We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.
The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”
I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.
Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.
“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.
At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.
“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”
I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”
“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.
“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”
My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.
When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.
My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.
There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.
“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.
I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.
While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”
Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.
Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.
I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.
The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?
“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”
I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.
“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”