We were all gathered around the table, my Aunt Annie, Uncle Stu, Grandpa Frank, Grandma Gladys, Great Grandpa Filbert, my mom and dad, or Susan and Jack as they insisted I call them now, my creepy cousin Jordan who still lived in Aunt Annie’s basement, and me. I dreaded this dinner more than my yearly gynecological exam.
Aunt Annie lived for Thanksgiving. Her antique china adorned the table. Every piece of silver was polished, every stem of glassware spotless. Apples, pumpkins, and flowers lay in a zigzag pattern down the middle. The decorating she had perfected, it was her cooking that needed some serious work. As a college student, I ate more than my share of ramen, pizza, and frozen dinners. My standards were pretty low, but I wasn’t looking forward to the food.
My Uncle Stu sat at the head of the table, my Great Grandpa Filbert, who we called Papa, always sat at the other end. My pathetic excuse for a cousin, Jordan, sat opposite me next to Papa.
Papa was struggling to pull out his chair. Jordan plopped down and ignored him, hiding behind the long black hair that fell in his face. I tapped Papa on the shoulder. He stepped back so I could help him.
Uncle Stu filled wine glasses. He left an open bottle on the table in front of Grandma. I inched my empty glass her way. She looked confused for a second then added a few ounces to my glass with a wink.
Food started circulating the table. I served Papa a glob of everything that came by. He pushed the gelatinous lime green jello salad to the side. My guess was he got plenty of the stuff at the nursing home.
Grandpa Frank whispered something to Grandma Gladys. She passed him the gravy boat. Grandpa took one look at the thick yellow liquid and pushed it aside.
“Mayonnaise,” Grandpa said, “I need mayonnaise. This turkey is too dry.”
Grandma slapped his shoulder. “You can’t ask for mayonnaise. It’s Thanksgiving.”
Grandpa frowned. “Can I ask for ketchup?”
Aunt Annie shot Grandpa a sideways glance before clearing her throat. “We should all say what we’re thankful for,” she said.
I wondered if I could say that I was thankful that Thanksgiving came only once a year.
“You start Stuart,” she said, patting my Uncle on the hand and giving him a hopeful smile.
Uncle Stu was already shoveling dressing into his mouth. He narrowed his eyes at her. “Money?” he said spitting a cornbread crumb across the table.
“No, dear,” she said, “what you’re most thankful for in the whole wide world.” She batted her eyelashes at him. My stomach turned, but I snickered when I caught the look of pure horror on Jordan’s face.
Uncle Stu looked up at the ceiling. You could practically hear the wheels turning in his head. He looked back at my Aunt and nodded. “Money. My answer is money.”
Aunt Annie furrowed her brow and let out a sigh. “Maybe someone should just tell the story of the first Thanksgiving instead.”
“It was a Spring day in 1944,” Papa said without hesitation. His weak but deep voice penetrating the room.
“I’m pretty sure the first Thanksgiving was like, in the 1800’s,” Jordan said rolling his eyes. “Google it.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Jordan claimed he was a computer genius, that he was creating an app that would sell for millions. That was a hard one to believe. I thought he was an idiot. Never mind being a millionaire, I couldn’t imagine him being on his own or even having a girlfriend unless he was building one in the basement.
But was I doing much better? I’d probably end up back at Jack and Susan’s house after I graduated if I believed the statistics. I hadn’t been on a date in forever. I kept telling myself that my soulmate would show up any day. Maybe I was just as delusional as Jordan. I pushed my wine glass toward Grandma, and thankfully she filled it to the brim.
“I was walking down the Strada di Amore in Rome. My best buddy Frank told me I should go. He hadn’t been killed yet,” Papa said.
“It’d be hard for him to tell you after he croaked,” Jordan said.
I kicked Jordan under the table.
“Megabyte me,” Jordan said.
Great, computer nerd humor. This day was getting better by the second.
Papa looked down the length of the table toward Grandpa Frank. “Frank was my best buddy. We only had a couple more weeks before we were due to ship back home when he caught one in the chest.” His voice quivered.
The table got quiet. My Papa used to tell us stories when we were little, about the first time he caught a fish, about getting his first job but he never spoke about his time in the military.
“You were in Rome?” I asked, prompting him to continue.
Pap smiled at me. “Frank told me I should go. There was some famous fountain or something he wanted me to see. He was always trying to teach me stuff. He drew me a map on the back of a napkin. He said I was the kind that could get lost looking for my own pecker.”
My Aunt Annie spat her wine across the table then started choking.
“But I never made it to that fountain.”
“Why not?” I asked, wondering if this was something I wanted to know. I preferred to ignore things in history that made me uncomfortable. War was at the top of my list.
“I saw her from a block away. Her hair was as shiny as glass. She was wearing a yellow dress. She looked like a movie star.” Papa paused. He had a faraway look in his eye.
“Who was it?”
“She couldn’t speak a lick of English, and I only knew a few curse words in Italian.” Eye-talian was the way Pap pronounced it. “But it didn’t matter if I was talking in gobbledygook, I had to meet her. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.”
“Who was it, Papa?” I said a little louder.
My Grandma leaned toward me. “It was your Great Grandma Liliana.”
I never knew my Great Grandma Liliana. I’d only seen a few black and white pictures of her and those were taken later in her life, but even at an advanced age, she was strikingly beautiful. I had no doubt Papa was right.
“There were a lot of us out on shore leave and that goombah Jones saw me trying to talk to her. He walked right up and started chatting her up in perfect Italian.”
“I’m sure you don’t mean goombah,” Jack said.
Papa stopped for a minute and looked around the table as if he were trying to reorient himself.
“Go on Papa,” I said, patting his hand. “Tell us more.”
Papa grabbed my hand and looked me in the eye. “When I look at you I see her. You have the same beautiful black hair, the same sparkling green eyes.”
I always hated my dark hair. I tried going blonde, I tried purple, I tried everything I could to change it, but now I felt grateful to have a link to the Great Grandma I never got to know.
“Jones kept trying to get her attention but she only ever had eyes for me.” Papa chuckled. “That was my sweet Lilly.” He fell silent with a grin on his face. He was sitting at the table in Aunt Annie’s dining room, but he wasn’t with us.
I pictured my Papa as a young man, his skin-tight, his hair thick and dark. I imagined him dressed in his naval uniform, his frame tall and straight. I pictured his Liliana, the Great Grandmother I would never know, falling helplessly in love with him. He never finished the story. I never heard how they managed to make it work, but I had a lot to be thankful for. I was thankful for time with my Papa, I was thankful for the story of Filbert and Liliana, and mostly I was thankful for their happy ending.