Killing Norman Rockwell….
I remember the smell of Turkey so it must have been a holiday… Thanksgiving or Christmas… funny that I don’t know which, but it was a holiday with all the family and all the smells, and all the stress. I was in the living room, the smells and sounds of holiday cooking barely tickling my consciousness enough to irritate and distract me from watching a random football game.
A holler broke through the general din of kids playing/fighting, football announcers describing how team x would really have to outscore team y if they wanted to win (brilliant by the way!), and the music that She always had to have on during holidays, ‘Honey!” she was still calling me honey back then….
I turned down the announcer describing how “it’s all about the defense today” and answered nicely, “Whhhaaaattt?!?!?”
“Can’t you hear the bell? Someone is here!”
“Of course, I’m getting it now!” I got up from the couch wondering how I hadn’t heard the bell… the three kids had beaten me to the door of course and were arguing about who was going to open it and their excitement for the currently unknown holiday visitor yielded to the need to win the fight.
Youngest was calmly proclaiming her right to open the door, “I got here first I get to open it!”
Oldest was pulling rank, “I’m the oldest… I’m almost a teenager, so I get to!” she stomped her foot to emphasize her claim even though it belayed the maturity she was trying to exercise.
Meanwhile Middle (who at 7 already knew that he didn’t have a chance arguing with his two sisters) was peeking through the window, “Grandma! It’s Grandma!”
I parted the screaming sea of blonde curls in order to get to the door.
“Hi mom…” I saw her beaming face, cheeks rosy with the cold, and she looked so happy to see us. Neither of us had any way of knowing what my wife had just found out…
Before she could even get in she had a belt of blonde hair as all three kids ran out to give hugs. Two pies were lifted high into the air so as not to get knocked down. Of course in the process Mom’s 70 year old body got overbalanced and she began to topple forward… her smile never faded as she fell… a product of pure joy of basking in the love of her grandkids. I had a split second to decide; grab her or the pies. I split the difference and wrapped her in one arm and caught one pie with the other. A mass of grandkids and grandma lay giggling furiously on the floor with a splatter of peach cobbler adding a golden halo around the three cherubs with their Angelic leader at the center.
To add to the mayhem the geriatric dog came shuffling in to distribute licks between the faces and pie that were now within his reach.
“Jake! Get outta here dog!” Jake the dog took two more big dog bites of the pie with eyes wide in equal parts pleasure and panic before he ran (well… he waddled… he was 12 and arthritic but it was as close to a run as he could muster) out of the hall.
“Wow what a welcome.” Mom said still giggling as she got up from the floor. The kids got up and scrambled off as they saw their mother standing in the entryway with a scowl. The scowl faded and was replaced with what I knew was genuine love for my mother. At least I knew I didn’t have to worry about the wife vs. mother-in-law cliché.
“Hi mom,” my wife said, as she smiled, and as my heart smiled the way it always did when I saw them together.
I offered my non-pie holding hand to my Mother as she said to my Wife, “Hi hon, the turkey smells amazing. And look at you, so beautiful, haven’t changed a bit since I first introduced you two.”
My wife did a sarcastic girlish curtsy that was still cute and graceful at the same time. An exchange occurred between them in an instant that was below (or more likely above) my understanding though not my perception. Were Wife’s eyes watering? She must have been cutting onions.
During a warm hug I saw a tear streak down Wife’s face… onions must have been really strong.
We shuffled to the table where the holiday meal was spread out when we noticed the three kids had peach cobbler stuck in their hair. Just as I finished picking peaches out of three curly headed kids hair when Wife came in with the turkey, golden and glistening, smelling like… wait, a little like rotten dog food mixed with peach cobbler. Every human in the room looked at each other in disgust and the dog under the table looked up with guilt.
“Oh my God! Ulp, that’s awful! What is that?” Wife was trying to hold her nose and her gag reflex at the same time.
“Jake ate the peach cobbler that Mom dropped hon… oh it must not be agreeing with him.”
I looked to my mother and saw that she had put her shirt up over her nose and was laughing to the point of convulsions, the kids were mimicking their grandmother and sharing in her uproarious laughter. Wife wasn’t sharing in the mirth and was looking at me as though it was my fault….
“I’ll take him for a little walk hon… let him… um.. air out.”
I quickly got the leash on the dog and the dog out the door before he could drop another olfactory bomb.
The crisp air felt good in my lungs (especially compared the stale-dog-stink I was leaving) and the steel in the grey, wintery sky matched my resolve to have a good holiday. The dog was happily sniffing and then watering everything within range of his leash, his arthritic body transforming into that of a younger dog with the excitement of the walk. As the dog walked he would periodically lift his tail and audibly relieve himself of the gas problem he was having (although with perspective the humans were the victims of the problem) so we turned around and went back inside.
When we got in I saw that the family was at the table and ready to eat. I attributed the tightness in my wife’s eyes to the fact that a mild fight was brewing about who would say grace, once again Middle stayed out of it and just waited staring at the turkey. Youngest was providing intriguing evidence why she should say grace, “I should talk to God because you stayed up late last night reading even though mom told you go to sleep and then I saw you pick your nose and wipe it on the wall and God doesn’t like liars.”
Oldest of course could not let such accusations go without a healthy dose of ironic denial and retribution, “No I did not stay up and besides I was reading a school book and I don’t pick my nose but it’s better to wipe them on the wall than to eat them!”
Middle was giggling softly to himself and I glanced at my Mother and she was trying to recover from the knowledge that her grandkids may or may not have been booger eaters. Wife cleared her throat and shot Mom glances at all three kids and me (I guess she thought my slight cough was a giggle), and then she said, “God loves all of us, he loves liars, but hates the lie.” Why did she look at me when she said that?
Wife asked Middle to say grace and he did a great job, “God, thank you for the food and please save us all from Jake’s farts, Amen.” At this Oldest and Youngest forgot their differences and joined together in peals of laughter that rose like tiny bells indicating the start of dinner.
Dinner went off without much more drama besides a little bickering over the last drumstick… but I conceded and let my Mom have it. The forks finally slowed and we all started leaning back with bellies full of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes and minds full of worry that there’d be no room for pie. Wife announced that the kids would clear the table before the cousins showed up for family desert at just about the time that Jake let go with another assault on our olfactory senses. Just the quickest of looks from Wife indicated that I needed to take the dog for a walk or Jake and I would both be sleeping outside.
When I got back outside the steel was gone from the sky and a brownish, blackish grey was taking over. My senses were slowed by the digesting food and my mood started to once again match the sky, this time the gloom rather than resolve. I just had a warm and wonderful meal with a family that was truly a gift from God. So much joy was between the lines of the arguments and so much happiness filled all my days. Why then, was it not enough for me, why did I have my deceptions and lies?
A sick feeling grew in the pit of my stomach that had nothing to do with the smell coming from Jake, I hated myself… for so long I’ve hated myself, and now especially. Back inside that house was everything I thought I had always wanted, everything my friends envied, but I still pushed for more, for little sinful secrets to feel good about myself, I had always justified myself with the knowledge that it was never physical. I always told myself that since it wasn’t physical, it wasn’t cheating. I was deceiving myself as much as anyone else. I decided I was done. A bitter rain started to fall on me and the dog but I could hardly feel it. I hated being a liar for such selfish reasons and I decided I was done. My resolve was back and I turned to face the sleeting sky and headed back to my house. I was going to send a text to end it all. I was going to be true to my Wife and to who I wanted to be. I reached in my pocket to find my phone but it wasn’t there. I felt a wave of heated panic go down the back of my neck and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see steam coming from the rain wet sides of my neck or from behind my ears.
I hurried home, but not fast enough. I saw my Brother’s car in the drive and could hear the kids with their cousins playing in the back yard despite the drizzle.
I walked in and found my Mom and Wife alone at the table. Between them was my phone as well as hard looks of accusation. Wife’s eyes were filling with tears despite the anger on her face. “Who’s Jessica?”
*The preceding was a fiction, but like good fiction (I said like good fiction… y’all can decide if this is good or not) there are several truths weaved in. This story could have played out several times in my life, I’m not proud to admit it but it could have. I won’t share the real stories of my endings because I love and respect the people involved in those endings and those stories don’t belong to me. I don’t believe I have the right to share them with anyone else.
So now I find myself trying to figure out why I continue to make the same mistakes, trying to understand why God lets me happen to wonderful people, and I realize, it’s not for me to understand, it’s for me to pray that God will change my heart.
I really do want that Norman Rockwell life, but you know what’s funny? Norman Rockwell didn’t have a Norman Rockwell life. Maybe that’s why he painted such beautiful visions of the American family, he was trying to recreate something he never got. I do love all of his paintings and I feel like I can see the longing in each.
I can’t make it up to those that I’ve hurt other than to continue on a path that will keep me from breaking another heart.
When I find myself asking God how he could let me hurt people I remember and pray Poverbs 3:5,6 and trust Him to keep me on a straight path.
Proverbs 3:5,6. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
*Jake the dog was actually based on a real character he was my dog in high school and my dad took over his ownership when I joined the Army. Once again my sisters can attest to this and to his famous and formidable flatulence that could clear a holiday table faster than any political or religious discussion. RIP Jake the dog.