“Will you stop it?” I nervously repeated to my brother John. “Stop it; I just want to get home before someone sees us.” We were schlepping a huge wire shopping cart filled with a big bird, a big dead bird, and all the accoutrements for the next day’s Thanksgiving dinner. The sign on the cart read, “DO NOT REMOVE FROM PARKING LOT.” I was 13 years old and my sibling 11. John was driving me crazy by jumping on the over-stuffed cart, watching him slip and slide down the icy sidewalks on the way back to our apartment. We had been ordered by our mother to make this mile long trek to the super market because we had just experienced our first winter storm and she didn’t want to drive there with my step-father’s car. She didn’t own her own vehicle. We may have been poor but one thing my mother did try to do was have delicious meals on the table. But, they came with a price, always! The beginning of today’s outlay was; we were frozen to the bone as we pushed the cart through the snow dodging any kids playing outside who might go to our local elementary school. We were both humiliated for not following the rules, (my brother less so than I) and for taking the cart. We didn’t want to be seen by any of our peers, and we were dreading the trip back. Oh yes, we did have to return the empty cart and then walk home again.
In our house meal time was a huge production, even everyday meals. Holiday dinners were especially dramatic. We had purchased everything on the list and didn’t dare sneak any treats for ourselves because once my brother had stolen a candy bar from the drugstore and my mother made him return it and apologize to the druggist. I, too, had taken some colored cotton balls from a friend’s bathroom and was reprimanded severely. Neither one of us wanted to face my mother’s wrath so we made sure we only brought back what she requested. By the time we returned home, the final trip, it was cocktail hour. She and my stepfather “Cee” had just begun to warm up from the bitter cold outside. John and I unpacked the groceries eyeing everything that was needed for the Thanksgiving dinner. We were starving. Actually we were hungry most of the time. The reason being; there were NO snacks allowed in our house and by the time we would finally eat dinner each evening it would be around 8:00 – 9:00 pm. As we were putting away all the items in the refrigerator we spotted a box of Mavrakos Chocolate Turtles on the second shelf halfway to the back. It was new, for we hadn’t seen it earlier. What was distressing for two hungry kids was the sign that read, “PRIVATE PROPERTY, DO NOT TOUCH.”
Wow, this fueled our anger and we began plotting how we could get some of those turtles. We knew Cee had planned to offer chocolate to his guests and that it was hands off for us. We were never allowed the same delicacies as he. Cee had a lot more money than we did and he didn’t like to share. My brother and I were called “It” and “Ut” and were in the way of his codependent relationship with our mother. The food for the Thanksgiving meal was a different story. Because it was a holiday and my dear Aunt Letha and Uncle Wally were invited, we knew we would be fed. But that wasn’t until the next day. We couldn’t stop thinking about the box of candy. We wanted to taste the gooey, rich, caramel and pecan chocolates. So began our scheme.
John said, “I will get the chocolates from the refrigerator but I need to wait until they have had more to drink.” It was about 4:00 pm and both my mother and Cee were glued to the kitchen where they had easy access to the fresh turkey and the liquor cabinet. My stepfather had been sitting at the end of the table all day and was happy to direct my mother’s culinary skills. She was the chef but he insisted on acting like he was contributing to the cooking. That evening, before the big day, I was asked to make sandwiches because they were busy cleaning the bird, and preparing special stuffing, vegetables and sweet potato dishes. I did this gladly because my brother and I were so hungry and it meant we wouldn’t have to wait until 8:00 or 9:00 pm to eat. As I was making the tuna salad I was eagerly observing their every move. I noticed with each dish they created, the box of turtles was slipping further to the back of the refrigerator, almost out of sight. My brother would feign interest in their progress, peeking into the icebox. He too wanted to make sure the chocolates were still there. We all ate our sandwiches at 7:00 pm and the two adults finished their work around 10:00 pm. Of course each endeavor was preceded by a cocktail. By the time they were ready for bed they were both pretty crocked.
Phase One was over, they were asleep. We now were ready for Phase Two: retrieving the box of candy from the refrigerator, taking our share, and returning the turtles without being caught. John and I agreed to meet in the hall and from there we tiptoed into the kitchen. We were fearful of turning on any lights so we felt our way to the icebox. We opened it carefully using the inside light as our guide. Our first hurdle was the turkey that weighed 20 lbs.; not easy to move quietly. I held the door open with my back while each of us used both our arms to lift it out. We were careful not to scrap the pan as we dragged it from its position. What we didn’t do was agree on where to put it while we worked. It was dark in the kitchen and we couldn’t see each others eyes, so for a few seconds we were left holding the bird midway in the air. I was frustrated because I was afraid of speaking at all. Finally I whispered, “Move it to the table.” With a loud clunking sound it landed on the metal surface. We both froze for a few seconds thinking we had been heard. When nothing happened we preceded to move the other dishes out of the way. We knew we had to work quickly and chose to leave all the food on the table. John grabbed the Mavrakos and we tiptoed to my bedroom where I had hidden a flashlight earlier in the day.
The brown and white chocolate box was wrapped in a layer of cellophane. There was a folded flap on both ends of the candy. I took a nail file from my mother’s manicure set (she always left it in my room hoping the some day I would care for my nails the way she cared for hers) and cautiously wiggled the file under the fold. It was tedious. I knew I couldn’t tear the paper and take the chance of being found out. I also was afraid Cee would awaken. Vacillating between patience and apprehension, I opened one end of the clear plastic covering. With my right hand I gingerly pushed the box through until I could pull it out without disturbing the surface. It worked! We were “In like Flynn.” John and I were both so excited we could barely contain our emotions. Inside were three layers of luscious cocoa brown turtles just waiting to be eaten? We pigged out! I must have eaten six by myself. I didn’t count how many my brother ate. When our cravings were satisfied, we were down to one layer. Uh oh! What to do now? I carefully folded the two pieces of parchment which had separated the layers and put them in my pocket. To fill the space I lined the chocolates neatly in rows. We then returned the Mavrakos to its plastic cover. We were lucky, it slid right in. I licked the flap and miraculously it re-stuck. Feeling quite smug we retraced our steps and returned first the chocolates then the rest of the food to the refrigerator. We each went to our individual bed and fell asleep feeling proud of ourselves.
The next morning everyone in the household was up early. Cee was already perched on his throne, the heavy metal chair at the end of the kitchen table. There was an empty shot glass next to his coffee cup. These days he spent most of his time grunting and grumbling under his breath about the two “Things,” (my brother and I) he was forced to have in his life. Warily he made a list of the appetizers, entrée, side dishes and desserts without ever making eye contact with either John or me. He had organized the menu in outline form. With great effort I tried to read what was on Cee’s tablet as I was concocting the cranberry salad. I was especially interested in the last section: D for Desserts. There it was the last item on this lengthy bill of fare, Mavrakos Chocolate Turtles! As he always said, “Save the best for last!” This was before the days of fancy truffles when turtles were the finest offering for a special occasion. Oh dear! I was worried.
What I enjoyed the most about holidays at our house was decorating the dining room table. My mother didn’t feel confident with design and it since it was evident to everyone that I was the artist she left this part of the celebration to me. She was the gourmet and she wanted her food to be shown as beautifully as possible. This always went well because no one else wanted the job and I actually loved it.
I started with the table. We had an old, worn, heavy, mahogany, monstrosity when opened up held twelve people. Unfortunately I needed Cee’s help putting in the leaves. He managed to pull himself from his seat in the kitchen because I think he enjoyed what I did with the decorations. From the closet in our apartment that held linens I chose a beautiful beige crocheted cloth that my Aunt Letha had made. My Aunt had generously brought over her silverware earlier in the week which we always appreciated. For the centerpiece; I hollowed a pumpkin, zigzagged the edge, and filled it with miniature papier-mâché gourds which I had made ahead of time. Each cloth napkin was rolled and tied with an earth colored ribbon and topped with a twisted ribbon rose. I drew the name of each guest in calligraphy on colored paper placards. Burnt orange tapers, wrapped in tissue paper from the year before, went into my mother’s silver candle sticks. (We never burned candles; they were only for decoration, which made it possible to reuse them several times before they faded.) I wished setting a table and beautifying the dining room could go on all day. I much preferred this to being in the crowded kitchen where the atmosphere was progressively deteriorating the more my mother and Cee had to drink. Usually cocktail hour started at 4:00 pm but on a holiday it began as the meal was being prepared. In other words, it went on all day.
“KAY! KAY! KAYEEEEEEEE,” my mother shrieked. “COME IN HERE! You were supposed to make a pie! A pumpkin pie!
“You never told me that!” I said and I started getting a stomach ache. (I had so many stomach aches in my youth I wished I could wear a heating pad under my clothes.)
“Why do you think I had you buy all the ingredients for a pumpkin pie if you weren’t going to make it? I don’t do pies! I do cakes!” My mother had already prepared a sumptuous chocolate up-side-down cake. It was true, her cakes were amazing, but I knew nothing of pie baking and was totally taken aback with her request. “Get busy, you still have time. Use the ready-made crust in the freezer.” Oh dear, I wasn’t a cook and didn’t feel comfortable in their kitchen. When I read the recipe I was a relieved to see that this pie would miraculously solidify in the refrigerator. It didn’t have to be baked.
“But do I have enough time?” I thought. Our guests were due to arrive in three hours. “Oh well, I’d better go for it.” Fortunately this seemed like an easy method to make a dessert. I carefully got out all the ingredients I needed, plus the proper utensils, and lined them up on the kitchen counter. I had to pile a few items on top of each other because my mother was using most of the counter space. I had learned in school to take my time and carefully read the measurements: 1 can pumpkin (15 oz.,) 4 oz. PHILADELPHIA Cream Cheese (softened,) 1 Tbsp. milk, 1 Tbsp. sugar, 1 tub (8 oz.) COOL WHIP Whipped Topping, and so on. The instructions were very clear but I was a nervous wreck. I did the best I could under the circumstances. When I was finished, I hesitantly balanced the pie plate and put it in the cold refrigerator nearby the turtles.
When our guests began arriving around 5:00 pm I happily served them hors d’oeuvres which consisted of cream cheese spread in celery, sprinkled with paprika, which I had made myself. At the time I thought that was a big deal and loved eating them as well. There was a five minute discourse as to the correct pronunciation of paprika. Was it “papreeka” or “papraka?” This drove me nuts. I couldn’t care less. Cee was in charge of the drinks which were mixed cocktails. The booze flowed freely and the noise level increased with each hour of the party. It was expected that my brother John and I would entertain the group of adults with our rehearsed vaudeville routine. There was a small space in the alcove between the living room and the dining room which we used as our stage. The two of us loved performing and this was our chance to get some attention from our family. What we didn’t expect was what we happened that night.
We put on our costumes and danced to jazzy music coming from our 78 record player. It was so much fun! I took myself quite seriously and thought I was the next Isadora Duncan. My brother wasn’t much of a dancer but he was called rubber legs for the way he could twist his torso like a pretzel. We always looked forward to these family recitals. All of a sudden Cee began mimicking what he had seen at Vaudevillians Theater: “Get off the stage,” he shouted. “You are done, you are a has-been.” At the same time he pretended to throw rotten eggs. “Take this you two. Take this!”
My mother at first looked surprised and then to my astonishment she too began shouting. “Here is a rotten tomato!” with a theatrical arm throwing gesture as if she were pitching a baseball. All the guests participated in this improvisation to our horror! We were devastated! Both John and I ran to our room crying while the group, slurring their words, practically in unison, called us spoiled sports. So much for partying and living it up with liquor!
Aunt Letha came to our room to try and patch things up. She didn’t participate in the drama but she was too afraid of my mother and Cee to support our feelings. “They were just playing and kidding around,” she said. “They didn’t mean any harm.” She was looking down at the chipped linoleum, kicking it with her foot, and she added, “Come back to the group. It is time for dinner.”
Neither John nor I wanted to look at any of these people we called relatives but we were hungry. We begrudgingly left our spot on the floor of our bedroom and took our place at the table. The turkey with all the trimmings looked spectacular on the colorful table. I felt a rush of excitement for the part I played in making the environment look so inviting. For a minute I felt like I was in another world; a world of beauty, balance and harmony. But it didn’t last long. One of the adults said, “Oh Letha, isn’t this the bedspread you made for Aunt Martha?” She was referring to the magnificent crocheted tablecloth I had chosen from the linen closet. Everyone looked down at the table and immediately let out a roar of laughter. I indeed had picked the bedspread which was thicker and bumpier than the more delicate tablecloth. I felt terrible. It wasn’t funny to me.
Most of the meal was spent with the sounds of silence, with the exception of the occasional lip smacking from Uncle Joe who claimed the louder the smacking, the better the food. I don’t remember Grace having been recited nor do I remember giving thanks for anything. After dinner we paused for a least an hour for everyone to refill their high- ball glasses. My brother and I crouched in a corner fiddling with a deck of cards. We were dreaming of the desserts and couldn’t wait to take our pick. We knew we would have to wait for the adults to get inebriated before they wanted the sweets but didn’t take long.
Soon someone said, “Where is that pumpkin pie I heard Kay made?” I was kind of excited myself because I had never made a pie before today. Cee piped up with, “We also have Jane’s delicious chocolate up-side-down cake and Mavrako’s Turtles.” I helped my Aunt carry in the choices and back to the table we went. In fact my mouth was almost watering. Everyone wanted the pie over my mother’s chocolate cake. I watched her carefully because I didn’t want her to feel my dessert was getting more attention than her up-side-down creation. She didn’t seem to mind and was anxious to taste the pie. My heart sank at the first slice of the knife. It was absolutely liquefied; it wasn’t in the solid state it was supposed to be. What happened? I’ll never know for sure. Did I measure wrong or wasn’t there enough time in the refrigerator? Everyone insisted on trying it. I couldn’t believe what happened next. The whole family exclaimed how delicious it was, some even saying it was the best pumpkin pie they had ever eaten. At the same time they were raving about the pie, Cee was opening the box of turtles. “Humph,” he said. “They certainly don’t give you very much for your money anymore. They are about the same as the price of gold. Enjoy, have a chocolate.” So much for partying and living it up with liquor!
Kay is now living an amazing life with her husband Bryan of 21 years (who just happens to be 19 years her junior.) in Northern California. To complete their family they adopted a daughter at birth when Kay was 54 years of age. Besides being a mother and wife she continues with her love of painting, writing, teaching and speaking on the subject of codependency and children of alcoholics. Her passion is not only the arts but to help people through her inspirational story. Her courage, stamina, and faith have given her direction and the gift of helping give others hope. Kay has several published articles, lectures and does workshops for The Mandana Center in Oakland, CA. For more information on Kay please visit www.isurviveddocumentary.com