The one regret Hope had about that situation was that she hadn't made more of an effort after Gary was gone to stay in touch. After all, Emma was his daughter, yet their only contact with her and her mother the last couple of years was through the U.S. postal system. She was what, seven years old this year?
Arriving at Ellyn's to find Susannah already in the kitchen helping with the dinner had been disconcerting, to say the least. After saying a very brief (though she hoped cordial) hello to the surprise mystery guest and her daughter, Hope pulled Ellyn aside.
"Why didn't you tell me she was coming?" Hope whispered.
"God, Hope. I didn't find out until yesterday myself and I know how you don't like last minute changes in plans. I knew you'd just brood, so I decided to just wing it. I'm sorry. Aren't you happy to see Emma at least?" Ellyn said.
"Of course I am. I'm just surprised. It might be easier if I'd had time to prepare." Hope wasn't sure why she was so upset.
"I know, but that wasn't an option. I think this was a last minute change of heart on her part, so go out there and be your best self." Ellyn cajoled.
"What do you mean by that? Aren't I always my best self?" Hope demanded.
Ellyn looked surprised. "Are any of us really? Come on, I'll go with you to the living room, but then I need to get back to finish the spinach."
"What is she doing in the kitchen?" Hope stalled.
Ellyn looked embarrassed. "She's making the stuffing. It's a recipe from a friend in New York. Someone she's become close to there. "
"The dressing," Hope corrected automatically. "Why? Don't you always make your grandmother's recipe?"
Ellyn shrugged. "Sure, but I'm not married to it. Susannah wanted to make hers, so I'm letting her make it. I'm trying to make her feel at home, Hope. Some people need to feel needed. Besides, it sounded yummy. Cornbread with chorizo sausage." Ellyn nudged Hope's shoulder, encouragingly. "Why don't you go play with Emma and Janey? My mother found my old Barbie and Ken dolls in her attic and made me take them. I was going to try to sell them but then I decided the kids might enjoy them. Oh, Melissa called to say she'd be late. And, I sent Michael, Leo, and the minivan to the airport to pick up Eliot, Nancy, and the kids. Billy's in the shower. Please, watch the girls?"
Hope knew that ten-year-old Janey was more than capable of baby-sitting Emma, but she acquiesced and settled herself in a corner armchair where she could observe the children.
She sat down just in time to overhear Janey. "I'm really too old now to be playing with dolls, you know. But I'll watch you."
After dinner was eaten and consumed, nearly everyone got up from the table to head to the den. There was a basketball game on, and Lord knows, that could not be missed. Ellyn looked at her, inquiring. Hope shook her head. "Go watch. I'll clear and start the dishes. You've been cooking all day."
"I'll help, too," Susannah offered. "I can't stand professional sports."
"It will certainly go faster with two pairs of hands." Hope began stacking the plates and separating the silverware. Soon they found themselves standing on opposite sides of the table, tasks completed. "Do you want to join the others?" Hope asked, playing awkwardly with the pile of used linen napkins. It was all she could do to keep herself from refolding them. She settled for making them into a neater pile.
"Not really. However, I could use some coffee. I'll need it to stay awake for the trip back," Susannah said, looking at her watch.
"You took the train down?" Hope asked. Surely Susannah wasn't already thinking of leaving. "Michael or I could drive you to the station when you're ready to go," Hope offered.
"That would be fine. Hope, I need to tell you something." Susannah looked uncomfortable. Hope waited. "I just want to say how grateful I am that you gave me the space I needed. I never felt pressured by you. You kept reaching out to Emma and me, even when I didn't return your calls. I needed that space--not to get over Gary's death; I'm not sure you ever get over something like that--but to come to terms with it. I've always felt like an outsider here. You all have so much history with each other, and you'll always have that, no matter what happens. It was okay when I had Gary to act as a buffer, but without him, the loneliness was just overwhelming. I'm not so lonely any more."
"Are you seeing someone?" Hope broke in.
Susannah laughed. "No. Not at all. I never pictured myself as a wife or a mother. Meeting Gary, having Emma, this wasn't the life I would have chosen. Not that I have regretted it for a minute. It just wasn't the life I expected. So I don't anticipate meeting anyone else. I think Gary might have been it for me." Susannah stopped for a moment and wiped her eyes.
Hope felt her own eyes start to fill. She glanced around, spotted the box of tissues, took one for herself, and walked over to offer it to Susannah. Hope sat down at the table, and after a moment of hesitation, Susannah did, too.
"No, it was Emma," said Susannah. "People saw me living alone, caring for a small child, clearly in emotional distress, and some of them just reached out to me, Hope. Maybe people have been doing that my whole life but I just wasn't ready. I'm never going to be the person who has one hundred best friends and a thousand others. I'm too introverted, too prickly, too rigid. But now that I have a network of my own, friends of my own. . ." Her voice trailed off.
"You can deal with us from a position of strength," said Hope. That made sense to her.
"I want to be honest with you," said Susannah. "I'm not sure I'm ever going to feel completely comfortable here. But Michael was Gary's best friend; you all were like family to him. Emma should know that."
Hope felt a sense of release. She hadn't failed Gary and abandoned his daughter. She had given his widow space, a chance to grow and even perhaps to heal. Susannah was going to give her a chance to get to know Emma. "You know, Washington isn't that far from New York. Maybe we should put something on the calendar, maybe after the New Year?"
"Well, I'll need to check my DayPlanner," Susannah demurred.
"Oh, me too." Hope felt oddly relieved. They would take this slowly. "Well, let's start the coffee. You have a train to catch, and I know you'll want to spend some time with the others before you go."
"Did someone say the word coffee?" Melissa appeared in the doorway. "Susannah. That stuffing was incredible! I have to have that recipe."
"Dressing," Hope corrected, as she heard Susannah say the same thing. Hope looked over at Susannah. "It's 'stuffing' when it's cooked inside the bird."
"Dressing is cooked alongside it," Susannah added, looking back at Hope.
"Wow. It was always stuffing at my mother's house, no matter how it was cooked," Melissa said. "Anyway, stuffing or dressing, I still want the recipe."
"I want it, too," said Ellyn, coming up behind Melissa. "And it was always stuffing at my mother's, too." She smirked at Hope.
"Me, three," said Nancy. Melissa and Ellyn parted to let her squeeze in. "Maybe we could actually enter the dining room. This doorway is getting crowded. We were always stuffing people," she said, lowering her tone. She walked over to the table and sat down. Melissa and Ellyn followed after her.
"I heard that. I'm going to make the coffee now." Hope stuck out her tongue at Nancy, and left the room.
Ellyn stuck her tongue out and made a face. "God, she's a brat." They all started giggling. Ellyn turned to Susannah. "I have recipe cards. Maybe you could just write it out for us before you leave."
"I could do that." It wasn't that type of recipe, but Susannah had watched her friend make it enough times. She printed neatly across the top of the card: "Maria Silva's Cornbread Dressing."
"It's really easy," Susannah said. "Your friends will love it."