Paul Stukowski, Jan 04, 2007
I couldn�t put my finger on what was so strange. I had grown into adulthood with little on my mind, and the occasional family reunion, while inexplicably odd, seemed, on the surface, to be no different than those detailed by my school friends. We would gather from across the country, from south and northeast and west and Midwest, and descend upon the home of whichever family branch was designated to host in that year. We would talk about our lives, eat, drink, and say things which we would never declare in public. Each year, we would gossip about the others, and inevitably one family member would not be able to make it, whether it be sickness or work or some other from the myriad excuses. This loss would hardly be acknowledged, what with the new born family members drinking in our attention greedily, and the size of my family seems to grow large enough to populate a country of their own.
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This year, my parents were assigned to host, and I made preparations to extricate myself from school for the weekend, having no desire to be the missing sheep at the party. I felt no remorse at leaving classes, since academia bored me, and graduation did not require any great labor on my part, so I took a whole week off, permitting me to assist in the busy work of catering to the whole of my extended family. My brothers and sisters, busy with school and lovers, were mostly unseen, even my younger siblings too preoccupied to do the heavy lifting until night fell and they returned from after-school activities. This left me alone with aunts and uncles, all bustling around with my parents, drawing up plans for barbecue and baked goods to feed the hundred or so of us who would be coming.
We decorated with streamers between the trees in the yard, a pavilion to ward off rain and wind, glistening white plastic tables and chairs, adorned with durable tablecloths and plastic flowers, and in the later days of the week, we began the arduous task of inflating silver and white balloons, two for each family member, strung together and tied off around the pavilion. We made eight wedding sized cakes, of a gamut of flavors from chocolate to vanilla to strawberry or banana. Tiny pastries were stacked high on metal trays, and vegetable platters arranged with a variety of dips, from standard ranch dressing to garlic and dill cream cheese to a yellow concoction I was told was named hummus. Bags and bags of potatoes were cut and partially cooked to be reheated for the big day, as mashed or boiled or fries (to be mostly done the last minute) or made au gratin or whatever we felt like making and not tell everyone else so we could surprise each other. Pastas, from spaghetti to rigatoni to elbow noodles, were boiled throughout the day and then cooled to make pasta salad for all. Drinks were bought, and choice hams and chickens and turkeys and hamburgers and hotdogs and a few steaks for select members of the family were haggled away from shop owners, and those that could be excusably pre-cooked were prepared a day ahead. An uncle and I spent a day cutting and preparing stuffed peppers, and a dish of cucumber slices, dressed with mayonnaise and vinegar, which I had fond memories of as a child.
The order of the festivities, dictated by tradition, would have us all wake and gather in the morning, and throughout the day, we would eat and talk and some of the cousins would take turns playing music and singing and performing other forms of merriment. We would all sit for lunch and dinner, when whoever was hosting had finished cooking enough food for us all. Lunch would see us have whatever we wished to take from the buffet, and for dinner, there would always be a pig�s torso that we would all do our best to have a slice from, which was cooked for the entire day in a secret family process, to be unveiled at the last moment. On the day before everyone arrived, I inquired of my uncle when the pig would be purchased. He was unaware of how that process was going, so we went to my parents, to see if they needed any assistance in the procurement and process. Having never thought much on it before, I was surprised to find that the idea of finally learning the family secret thrilled me. I attribute this as the cause of the smile upon my face as I talked with my mother.
�Yes, dear,� she said in answer to our inquiry, �we know it�s pretty late to get the main course, but your father�s dad was supposed to bring it this year, and apparently he won�t be able to fly out until the last moment. He�s going to be late making it to the party, so we�ll have to find another one on our own.�
This vexed me, and I offered my services to do whatever I could to help save the family tradition.
�That would be wonderful dear. I suppose if you are done with everything else you have to do, we could use you.�
My uncle nodded his assent that my work was completed, and I brightened at the thought. And so, with everyone�s approval, I went with my uncle and my father to the butcher�s shop. The old man was a friend of the family, and we quickly apprised him of our predicament. He looked me up and down, and asked me about how I was doing in college, as we walked into the back room where he kept the corpses.
�You�ve grown quite a bit,� he said. �And you�re getting a little chubby. I suppose that college food has done right by you.�
I shrugged, with nothing to say to this.
�It should only take me a few hours to prepare what you need. I suppose there�s no need to get too fancy with the cut?�
�None whatsoever,� my father replied.
�It�s nice of you to do this, boy. Your family has been coming to me off and on for years, every time the reunion is in town. It�s good to see the next generation caring so much for tradition. It was nice knowing you.� With this, I felt a blow at the back of my head. I stumbled, and gasped.
�He�s not out yet. Hit him again.�
�You did a wonderful job this year. The food is just amazing.�
�Thanks, our middle son helped prepare much of it.�
�Oh, where is he? I haven�t seen him.�
�Well, his grades were getting pretty bad, so we decided he should go back to school and catch up on studying. He�s probably going to drop out though. He doesn�t really have a future the way he�s going, I�m afraid.�
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