The first place winner for prose in the Holiday Blog Contest is Kathryn Kopple of Narberth, PA. Thanks, Kathryn, and congratulations! And thank you again to everyone who submitted to the contest. It was a joy to read your work!
The cousins arrived bearing gifts. Lorraine hadn't time to remove her apron, all splattered with beef juice and burgundy, before they pushed through the front door with armloads of stuff. Sweeping aside her offering of flatbreads and puffy hors d'oeuvres, they commandeered the kitchen table with triumphant shouts: there before Lorraine, John and her two young boys appeared an enormous china bowl abounding in egg salad, along with lesser portions of liver, roe, and bagel crisps. And it just kept coming: the slabs of melon draped in prosciutto, a salmon mousse whipped into froth and cascades, a great wedge of blue-veined Roquefort, a variety of smoked fish—eyes and all—and a tall bottle of Madeira.
"You ever have Madeira? I mean real Madeira? It's the best," said Georgina. Georgina was married to Samuel—Lorraine's cousin. This was the first time she had met her but Lorraine never waited to form a first impression. As quick as a heartbeat, she decided that Georgina had been a bully as a child, that she had used her height to intimidate the smaller children, that she had learned early on to thrown her tremendous bulk around, like a Sumo wrestler—that, come to think of it, she had the jowls of a Sumo wrestler and that, now that Georgina had grown into a huge adult, she still believed that could muscle her way into any situation and expect to have her way.
But why today, thought Lorraine, in despair. It was Christmas and Lorraine wanted it to be special. She wanted the silver to sparkle, the lights on the tree to twinkle, and the house to smell of mulled cider and evergreens. It was her hope that, if she bought enough trinkets and hung enough garlands, a spirit of goodwill and gentility would prevail. Looking woefully at her cousin, she wondered if she hadn't made a mistake when she invited him; he had joined Georgina in disassembling her perfectly set table—removing the tray of miniature quiches and stashing it unceremoniously on the counter before turning his attention a container of liver pate. "Here, let me," said Georgina, tugging the plastic lid open. The pate, passing under Lorraine's nose, smelled of onions and innards. For a moment she was back in the old apartment, on Morningside Drive, with a pan of chicken livers on the stove, and her grandmother, who made jokes about "the Bishop's nose" and taught her not to waste the heart or the gizzard. But that was a long time ago. Lorraine was married now to John and they had two boys, neither of whom had met their Jewish relatives before.
"The egg salad looks great," said Samuel.
Georgiana nodded in agreement and then asked Lorraine where she kept her glasses.
"I'll get you some." She excused herself. The crystal stemware she had set out on the sideboard in the dining room wouldn't do for sherry. She kept a set of cranberry aperitif glasses that she'd inherited from her mother-in-law on the top shelf of the hall closet.
Samuel Jr. and Seth had settled on the couch in the living room. She had bought the silver and blue brocade sofa on a shopping trip with her mother. Lorraine's mother had since retired to Florida but the thousand or so miles between them had done nothing to lessen the urgency with which she let Lorraine know that she didn't think it wise to invite the cousins to Christmas dinner.
"They're Jewish," she had said.
"Stephanie and Ben are Jewish. They look forward to Christmas with us."
Her mother had sighed. "I never understood why you ask them either."
Lorraine walked past the two young men. They were busy tuning their guitars. She knew very little about them, apart from their names. Lorraine listened a moment. They play well, she thought, and then found herself staring at Seth's sandy-colored curls, which lay thickly matted around his shoulders. He didn't take after either his father or his mother, not with that hair, but he was tall and, like his mother, he had lipid blue eyes.
"This was supposed to be our brunch," Samuel was saying as Lorraine returned to the kitchen.
"Put some caviar on that." Georgina pushed a bagel crisp laden with egg salad into John's hands. "And don't forget the Madeira. John says he's never had Madeira."
"No, but my Aunt Jo used to drink bourbon before dinner. She took it straight with ice." John spoke to Georgina with the chumminess of an old comrade. Lorraine knew her husband better. She knew that he didn't like sherry.
She took the goblet of sherry out of his hand and sniffed. "Smells nice. But Georgina what were you thinking? These glasses are huge. I have the most beautiful set of cranberry sherry glasses. John's mother gave them to me."
Georgina set her Madeira on the table. "These look fine to me," she said. "Any glass is fine with us. Right Samuel?"
"Plastic. Paper. I could care less."
Lorraine took a sip of Madeira; it went down with like a hot coal dowsed in sugar. "Tastes a lot better than that bottle of Amotillado I bought last year."
"I don't know about that," said Georgina. She handed Lorraine a bagel crisp topped with salmon mousse and roe. "Try this. Honestly, I don't like caviar. It's got that briny taste. But Samuel likes it, don't you."
"We eat anything," said Samuel, surveying the table. Lorraine directed his attention to the plate of hors d'oeuvres.
"What's in them?"
"Gorgonzola, spinach and feta. Try the miniature quiches. You'll like them."
"I'm not big on quiche." He dipped a bagel crisp into the egg salad.
"Mom, mom," said Alexander. "This is the best egg salad I've ever eaten. Why don't you make egg salad like this?"
Georgina beamed. For a moment, Lorraine thought she was going to offer her nine-year old some Madeira. The doorbell rang and she went to answer it.
"We're here!" cried Stephanie.
"I'm so happy you could come." She stepped aside to let her friends in. "Ben, it's so nice to see you."
"Nice to see you too Lorraine."
"Give me your coats. Is that a bunt cake? I'm so impressed."
She led the new arrivals through the living room where she lingered a moment in order to give them an chance to admire the Douglas fur, which had been icily but tastefully decorated in plain white lights and Victorian ornaments.
"Lorraine, the place looks great. Ben, doesn't the tree look wonderful?"
"Stephanie spent all day in the kitchen baking."
"You made this? Bunt cakes are so difficult."
"I was a little worried about it. But I followed the instructions in the Holiday Masterpieces Cookbook."
"What a great series that is," Lorraine said and then introduced them to Samuel Jr. and Seth, who were sprawled out on the couch, their guitars at their feet, and bored expressions on their faces.
"You gentlemen look hungry. People are stuffing themselves in the kitchen. Feel free to join us." Lorraine relieved Stephanie of the bunt cake and led the way.
"We're not big on the holidays in our house," Georgina was saying. "Are we Samuel?"
"We celebrate at the mall."
"I'm not religious and I'm not raising my kids to be religious either. We'd all be a lot better off without some church telling us how to think and what to do."
"These are our friends, Stephanie and Ben," announced Lorraine.
"Georgina, what an unusual name." Stephanie held out her hand.
"She's from the former Yugoslavia," Samuel explained.
"Are you Serbian?" Lorraine asked. "Were you raised Orthodox?"
"I wasn't raised anything."
"But were you born here or in Serbia?" asked John.
"We came here when I was four," said Georgina. "My parents weren't religious, and neither am I."
Ben remarked that he wasn't particularly religious either.
"I'm not religious at all," said Georgina.
Stephanie looked at her husband and then at Georgina. "Are you an atheist?"
Lorraine intervened. "Ben, let me get you something to drink?"
"What's that you're drinking?"
Lorraine raised her glass. "Madeira." She drained her glass and then held it out to Georgina for a refill. "Happy holidays everyone."
Georgina set the Madeira down and made her way around the table. Lorraine didn't understand at first, but she could see the other woman—this large woman—coming towards her with her arms outstretched. Oh, my God, she thought. That was the moment when Lorraine could have fled the room, and not merely the room but the house, leaving her strange, mixed family behind forever. But she didn't. She knew that, no matter how uncomfortable the holidays, these people were all she had. There was nowhere else to go. "Now that's the spirit," said Georgina, as she hugged her. "That's the spirit."