Richard should have said “lucky.” He’d intended to say “lucky.” This was a toast, after all, not a benediction.
His family had long ago dispensed with saying grace before Thanksgiving dinner. No one among them was religious anymore. He and Ellie, his wife, had happily drifted away from Sunday obligations as soon as their three children outgrew whatever benefits the various local churches once offered: nursery school at Hamilton United Methodist, after care at St. Monica’s, Third Presbyterian’s youth group. They had even comfortably slipped out from under the hypocrisy of showing up on Christmas and Easter — too many competing interests to balance as the kids went off to college, started their careers, began families of their own. So much happy busyness on those holidays — presents, egg hunts, an elaborate brunch in some beautiful place — that they were able to abandon the solemn hour at the beginning of it all without regret, without much conversation.
They were a happy family. His children, and their children, were thriving. Their home was beautiful: six bedrooms on a sylvan 1½ acres just inside the Beltway, a house that filled him with astonished pride each time he pulled into his own circular drive. A house that was, at the moment, made more beautiful still by the Thanksgiving table with its fruits and flowers and pale linen, the good silverware (Ellie’s grandmother’s) and the Waterford crystal (bought on their honeymoon 40 years ago) winking like starlight.
And before him as he stood to make his toast the beloved faces of his three grown children (two attorneys and a university professor), his four handsome, healthy grandchildren, a jovial son-in-law who made plenty of money, a daughter-in-law who was both a terrific mother and a terrific pediatrician, and this year, new to them, lovely Gloria, their younger son’s fiancee. Ryan had met her only last August. They would be married after Christmas. She, too, was an attorney. She was a few years older than their son, 36 to his 31, but that was no matter. Gloria was stunning, poised and funny and smart. She owned both a condo downtown and a country house in Vermont. And it was perhaps her pretty face and her warm smile, her shoulder comfortably touching Ryan’s as they all looked up to Richard when he rose to give the Thanksgiving toast that made him say at the end of it, at the end of his sentimental (and, yes, self-congratulatory) enumeration of their many talents, triumphs, joys, “We are truly blessed,” when what he had meant to say was “lucky.”
It was only in recollection that he felt, as soon as he uttered the word, a shaft of cold air, as if a small pane of glass in the mullioned window at the end of the elegant room had been punched out by an invisible hand.
In the moment, there was a certain rolling of the eyes among them as they touched their glasses together, muttering indulgent and ironic things: “Amen to that” and “Hallelujah, brother.” As he sat down again Matt, his older son, said, “Thank you, Ned Flanders,” and Annie, his daughter-in-law, said, “It was a lovely toast, Dad. Very sweet.” “Very ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ ” Jill, his own daughter added, and they all laughed and then tried to remember the name of the actor who played the patriarch on the show — which Richard came up with before the others pulled out their phones, thus restoring his authority. And then the dinner proceeded as it always did.
It wasn’t until the pause between dinner and dessert, when they were finishing off the wine, when the grandchildren had been released to the family room, the table briefly cleared and the lights turned down (aids digestion, Ellie claimed) so that it was candlelight alone lighting their faces, that the word came up again.
They were talking about a ski trip this winter. Gloria was offering her place in Vermont, which, she said, could comfortably sleep the 12 of them. “You should see it,” Ryan said. “Five acres, with its own pond. Back of the house is all glass, incredible views.”
“How long have you had it?” Matt asked her, and Gloria said, “Seven years now. I bought it when I sold my parents’ house in McLean.”
“Wow,” Annie said, “You were young.”
And Gloria shrugged, smiling — she had beautiful teeth, a regal forehead, a single dimple in her cheek. Richard tried to recall her biography. Ryan had brought home so many pretty girls over the years that it was sometimes hard to keep them all straight. Gloria had lost both her parents when she was still in her 20s. Richard remembered joking with his son about the advantages of not having in-laws. No siblings, apparently. Her father had been a doctor? Banker?
“What was it your father did?” he asked her.
“He was an attorney,” she said, bowing her head. It was a silly notion — Richard would have been the first to admit it — but something about her beauty made him suspect that her father had been a successful attorney, a partner, no doubt. “He retired early, when my mother got sick.”
“Alzheimer’s,” Ryan informed the rest of them. “Early onset. She was ... ” he turned to her, “How old?”
“Forty-nine,” Gloria said. “I was 13.”
“Oh, my,” Ellie said. “How difficult for you.”
“Terrible disease,” Richard said, aware of, and making an effort to resist, a certain recoil of his heart. Wasn’t early onset indicative of a genetic link? Hadn’t he read that somewhere? What kind of future did that bode for his son? “That must have been very rough for your dad,” he added.
Gloria turned to him, pushing the pretty hair over her shoulder. Ryan had draped his arm along the back of her chair. “It killed him,” she said.
Richard glanced down the table to his wife. Ever gracious, Ellie whispered, “I can imagine.”
But the girl shook her head. “No, literally. He took early retirement. He devoted himself to her. He hired caregivers when I was still in high school, so he could go to my games, take me on the college tour. But after I left for Penn, he took care of her himself. He couldn’t bear the way anyone else treated her, or talked to her, anyone who hadn’t known her before, when she was well. So he took care of her all by himself. Everyone told him not to, but he did.”
She bowed her head again, the hair falling forward. “I was in my junior year, just before spring break, when he died. Heart attack. A neighbor found him in the kitchen. Apparently, he’d been making my mother’s breakfast. We guessed that the last thing he did was turn off the gas under the frying pan — the eggs were just half cooked, he must have felt it coming on. It was nearly noon when the neighbor stopped by. My mother had been bathed, her hair was combed and tied back the way she liked it. Even some lipstick. The neighbor had to knock on the window to get her to let him in.”
Ryan added, “So Gloria quit school. Came home to take care of her mother herself.”
“That couldn’t have been easy,” Annie said.
Gloria shrugged. “I couldn’t give her to strangers, either.” The candlelight caught her blue eyes as she turned to Ellie. “When I came home, I found that my mother had left all these little notes, in the china cabinet, in the kitchen, the linen closet. She must have started writing them when she first got sick, when she knew things were slipping away. Little instructions, mostly for the holidays. Like, ‘This is the tablecloth I use for Easter.’ Or, ‘This is the best platter for serving the turkey — garnish with plums and pears.’ Or, ‘Best dishes for a large buffet, but hand wash.’ Things like that. I guess my father left the notes there for me to discover, when the time came. Almost as if he knew,” and here her voice caught a little, “I’d be taking over for him.”
“He must have been a wonderful man,” Ellie whispered.
Gloria nodded. “Yes, he was,” she said. “A good man, kind. For years, before my mother got sick, he taught English as a second language at a little church in D.C. He joined the Peace Corps out of college. My mother did, too. That’s where they met. They wanted to have a pack of kids, but things didn’t work out. My mother lost four babies before she had me.”
She had been slouching a bit, but now she drew herself up, placed her hands on the table, straightening her shoulders and setting her mouth in a way that made the girlish dimple vanish. “I wish I were as kind as he was,” she said evenly. “But I’m not.” Her voice grew professional — a billable-hours voice, it occurred to Richard later. “So I have to say that I don’t understand people who think they have been blessed. That God somehow favors them because they’re good people, or they worked hard. My parents were good people who worked hard. They deserved to grow old together, to see their grandchildren.” She looked down at Ryan’s hand as he placed it over hers, not to stop her, it was clear, but to show his solidarity. “But I guess we weren’t blessed the way you guys are, by whoever it is who does the blessing.”
A whispered chorus of polite, conciliatory replies rose up around the table. “Oh, now,” Ellie murmured from the far end. “Whoever is right,” Annie offered. Matt said, on his father’s behalf, “It’s just a manner of speaking.” And his son-in-law added, “It was just a toast.” But Jill was nodding. “I completely understand what she’s saying.” And Ryan, grasping his future wife’s hand, declared them all maybe just a bit too self-satisfied about their own good fortune, too oblivious to the troubles of others. “You did sound kind of smug,” he told his father.
Just then the grandchildren returned to the dining room, moving, as they did in those days, in a chattering scrum. They wanted their sweets. Pumpkin pie and whipped cream and the special caramels Ryan brought down from Baltimore. Courtney, the youngest, climbed easily into Richard’s lap. She was blond and angel-faced, a replica of Jill at that age, the weight of her an embodied memory of that happy time in his life when he had been a young father. Yet another happy time.
The noise of family life returned to the room: The children making their demands and Ellie standing, herding them into the kitchen. Annie and Jill standing as well, “Who wants decaf?” Matt following to fetch the brandy. Gloria asked, “How can I help?” and the girls waved their hands, “Sit, sit. Finish your wine.”
“You misunderstood me,” Richard wanted to say, but the conversation had ended.
Courtney was pressing her little body against his chest, puffing at the nearest candle from the comfortable distance of just under his chin. She reached up to put her small hand to his cheek. “You help, Grandpa,” she said.
“Do you think I can do it?” he asked her, and she said, charming child, “Certainly you can.”
He glanced only briefly at Gloria as he leaned forward, over the child’s head. She was watching them both, smiling — the dimple was back — but with a certain arrogance, he thought. As if her sorrow had made her prescient. As if she saw the end of his luck somewhere, if not in his own fortunate life then in his children’s, his children’s children’s. As if she understood, but he did not, that it would take no more than a breath, a loosened blood clot, a bad gene — the cold work of some invisible hand, striking unexpectedly from out of the darkness — to put an end to it all, his happiness, his complacency, his many blessings.
He leaned over the child’s head and blew out the candle. Courtney clapped her hands.
He had intended to say “lucky,” even to rap his knuckles on the table as he spoke. But he said “blessed” instead. Looking back, he thought he might have added, “Have mercy on us,” just to make himself clear.
But it was a toast he had stood to offer, a Thanksgiving toast. No one had asked him for a prayer.
Alice McDermott’s latest novel, “Someone,” which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is just out in paperback.
Related stories: Fiction by Edwidge Danticat; fiction by TM Shine; Writing Ernestly: How eight novelists scored when run through the Hemingway app; Crunched: Top-shelf writers with Washington connections.
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