Last Thanksgiving, I swore that it would be the last time I sat at the kids table. The vagaries of fertility, birth rates, and parental callings within my extended family had left me, at fifteen, the youngest teenager and the oldest “kid.” When we sat for dinner last year, I looked around and was humiliated by the company I was forced into – three six-year olds, a nine-year old, and my cousin Donald’s bratty eleven-year-old twins. Having drawn the short straw again, I was forced to play camp counselor, police officer, and babysitter for this mismatched collection of unlovable little miscreants. A thankless task that no one bothered to thank me for anyway. I swore it would be the last time.
This year, on the way to my father’s cousin Shelly’s house, I insisted to my parents that I would not, under any circumstances, sit at the kids table. I promised to make an ugly scene unless they took my side, and arranged for anyone but me to take one for the team. If they really loved me and cared about my feelings at all, they would talk to Shelly or her dimwit husband Harold and set things right. Maybe I could approach Cousin Donald, one of the few on that side of the family that I genuinely liked, and make my case so he would intervene. Maybe this all required a grander strategy. I might have to line up my ducks, recruit influential allies, be proactive and make it happen. Maybe I could even talk to one of the other teenagers and sell them a lie about how funny and entertaining the little ones were. I grew quiet and spent the rest of the car ride weighing my options, refining my pitch, and taking inventory of who would support my campaign. When we pulled up to Shelly’s house, I was ready.
When we entered the house, I saw we were nearly the last to arrive. The living room was crowded and I had a moment of panic thinking there may already be too many grown-ups here and that the adult table would be full, even if there was another teenager I could throw under the bus. Then I saw a small group gathered around Shelly, and they were all crying. Shelly saw us in the foyer, wiped her eyes with the hem of her apron and came towards us.
“Marion! Mel! Thanks so much for coming,” she said, and hugged my parents. “And Andrew! You get bigger and more handsome every time I see you.” I tried to hide how angry this made me. If I was so big and handsome, why was I stuck at the kids table every year?
Shelly started crying again. “I got some bad news this morning,” she said, almost whispering. “The nursing home called, and … it’s Mom. She passed away this morning.” “Mom,” was Shelly’s mother and my father’s aunt Leah, beloved by everyone who knew her, who had been in the nursing home for a few years now, and who was a fixture at all family gatherings.
Shelly said, “They called right as I was getting ready to leave to pick her up. Apparently, she drifted off after breakfast, and one of the nurses found her. I asked them if it was alright if I came by tomorrow and deal with the paperwork and whatever else.”
Shelly saw the stunned look on my face. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I loved Leah – I mean, everyone did – and I would miss her great sense of humor, her easy laugh, her almost ninety years’ worth of terrific stories about coming to America, the Depression, the War, the Yiddish theater, the “old left,” and a million other things, and how deeply she loved all of us in the family. I didn’t know what to say. Shelly must have sensed my shocked sadness, and tried to cheer me up.
She looked directly at me and said, ” Andrew, this Thanksgiving, you can be thankful to your Aunt Leah. This means there’s a seat for you at the adult’s table.” She tried to laugh but turned away and broke into quiet sobs. She turned and walked into the kitchen. My father, also crying, followed her.
There was a saying I once heard, “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it,” and I never understood what that meant until this moment. I felt horribly guilty about my scheming, my selfishness, my inability to see the world beyond things that mattered to me and me alone, things that really didn’t matter at all. Shelly made a big show of announcing that I would be joining the adults this year, and she sat me near the head of the table, next to her, which would have been Aunt Leah’s spot. I could hardly eat, and didn’t say three words all night. On the ride home, I laid down in the back seat and tried to think of one reason I was not a terrible person. I couldn’t.
Alan Brickman assists nonprofit organizations with strategic planning. Raised in New York, educated in Massachusetts, he lives in New Orleans with his 17-year old border collie Jasper. Alan can be reached at [email protected].