Meatloaf and Tennyson

When I was ten I threw a dinner party for my grandmother and my aunt.  I had been given a cookbook for kids by my mother that year. It nurtured my desire to conquer grownup rituals like making food other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or grilled cheese.

My grandmother was rather old by then and little did we know she was in a golden moment just before a series of small strokes would shroud her mind in confusion and weaken her body.  At the time she was still rosy cheeked, with a shock of white hair rising up off her brow and a whimsical wave over each ear.  She wore a double knit pantsuit when she was going anywhere nice; at home she wore printed cotton dresses under a faded apron.  I was pleased to see the pantsuit was trotted out for my humble fete.

My aunt was rather like my grandmother, only younger and more vivid, with dark hair that was just as unruly and only a little peppered with grey.  She wore lipstick always, although no other makeup.  She was the oldest girl in the family but she might have been the same age as any of her sisters. We always thought that having no children had preserved her looks.  Her name was Becky.

Becky had a lot of distinct peculiarities, among them rocking on her heels while she listened to you; grabbing a niece or nephew as they walked by to check that their ears were clean; and in later years blinking her eyes quite a lot while she spoke.  Someone said that was nerves.

For my dinner party, I insisted on doing all the cooking. I chose a recipe in which you made a meatloaf, frosted it with mashed potatoes, and put it back in the oven with slices of American cheese laid in overlapping diagonals along the top.  I thought it was the height of elegance. I probably heated up a can of green beans as a side dish.

I remember folding our printed paper napkins into triangles and laying them out alongside our Corelle plates with the little green flowers all around the edges. They were corny plates, but hard to break.

Everyone said dinner was great, but there was an air to the whole evening that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. It was as if Grandma and Becky had been placed in unchartered territory.  It wasn’t that they didn’t know my mother’s dishes quite well and there was nothing extraordinary about a meat and potatoes meal in our family.  It was more to do with who had orchestrated this event.  None of my uncles or boy cousins cooked, but I was quite used to my father’s delicious Saturday morning breakfasts.

I think I would say that Becky was taking in the whole thing with a mixture of confusion and amusement.  It was plain to them that I was not like the other boys in the family, but what exactly this dinner party meant was something that her personal life experiences could not quite reconcile.  We were family, and that went a long way to keeping the evening humming pleasantly. Not that our family specialized in uneventful gatherings; our default was typically at least two people leaving in a huff.  Yet still there was that elusive quality of unspoken surmising: a soft kind of astonishment and many things unsaid.

After dinner I read aloud to my aunt and my grandmother from a book of Tennyson’s poetry I had recently discovered.  I think my grandmother nodded off early on, not that she didn’t love the written word. It was something that was key to her life. Still, she was fading as the long summer twilight burnished the sky outside our picture window.

I stood before the glass and read from The Lady of Shallot with as much artistic lilt as possible. I enunciated every word with something that tried to be a British accent – but gently, as not to earn the kind of criticism that any act of pretentiousness was rightly apt to receive in my family.  It was a coup to even read a whole classical poem without eliciting sniggers from one of my relations, and there was a moment when my mother had a coughing fit that might very well have been a smothered laugh.  At least it sounded a lot like the way she stifled nervous giggles in church.

I had not yet discovered who I would become at that age, although the difference between who I felt like and what other people expected me to be had begun to cause me a lot of  confusion.  Yet on this night, despite that underlying sense of a secret not quite articulated, I was still a child in my family, with the women near me providing a sense of safety.  It surprises me to discover as I write this, that this would be the first of many coming out parties, each nudging me forward toward my authentic self.

That night I watched the taillights of Becky’s dusty little Pinto fade down the drive, still drunk from the thrill of what I had accomplished. The words of Tennyson expanded in my mind like a spider web growing bigger in the brewing heat of a summer day.  The crickets in the meadow outside the house were noisy; it was only about eight o’clock and there was plenty of time yet to clean up my dishes and wind down with a little television before going to bed with a book.  The night and I were still young.

 

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