It's nearly Thanksgiving in SoRo: dead leaves obscure my weedy lawn, a barnacled sailboat darkens my driveway, and a disemboweled deer swings from a nearby neighbor's tree.
Let us give thanks.
My parents are in town this weekend and they've brought with them a wad of rumpled "turkey points." These points entitle the bearer to a steeply discounted frozen turkey from Shaw's, and my parents have just offered those points to me.
"Absolutely," I say.
Dad glances at his watch, pulls a key ring from his pocket, and says, "Saddle up."
Communication in my family has always been like this. I think on some level, Dad is highly skeptical of verbal communication - it's too plain, too explicit. Where's the mystery or guesswork? Instead, most instructions are covered through a handful of abstruse idioms, and grander concepts are conveyed through actions or gestures.
I'm not immediately prepared to saddle up, so I point my index finger skyward. I need to delay our departure a moment longer. I need to collect my thoughts. I need to consult with the missus.
"I'll meet you outside," I say to Dad.
Mom and Dad step out onto the walkway, and the storm door creaks shut behind them. My wife is sitting at the dining room table feeding our six-week-old son.
"Jennifer," I say. "Are you OK with us leaving?"
Jennifer is the youngest of six siblings, so she's unaccustomed to the nimble speeds at which a three-person nuclear family operates. Her family is also deeply British. If, for instance, her family decided during breakfast to go shopping, it would be well past teatime before the family roadster made any tracks. Nonetheless, Jennifer has cleverly adapted to the breakneck, Germanic urgency of my father's every move, and her response to my question is appropriately economical.
"Yes, go," she says.
"What else should I get?" I ask.
"I don't know. We're out of everything. If I wrote down all the stuff we need, the list would be huge. Just go, get the turkey, and come home. We'll pick up everything else later this week."
"Why don't I just get all the usual Thanksgiving stuff today?"
"Because you'll probably forget the things I like…you know…turnips…chestnuts…We'll end up having to go back anyway."
Jennifer knows me too well. She and I have been together for twelve Thanksgivings, but I still can't validate her belief that mashed turnips and chestnut-infused stuffing are integral components of this meal. The chestnuts are the worst offenders. To my mind, chestnuts in stuffing are like plots in dirty movies: both are futile attempts to class up a bastion of classlessness, and, ultimately, their incongruous bits simply undermine the gut-level appeal of an already dubious form of sustenance.
"You're right," I say. "I probably would forget them. Let's just do a big trip later."
I step outside, meet my parents at the car, and Dad fires the engine. Within minutes we're entering Shaw's.
I realize immediately we've made a huge mistake. This is the Sunday before Thanksgiving and the store is bonkers. As the automatic doors open, the scene looks more like a stockyard than a produce section. I suddenly hate myself for waiting this long to do my shopping. To make matters worse, I've just agreed to make a return trip even closer to the Thursday deadline.
I decide I can't put myself through it. I resolve to finish all my shopping right here, right now.
This resolution is not without peril, however. My parents have graciously offered to buy me a turkey, but I'm about to fill the cart with everything I see. I fully intend to pay for these items myself, but it might appear as though I'm presumptuously stocking my cupboards on their dime. However, if I mention upfront that I'm turning this breezy jaunt into a massive undertaking, there's a very good chance they'll insist on paying for everything. If they insist on paying for everything, I'll end up putting fewer things into my cart, which will ultimately result in another frantic shopping trip on the night before Thanksgiving.
I'm confused by my lack of options, so I say nothing. Maybe a solution will present itself, but, until it does, I need to keep my mouth shut.
In the meantime, I decide I'd better grab the one thing I'm most likely to forget. I walk to the bulk foods section and shovel two scoops of chestnuts into a plastic baggie.
When I put the baggie in the cart Dad looks at it and says, "You're going to have to tie that bag to car roof for the ride home."
"I'm allergic to hazelnuts."
I think back to the time Dad mistakenly ate a chocolate-covered hazelnut: his face turned red, he hollered, and he spat the chocolate out of his mouth like it was a red-hot ember.
"I know you're allergic to hazelnuts," I say, "but these are chestnuts."
"I don't think so," Dad says. "They look like hazelnuts. And, if my grandson is anything like me, I don't want him exposed to them."
I'm not worried. It's been a while since I've eaten a hazelnut, but I've never had a problem with them, and I doubt the baby will either. Besides, these are chestnuts.
"I'm pretty sure these are chestnuts, Dad. But we can double-check."
Dad and I walk back to the nut bin. The sign simply says, "Nuts. All Varieties. $5.99/lb."
No answers there.
"Well," I say, "I'll just eat one."
I remove a nut from the bin and crush the shell between my molars. I spit the sharp pieces into my hand, extract the nut from the shards, and pop it back into my mouth.
I suddenly realize I'm not sure if I've ever tasted a raw chestnut or a hazelnut before. As such, I really have no idea what I'm eating. It's bitter and unpleasant, though, which I take as vindication.
"It's definitely a chestnut," I say.
"Okay," Dad says doubtfully.
Dad and I reconvene with Mom, and the three of us stroll the length of the produce aisle. I continue loading the cart with abandon, but I'm still not sure how to address the fact that I intend to pay for the groceries myself. Again, silence feels like my only option here, so I'm not saying a word.
As we round the corner to the pasta aisle, I sense something is wrong. My lips feel prickly and disembodied like I've just left the dentist's office. I feel a brief tinge of panic, but I assure myself it's just the power of suggestion. I even feel a bit irked that Dad's assuredness has gained inroads to my imagination. I wonder, too, if this sensation might be a reaction to the communication bind I'm in. I wonder if my inability to express that I'm thankful for the gift of the turkey, but I intend to buy everything else, is somehow causing a searing pain to crawl across my face. I wonder if this situation is somehow the result of a guilty conscience, if it's a heart beating beneath the floorboards. I don't know if it's the burning sensation in my mouth or the sudden frustration in my mind, but I feel my pace quicken. I'm now pushing the cart faster and faster, winding my way through the store like a rat in a maze with my parents following close behind. I'm becoming less thorough in my decisions: I cease comparing prices, I cease reading ingredients. After a few more turns, I begin skipping aisles altogether. I suddenly get it in my head that if I can just get through the dairy aisle and on to a cashier, this pain will somehow go away. But as I move past the yogurt and butter it's clear that my condition is only getting worse. It's no longer just my mouth that's hurting: my throat is burning and my stomach feels like a boiling cauldron. I feel as though I've swallowed gasoline, or a live porcupine, or maybe a gasoline-soaked porcupine. My eyes are watering and I'm having trouble breathing. Finally my cognitive dissonance gives way: I pull out my cell phone and call Jennifer, the RN.
"I'm having an allergic reaction to hazelnuts!" I blurt.
"How did that happen?" she asks.
"Because of the chestnuts!" I say cryptically. "What do I do?"
"Get some Benadryl."
I redirect the cart toward the pharmacy. By now my parents have overheard my phone conversation, and they know what's happening. Mom rushes ahead to talk to the pharmacist, and, by the time I get there with the cart, the pharmacist is leaning over the counter and directing me down the aisle.
"It's halfway down on the left."
The aisle is filled with slow-moving shoppers, though, and my psyche has now shifted into full-blown freak-out mode. If these shoppers don't get out of my way soon, I'm going to scramble across people's heads and shoulders like it's a theater fire.
Luckily the crowd thins and I reach the medication. I tear open the box and pop two pills into my mouth. My dad, standing behind me, quietly hands me a drink to wash them down.
Within a few minutes, the pain and the panic begin to subside. My parents and I take another leisurely trip through the store, and I fill the cart with items I missed during the first round. I'm still too embarrassed to apologize for doubting my father's taxonomical skills, but toward the end of our second lap, I summon the words to explain the shopping situation to my parents. I inform them - in an uncharacteristically nuanced example of family communication - that I'm paying for everything.
When we reach the checkout counter, however, my dad steps toward the credit card reader. I push the empty shopping cart out to block him, but he simply reaches over the cart and hooks his fingers behind the keypad. In a swift and clear communication of his own, Dad removes a credit card from his pocket, swipes it across the reader, and smiles.Ben McCanna is Editing Manager for a publisher of how-to books on sailing and outdoor sports. He lives with his wife and son in a fixer-upper in SoRo.