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Authors: Jennifer Vanderbes

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BOOK: Strangers at the Feast
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“As you get older, Ellie, there are few things you want in life but for your children to be safe and healthy,” her mother said the morning she passed away.

Eleanor would later understand what she meant.

As she sat on the sofa at night with her
Reader’s Digest,
waiting for her husband to come home, she would take stock. What did she have? What had she accomplished? She would look around at the photographs from family trips; Douglas’s high school lacrosse trophies; Ginny’s first published academic article; the crayoned artwork of Douglas’s twins; and she would think—My children are grown and healthy adults. I have beautiful grandchildren. She would thank the Lord that everyone was at peace, everything was in order.

She could happily buy the groceries and weed the garden because everyone she cared about was well.

But if someone were to try to threaten that? Was there a length to which a mother wouldn’t go?

Part I

GINNY

Ginny flicked on the kitchen light. The stuffed brown grocery bags sat exactly where she’d left them the night before when her department chair called. Distracted by another one of Priya’s tantrums, she’d forgotten about them entirely.

It was still dark out, and as Ginny leaned close to the window to glance outside she felt a draft; mental note: get some kind of insulation, or putty, or a whole new window. She made lots of mental notes lately, though she suspected that
actual
notes would be better, since after two months her bathroom faucet still went drip, drip, drip and she had nothing resembling a doorbell or a dead bolt. She’d spent so many years in Manhattan passing her super in the hallway—at which point her mental Post-its magically came to life—she was having a hard time remembering that this suburban house was hers, and if anything needed fixing, she’d be the one wielding the wrench.

Switching on the space heater at her feet, she let out a long yawn. She was never up this early. Early risers bragged about the start of the day, getting a jump on things. What was the big deal? It was just like late at night, her favorite time. Only she hadn’t had any coffee yet and her face—the windows over the sink unkindly moonlighted as mirrors—was shockingly puffy.

She turned the radio on, softly—an NPR broadcast explaining the history of Thanksgiving.
And the grateful Plymouth Pilgrims…
No, no, no. Off! They always prettied up the story.

Ginny appreciated that Thanksgiving still got people elbowing
onto airplanes and trains, piling into minivans and driving hundreds of miles to see family; it was one of the few times she saw her brother and his kids. But she could never get over the wild historical inaccuracy of the thing.

Most people knew only the Pilgrim and Indian prologue: how the newly landed Plymouth colonists couldn’t make heads or tails of the local flora, how they had the fishing skills of desert nomads, how they couldn’t track an animal to save their own skin. Only half survived the first New World winter. Enter Squanto of the Wampanoag tribe. He taught the Puritans to catch eel and grow corn, introduced them to squash. With his help, 1621 brought a massive harvest, so Plymouth’s governor invited Squanto’s entire tribe for a three-day feast of wild duck, boiled pumpkin, fish, berries, lobster, and plums.

But this festival of thanks wasn’t repeated for another fifty-five years, by which time the Wampanoag were gone. The pudgy Pilgrims were now thanking God Almighty for their victory over the heathen natives.

Ginny had seen the original 1676 First Thanksgiving Proclamation, the crisp yellowed vellum on which a beautiful calligraphic script complained that the Almighty Lord had “brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness.” Still, he
was
almighty, so the Pilgrims didn’t overdo the whining. “It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed.”

Pass the cranberry sauce! Another slice of sweet-potato pie in honor of the slaughtered Pequots! The day was a celebration of
genocide,
which was why modern descendants of the few Native American survivors, Ginny occasionally noted over dinner, did not gather on the last Thursday of November to happily devour turkey.

But she’d promised herself this year not to say
genocide,
or get into any lectures on Colonial history. Actually, she’d promised her
brother. He called it a buzzkill. And the truth was—was this a sign of age? A dawning conservatism?—the actual
buzz
of being a buzzkill was wearing off. She had mortgage payments. She had a daughter.

Ginny tiptoed to the bottom of the stairs and listened to hear if Priya was moving around yet. Nothing.

And it wasn’t as though Ginny couldn’t rally feelings of patriotism. She knew enough of world history to realize that if she’d lived in any other era, in another culture or country, there was a chance that at thirteen she’d have been left to die on a mountaintop, an Aztec sacrifice to fend off drought. Or she might have been stoned for promiscuity; she had gotten around. It was lose-lose with primitive cultures—they got you for being a virgin
or
for being a whore. At best, an unmarried thirty-four-year-old woman who couldn’t cook a proper stew would be sent to live on the community fringes with the widows. Yes, her country had committed sins, but in the context of human civilization, Ginny cut it some slack.

Anyway, it was too early to be thinking like this. Today was going to be an unprecedented event in the Olson family!

She got the French press started: grinds, water, stir, wait. She’d learned this from her father. Making coffee was the only time he set foot in the kitchen, because he was particular about its strength. So at age fourteen Ginny started drinking coffee, standing beside him early in the morning while he carefully rolled up the sleeve of his gray suit, his spoon clinking the glass exactly ten times. Percolators are for peasants, he would say with a wink. That was his saying when he didn’t like something. Salad, paper napkins, Christmas cards—all for peasants.

And then she grew up and spent her college years studying the habits of, well, peasants. It struck her now that that might have been her sad attempt to get closer to her father:
Dad talks about peasants. Sign me up for peasant studies! Call it anthropology!
Of course, they rarely talked about her work. They rarely talked. When she called,
her mother always picked up, practically before the phone rang, like some Wild West pistol draw.
Oh, your father’s off doing something…
Ginny sometimes imagined her father tied to a chair, gagged, desperately inching closer to the telephone while her mother declared he was fine, fine, fine.

Her fantasy, of course, was that he wanted to talk but that circumstances prevented him from doing so. Which was not true. Her father was simply quiet, aloof. He liked his telescope, his newspaper, his morning runs. He barely read her dissertation when it was published. But there were advantages to that. She knew—thank God—he’d never lay eyes on her most recent article, “The Emasculation of the American Warrior,” in the
Journal of American Cultural Studies
. Not pleasant reading for a Vietnam vet.

Ginny poured her coffee and looked at the counter. In between a bag of apples—were you supposed to refrigerate apples?—and a red mesh sack of potatoes lay the frayed notebook pages on which she had scribbled notes for her speech.

The night before, Mark Stevens, the department chair, had called from the airport to invite—or actually persuade—her to give the keynote address at a feminist geography conference being held in March. The Twenty-first Century: Putting Women in their Place. The only thing Ginny hated more than conferences billed as feminist were conferences with clever titles. But Mark was throwing her a bone. The stipend was good, and after her emergency sabbatical that fall, she needed to pad her résumé for her tenure review.

Her department was on her side, but there were still university reviewers to contend with. Her work had become dangerously interdisciplinary; integrating paleontology and anthropology into American studies was seen as stepping on other people’s toes. (Academics, Ginny knew, had colossal toes.) She’d published a book of poetry on Colonial themes, which had garnered her attention that could work against tenure. Also, some people did not appreciate the irony
of their popular lecture course—The History of the American Family—being taught by a woman who showed up at every university function with a different date, one of them, regrettably, a graduate student.

Perhaps because she was a bit of a loner, social networks had always fascinated her. After majoring in anthropology, she spent two years in Sudan and Nigeria studying the family structures and social mores of the Dinka and Yoruba. She lived in a grass hut and sipped Nescafé from a tin cup every morning. She strung beads and wove grass baskets and herded cattle, and at night, by the soft glow of an oil lamp, scribbled data and observations in her notebook. It was a mind-opening and spiritually stimulating experience that ended unfortunately with an affair with Dr. Blaise Langley, her married field advisor, whose ideas about his own family structure and mores were, in the end, a bit too open-minded for Ginny’s taste.

Back home, American cultural geography won her over for graduate school. She was done with ringworm and mosquito nets and advisors who thought they were Indiana Jones. For the first ten years, she was consumed with research and teaching. Migration maps were thumbtacked to her apartment walls; encyclopedic census reports barricaded her bed. She skipped out of parties early and smuggled thermoses of coffee into the special collections division, reading through the night about life on the frontier.

The early settlers amazed her—they had pluck, they led lives of sweaty drama. Theirs was a world of corsets and whipping posts and indentured servitude. People worked the land and died in ungainly ways. Modern life, in comparison, seemed a cinch.

As the smallest political unit of society, the family struck Ginny as the perfect microcosm for examining social change. Alimony, social security, domestic architecture, medicine, child care, war—they were all products, to some degree, of the evolving family. Ginny had once spent countless nights fervently debating other PhD candidates
as to whether industrialization caused or reflected the shift from extended to nuclear family.

Now, at thirty-four, she didn’t care so much. Like those college dorm-room debates about the meaning of life, the conversations were like bubble gum or gobstoppers—junk you eventually lost the taste for, or feared you’d choke on.

Her first years teaching—when she watched her students shuffle into class in their Puma sneakers and Diesel jeans, slinging overstuffed North Face backpacks onto their desks—she went off on passionate tangents about the Dinka and the Yoruba, pleading against capitalism and urban individualism (God, she hoped they didn’t know she lived alone in a high-rise), and their eyes would collectively roll. They liked their lives. They liked their gizmos. And now, though she hid her cell phone and iPod when she approached the room where she gave her Primitive Utopias lecture, as soon as she was clear of campus, Ginny pawed through her purse and rescued her electronic friends and then, like her students, lost herself in a private sea of sound waves.

At least she listened to
world
music.

But Ginny had recently curtailed her tirades against consumer culture, her outrage over the societal ramifications of industrialism. She worried it sounded like the misery of a single woman with too much time on her hands. Also, her classes were beginning to bore her. Semester after semester her lectures were the same—the curse of history, you had nothing new to talk about. Once in a while, just to spice things up, to see some faint shock on her students’ faces, she’d dim the lights and throw on a slide show of Colonial birth-control methods.

Here we have a very leathery-looking pig-intestine condom. Notice the ties on the end to fasten it. These were extremely expensive, thus reused dozens of times.

Next slide…

Mainly, she sat in her small campus office, waiting for students who rarely showed, amusing herself by inventing fake historical movements and academic jargon.

I am diarrhetically opposed to the diabetic polemic on the Combustible revolution.
Revisionist hysteriography!

Clearly, a massive paradigmatic shit has occurred here.

What do you call an obvious case of tuberculosis? Conspicuous consumption!

Or she put her feet up on her desk and threw darts at the bull’s-eye she’d covered with a photograph of John Wilkes Booth.

Squirrels scurrying up a tree outside caught her attention. The rising sun cast a soft light on the square patch of grass outside her house. She couldn’t properly call it a lawn, didn’t want it to be a lawn. She had never seen the point of landscaping and lawn mowers. All that work to have a patch of nature that looked entirely unnatural? Ginny would have preferred a bit of jungle out front, a touch of rain forest, a thick vine her guests could swing in on.

Guests! She looked at her watch and surveyed the room to see what she could do quietly. Scrub the potatoes, peel the apples? Open the cans of pumpkin?

She opened the eight cans, orange goop plunking into a large glass bowl, then tossed them into the trash. She was religious about recycling newspapers, printer paper, cereal boxes—anything to do with saving trees—but she loathed washing dishes, and so the empty cans and jars of marinara sauce went zip!, straight to the garbage.

Ginny rinsed her hands and assembled her cookbooks. The coffee was finally doing its work, her synapses firing at normal speed. She couldn’t believe she was doing this—hosting a family event.

How her mother had protested when Ginny called to explain that she wanted everyone to come to her new house in Mamaroneck for Thanksgiving.

“Oh, dear. I’ll make up an itinerary for you: when to start the
stuffing, the turkey, because nothing’s worse than a bunch of guests angrily waiting to be fed. They will practically—”

BOOK: Strangers at the Feast
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