In 2001 Thanksgiving Day Steve and I drive East on 66.
I was nervous to meet Steve’s Aunts and uncle and cousins, and nieces and their close friends. So we drive down the road and listen to all of Alice’s restaurant on the radio first.
I carry my bowl of Spinach salad with dried cranberries and mandarin oranges like Desiree told me to. Even meat eaters like it, she said. I take off my shoes in the mud room and place them beside the cowboy boots and heels and other boots and sneakers. I guess I thought they’d all be wearing cowboy boots. They wear socks or slippers inside.
The house is immaculate. Like church. The lady cousins greet me. Poofed- up hair and their makeup creates an expression of permanent curiosity. After dinner I wash dishes with the women sort of supervising, giving me a chance, and when it comes to the sink Violet says she’ll wash her own sink.
Year one I try to joke with them but don’t know how. I’m clumsy socially anyway, and I say stupid things. I ask, RJ, Do you love cattle? and RJ says seriously, It’s a business, like any other business. People hire him to say, this is the cow you want.
RJ’s a roper. He ropes calves. He rides on animals who try very hard to throw him. He and his herding dog, Ray win the prizes at the stock shows. The girls raise sheep in 4 -H and they win too. The two girls hunt and there are pictures of them with rifles in their hands holding dead birds with wings spread and kneeling beside dead animals. RJ’s dad, Bobby, was a roper. They went to Madison Square garden and won the prize and got offers but all they wanted to do was get home to Colorado.
Year two Uncle Bobby dies and at the viewing they place the white cowboy hat he got for Christmas on his head. They keep the dirt under his fingernails. The enormous Lifebridge church on 66 and Gay is packed with farmers, and people from the town and people fly in. I’m not really family so I sit in the back during the service and then in the third truck, a Chevy, as Steve and I drive to the plot. The coffin is lowered into the ground and Violet throws the first fist of earth.
After five Thanksgivings, after dinner I sit on the puffy enormous couch and read the New Yorker while the family watches football on the wide screen and talks. There is no walk after dinner, no talk of politics. Once we played charades. The girls go out and ride their 3 wheelers and the men shoot clay pigeons.
Meat is beef. Chicken is sort of in-between a vegetable and meat. There are the green beans and the salads. Green salad means green salad and salad is also marshmallow salad and jello salad. I load up on the marshmallow salad. Teresa made apple and pumpkin pies and whipped cream. There are brownies and there is cake and homemade cookies.
Thanksgiving number seven the gathering is at a friend’s house. And Steve introduces me as his fiancé. Then I get the humor. “His finance” the women whisper, like it’s fancy language. Steve’s a massage therapist and the women say, Oh Steve, my back, Oh Steve my neck, and laugh. When it’s time for portraits or photos the guys wear their black cowboy hats and they stand, shoulders turned, and look directly into the eye of the camera.
They pop my preconceptions one after the other. One day I was some rumor girl Steve talked about from the East coast and the next day I was their family. They are puzzled by my sarcastic humor. Steve does acupuncture on uncle Bobby’s knees. They aren’t afraid of bodies. If a child’s back is hurt, they get back rub. They are smart and sincere. I mean to say, There I was, privileged to be in their presence, somehow in the middle of a place I didn’t belong, in the house of people who had been raising cattle for generations. They were polite, sophisticated, easy going, family oriented, and just when I thought I’d figured them out the sisters take a trip to Paris, for the fashion, to New York, for the city. One year, in our prayer circle before the meal, I notice they’re all wearing crocs.
Year 16 like all the years, RJ leads the prayer. He takes his cap off and asks the Lord to help those who aren’t here, who couldn’t make it, who have gone on. He thanks the Lord for the family, the good food, and we all look down and say Amen. My eyes well up from it. I tell him he should be a pastor, his booming voice.
You know why that is, he says, It’s because you can feel God come through.
RJ’s a modern cowboy. He offered to use his mileage points to get me a plane ticket to Steve’s dad’s funeral in Arizona and I traveled with the women cousins. We walked right through security without taking our shoes off or putting our things in a plastic ziplock bag.
Out back the cows are in a fenced area. RJ’s dad, Bobby taught him everything. RJ goes to Wisconsin and says this one, not this one. Their water is warm in the winter.
Year 19, my last Thanksgiving with them, after dinner I go out back to see the cows. They all have ear tags and they’re quite vocal. The cows slowly walk to the fence and sniff the air. We’re new to each other and I’m nervous as they walk toward me and look. I look into their huge eyes with long lashes. “They’re just curious,” RJ says.