Many years back when I lived in Upstate New York I worked in a series of department stores. All of which are since defunct or re-branded to reflect national chains. Years ago cities prided themselves on their own stores, touting local retailers as a reason to visit such backwater cities as Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse. While living in Rochester I made the acquaintance of a little old lady named Gracie. She was a tiny little thing full of life and spunk. She had a slight over-bite and wire spectacles that magnified her eyes, especially at the half-moons at the bottom of each lens. Gracie operated the display department sewing-machine at the once prestigious, Sibley, Lindsay and Curr Department Store. She often worked late to make table-cloths or sneak-in drag-costumes for ‘staple-gun-queens’ at Halloween. But only for the kids she’d taken a shine to. She was good with her hands despite some arthritis. She kept herself trim, prim and proper in the eyes of management while being a covert confident to all the employees.
As the Thanksgiving holidays approach, every person who has ever worked in retail display reaches a level of exhaustion unparalleled in the universe. In retail merchandising, you’ve been planning, discussing and executing Christmas since June 15th, and you’re just about holidayed-out by the day before Thanksgiving.
I purposely forget holidays. I never cared for them.
That being the case, I tend to be the “odd” person invited to various “orphan” Thanksgiving celebrations over the years. As the ’gay-relative’ I never kept that much family close-by when I was first out on my own.
Working in a display department exhausts a person physically and mentally in the days leading-up to Black Friday — and here little Gracie, nearly 40 years my senior, sensing a lost kindred-spirit, invited me to join her family for turkey day. I was invited to have Thanksgiving with she, her son, daughter-in-law and grandchild. I couldn’t imagine how in the WORLD this tiny little energetic lady had sewn 175 circular tablecloths of various dimensions WITH decorative trim — fluffed dozens of yards of garland — and decorated countless artificial Christmas trees all while planning and executing a Thanksgiving dinner for family and extended company!
A few other people were invited on a drop-in basis, mostly people I knew, but Gracie warned me about her sister Roslyn. Nothing ever pleased Roslyn. Food was too hot, too salty, not salty enough. The room was chilly, stuffy or too drafty. Nothing was ever quite right. Gracie, while widowed, had at least scored a man. Roslyn had devoted her spinster’s life to a management career at the bank, and always dressed the part — right down to the discreet, but obviously real jewels she wore — constantly reminding everyone of their pedigree and authenticity. According to Gracie, Roslyn wore her jewels like she owned the ‘Star of India‘.
Gracie on the other hand, worked hard for a meager living, and carried a bicycle chain in her purse when she came or went from her ‘marginal’ middle-class neighborhood — just in case she had to ‘clock‘ somebody someday to insure her own safety. On occasion, if she worked really late at Sibley, Lindsay and Curr, Gracie (well into her sixties) would would walk home swinging that bicycle chain above her head like Spartacus entering the Coliseum. But only when she was forced to cross the Court Street Bridge on foot due to missing the bus. The foot paths on the Court Street Bridge could get very creepy late at night.
Life was different for Roslyn. She bought a new car every year and kept residence in an apartment where she was greeted by a doorman on the “better” side of town in one of the other blighted snow-belt capitals of Upstate New York.
Gracie confided in me she’d never asked a thing from Roslyn but that she behave herself “once-in-a-blue-moon” at family gatherings. And not comment on other people‘s weight, or wax-rhapsodic about the Amalfi Coast, knowing full-well no one else had been. Gracie would try to keep conversation going by saying she’d enjoyed seeing the Amalfi Coast covered in the National Geographic until she turned the page and saw bare-breasted natives who were clearly from somewhere other than the Amalfi Coast. If only Roslyn would stop being such a braggart, so annoying, so pretentious, so critical of everyone — that was all Gracie was asking.
But according to Gracie, Roslyn found remarkable ways of delivering an insult while allowing her Freudian slip to show well below the hem — especially after a nip of single-malt scotch from a flask she brought herself so as to insure it‘s quality… Roslyn told Gracie once, that she was “glad” Gracie had married that soldier Roslyn had “lost interest” in. But the way Gracie told it, Gracie saw him first, and Roslyn had tried to steal him from her right-up until the wedding ceremony. Roslyn attributed her success to not falling for a blue-collar ex-serviceman thus securing her place in the world as a formidable business woman.
…So after several decades of on and off “not speaking” — Roslyn was going to ‘grace’ Gracie’s table for Thanksgiving — and I was invited to join them — but with fair-warning that Roslyn took no prisoners — had NO filters — and spoke her mind even if it was hurtful.
Warning duly noted.
I was bringing a pecan pie, bought the day before from a bakery shop on the other side of town. It was a hefty chore, since ice and sleet had already descended on Rochester, glazing ALL of Upstate New York… Meanwhile, they couldn’t have been toastier in Toronto, but the North wind blowing over lake Ontario had triggered a sugar-coated ice-storm in the ‘snow-belt‘. No sooner would it end than it would start-up again, never thawing. The storm lasted for forever…
I rang-up Gracie at noon on Thanksgiving day to make sure dinner was still “on” given how ‘slick’ it was outside. I lived walking distance from Gracie, but her family and friends were coming from Buffalo, Syracuse and Ithaca.
I was told to come over midday and was assured everyone had arrived safely late the night before — except for Roslyn who’d just called from a rest-stop on Interstate 490 to say she was coming, but only because she was well better than halfway there and would otherwise have turned back.
I said I’d be there by 3PM or so. Gracie, already pissed-off with Roslyn’s snide remark, said we’d start dinner with or without her persnickety sister. Gracie went on to say that Roslyn would be in particularly sour-spirits at driving all that distance for what she would undoubtedly criticize as “dry turkey” (even if it was moist) and stuffing that wasn’t near as good as what their mother had once made (even though it was their mother‘s own recipe.)
It was then I remembered what I’d always known: “God bless and keep my family a minimum of 600 miles away for all periods of time longer than an extended weekend.”
At about 2:30 in the afternoon, I attempted to walk my dog named ‘Autumn’, who while young and chipper could not maneuver well on the ice. Poor thing splayed herself out on the slippery sidewalk like Bambi‘s first steps. Autumn, couldn’t keep upright on the ice.
Nor could I.
I clung to walls, branches, hedges and gates until the dog found the right spot. Then we navigated our way back via lampposts, telephone poles and street signs. Dropping-off the dog at home, I set-out for Gracie’s with the wind and freezing-water gathering in my eyebrows and mustache. It took forever to walk even a few steps with each carefully calculated footfall. Nevertheless I hit the ground HARD a couple times landing square on my tailbone.
Eventually I made my way to Gracie’s house. Clutching the front banister for dear life, I rang the bell, but not before taking one last tail-spin to the ground. It was then that I saw it. The car. A duo-tone Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado perfectly parallel-parked in front of the house. Given Gracie’s neighborhood, either a pimp was making holiday rounds, or Roslyn had arrived.
When the doorbell didn’t rouse anyone, I knocked at the shaky, tired, peeling green Victorian screen door trimmed with a wreath backed with white iridescent polyester fabric I recognized from the store’s table cloths. Table cloths which would premiere for Black Friday tomorrow morning at 10AM when the store opened.
I admired Gracie’s red and green plaid grosgrain bows and swags. She didn‘t have money, but she had style, even if she did swipe all her supplies from work.
As I mentioned, Gracie and I worked all hours of overtime the night before and for weeks and weeks prior… Here I was, exhausted in my early 20’s wondering where-in-the-world she found the time — let alone the energy to have decorated her own home.
Gracie opened the door, and warned me “Roslyn is in unusually bad spirits this evening.” She’d arrived stinking of scotch, and was working her way around the table telling everyone what she REALLY thought of them. Other people’s families are not my problem, but a home-cooked meal was just fine so long as I wasn’t the victim of Roslyn’s scrutiny. And why should I be? I can be charming, and I’d never even met the woman.
Having arrived late due to the ice, the whole family was already gathered around the table and had begun eating. I‘d missed hand-holding and saying grace – just as well…
I took my place at the table following brief introductions.
But Roslyn ignored me.
I do NOT like to be ignored. I understand shyness, but I recognize hostility.
Roslyn looked at me with a stillness of expression that told me I was beneath introduction. There was definitely something wrong with that woman – she unnerved me.
Once Gracie had heaped my plate with traditional dishes, I glanced across the table at Roslyn who was still glaring at me eye-level — it made me determined to be all the more courteous to a fault.
But there was that stoic, almost ‘other-worldly’ face glaring back at me. Smiling sweetly, I asked Roslyn to pass the gravy as a way to break the ice. At which point, she promptly slumped over and died. Face-first into the gravy boat with little tufts of yellow-white hair thirstily absorbing the thick, oily, floured liquid.
There was a beat of time wherein no one fully absorbed what had just transpired. Had she passed-out drunk…? Or fainted…? Wiping the gravy from her sister’s face, Gracie lifted Roslyn’s head and put a compact-mirror by her sister’s nose and mouth, but couldn’t tell if the condensation was coming from the gravy or from her breath. She didn’t look to me like she was breathing, and I said so, which threw everyone else into breathless bedlam. Cell phones didn’t exist back then. Neither did 911. So I took it upon myself to ‘dial’ the operator from the kitchen phone and told the woman to contact the police and emergency and gave her the distressed address.
Before the paramedics arrived and declared Roslyn dead on the scene from what later proved to be an aneurysm, it was the human reactions that fascinated me. Gracie was guilt-ridden for having made such a fuss over Roslyn’s many faults. But while it was all unfolding, Gracie’s daughter-in-law was removing jewelry from the body. The choker necklace I could understand, but relatives were pulling the jewelry off her fingers and earlobes while other guests continued in a surreal way to pick at their plates.
Gracie was nothing short of bewildered. After all, there was a corpse at her holiday table other than the turkey. And in an indescribable moment of awkwardness offered me left-over’s to take home as the medical team hoisted Roslyn onto a gurney.
Ever the gracious host.
Gracie signed a form bound for the coroner‘s office. I declined accepting the “goody bag“ she offered. Just my mind’s-eye memory of Roslyn’s facial expression and her yellow-tinted hair soaking-up gravy through capillary action had put me off my appetite.
I had done my part by contacting emergency and after an awkward silence I bed my farewell. This had become a family moment where I felt compelled to leave them to sort things out on their own. Through befuddled goodbyes, no one was even feigning tears. I made my exit to allow Gracie and the family to pick over the carcass of their spoiled celebration.
Bracing myself against the cold, damp wind, I slipped and slided my way home to the barren refrigerator in my little apartment. All I had in the house were ketchup, stale bread and 2 frozen pork chops.
Still a bit shell-shocked, I let the dog out the back door to pee in the yard on her own, and popped two frozen pork-chops under the broiler. Away from the “scene” I was suddenly hungry-as-hell in spite of what I’d just witnessed. The broiler door jammed so I forced it shut with my foot, catapulting the pork chops into an irretrievable space behind the oven where they were left to thaw and stink-up the apartment for months to come.
Turning off the oven, I ate two slices of stale bread covered in ketchup and went to bed. I had to go to work the next morning for ‘Black Friday’ in the event that any of the displays collapsed under the weight of ‘shoppers stampede’.
Poor Gracie got a week off for a death in the family – though she confided in me she still hadn’t cried, but she’d been left everything as next of kin. There was no will.