“I dreamed last night I got on the boat to Heaven, and by some chance I had brought my dice along. And there I stood. And I hollered, ‘Someone fade me!’ But the passengers, they knew right from wrong…”
~ Gambler Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Stubby Kaye), Guys and Dolls, 1955
It’s raining. I’m sitting at home while it monsoons outside. I’m doing nothing. That’s not completely true. I’m roasting a small turkey. I want to smell a holiday that isn’t smoky Independence Day. It’s July 9th, so by Miami rules – that celebration would still be happening if it weren’t for the weather. Even yesterday I heard so many bangs echoing I couldn’t decide if they were firecrackers or gunshots. Either way, I was out of range.
Making the turkey without my family isn’t nearly as cool as I hoped it would be.
I flip through the cable channels and catch a glimpse of an old favorite. The classic story about life, lies, luck and love. A movie where the heroes are imperfect and the women are confused. Historical cinema about rolling the dice, taking a chance, losing and finding your faith over and over.
No, not The Ten Commandments!
I’m talking about Guys and Dolls.
I’m not feeling very lucky these days. I’m doing everything I can to stay on an even keel while the world spins so fast around me, I could be inside a butter churn. I just need to sit down.
I shut off the lights and pretend I’m at one of my favorite places in the world. A Drive In theater, but one where would they serve me turkey. The celluloid gamblers start to sing.
“I got the horse right here. The name is Paul Revere. And there’s a guy who says if the weather’s clear – can do. Can do. The guy says the horse can do. I told ya Paul Revere! This is no bum steer. It’s from a handicapper who’s real sincere! Can do!”
Maybe the horse can, but I can’t seem to do whatever it is I should be doing. I also think about my mother, my grandfather and wonder when you know if you should rock the boat.
“I’m done with them, too!” Mom slams her antiquated KitchenAid mixer onto the counter. We’re cooking desserts two days in advance for Thanksgiving and watching an old musical on television because everyone in our family refuses to be restricted to one activity at a time.
“Who?” I ask as I pull down her big recipe file. “The gamblers?” I point at the television.
“Those Baptists!” She scrapes the heavy milky white bowl across the Formica.
“There aren’t any Baptists in this movie, Mum.”
“Easy, easy,” Dad warns as he passes through the house on his way to the garage. “I just paid to have those redone! And stop rocking the boat!”
Dad has two pet peeves. The countertops and – oh you know – the toilets. In his mind’s eye, some irresponsible family member is always lurking the shadows plotting new ways to mar one or both of the two household items he just paid to have fixed. A grandchild, he secretly believes, is just waiting to take a hot steaming pan of clam chowder off the stove, slam it down on the new Harvest Gold breakfast bar, then toss the can into the toilet and flush. This will invariably be followed by the mock-shock exclamation, “What did I do? I didn’t do anything!”
Although the cousins are as close as siblings, even as adults they are not above pointing a finger at any available hapless scapegoat in the immediate area. They are the Tom Sawyers of passing the blame buck.
“Oh dear God! Oh my Christ! Oh, shit on a stick!” Sissy whispers frantically.
It’s around ten o’clock Christmas Eve and she and I are cleaning up the last dinner to start prepping the next. The kitchen is a mess and we shuffled our parents off to their room so we could do our thing. Sissy and I love to cook together and prepare holiday
experiments I mean, special dishes for the Big Day. We are known in certain circles (OK, mostly stunt people) for our traditional turkey recipe. Like every recipe we know – it starts with a pound of “buttah.” Nana didn’t make a dish that didn’t “Staht witha pounda buttah.” She was convinced it just wouldn’t be any good otherwise. That is probably why most of us still sneak a pad of butter on our pizza slice if our health-conscious kids aren’t looking.
The rest of the recipe is included at the bottom of the blog if you need a laugh. It is from my homemade cookbook entitled, “If I Die, YOU Can Still Have A Holiday Dinner!” and written expressly for my son and Baby J because Nicole won’t touch a dead turkey.
The person in charge of injecting the turkey for this Christmas Day dinner while the rest of us cleaned up must have set the hot pan of maple syrup on the counter. The pan was suspiciously gone, but the yellow ring on the kitchen countertop – now a shade of Faux White Stone – is shining like a summer rainbow of scorch.
“Jumpin’ Jesus on a Palomino!” I blanch way too loudly.
“Now what?” Dad roars from the bedroom. “I heard that! Is the toilet overflowing? Don’t tell me that toilet is overflowing already! It’s not even Christmas yet!”
“Nothinggggggggg!” Sissy calls back in a tremulous chirp and turns up the television. Chevy Chase has been trying to make the perfect holiday in a marathon that lasted all day long. Since ten this morning, people revolve in and out of the house and each time the movies ends, new viewers sit to watch it start all over again. By five in the evening, Dad finally looked up from his paper and said, “I think I’ve seen this one before, but I can watch it again.”
Sissy and I frantically powered up every single device that could help us find a possible solution. “Many companies offer special cleaners to remove burn marks…,” she reads.
“I can’t hear you! The TV’s too loud!”
I shake my head. “Whattya kiddin’ me? It’s CHRISTMAS EVE! There’s no store open that sells that whatever it says!” I am freaking out. Sissy snaps her fingers and pulls me down the hall and into the bathroom.
“Ok, listen to this. Mix plain, non-abrasive toothpaste with baking soda until you have a thick paste. Make more than you think you might need so you don’t have to stop during cleaning to make more.”
We set to work.
It doesn’t work.
“Something is missing.” Sissy muses. I realize she’s right.
“Put some buttah on it.” At three a.m. on Christmas morning, I can get my usually-reasonable sibling to agree on anything wacky. It did the trick.
Baby J, in her grown up Sesame Street pajamas, wanders through the kitchen innocently. “Add some maple syrup and it’s won’t smell like toothpaste!”
We give her the Evil Eye and she tries to retreat.
From the TV Clark Griswold blares, “Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse.”
I turn on her but Baby J deftly runs into a bedroom and my son locks the door before I can catch her. Sissy and I go back to the glowing stain.
Dad is up before us Christmas morning. “What a great day! Merry Christmas! Your turkey smells delicious already! In fact, even though I brushed my teeth…,”
Baby J saunters into the kitchen as my father finishes on his way out for the newspaper.
“…. I can already taste the butter and maple!” He’s licking his lips.
Sissy and I whirled around. “Come here, you! What did you do?” I hiss at my niece.
Baby J opens her eyes wide and bats them at me. “What did I do? I didn’t do anything! Excuse me for being the winner and finding GRANDPA’S TOOTHBRUSH FOR HIM!”
“For the people all said, ‘Siddown! Siddown you’re rocking the boat!’ The people all said, ‘Siddown! Siddown you’re rocking the boat! The Devil will drag you under by the sharp lapel of your checkered coat! Siddown! Siddown! Siddown! Siddown, you’re rocking the boat!’”
“Those Baptists!” Mom rails some more on the Baptists.
Those of you Gentle Readers who follow our story will remember my mother was excommunicated from the Catholic Church, given the boot by the Greeks and was now presently a Baptist. She joined the local Baptist Church because she liked services and was welcomed so easily that it washed away some of the rejection-sting of the past. The preacher, Reverend Russ, was a special favorite of hers. We all liked him. He was kind, funny, non-judgy and could whip up various concoctions that ended up as homemade ice cream. Reverend Russ didn’t care who was married, remarried or just plain divorced. He considered trashing other religions “horse pucky” and preached tolerance and respect. Rev didn’t care a whit about drinking or dancing. He was not one of “those Baptists.” All he wanted was to get people to remember exactly what he’d written in my mother’s Bible. “Love reaches down.” So help others and have faith. Simple.
But just as any church, temple or ashram of any faith, even the good Rev’s flock had some pains in the asses.
“Lil was in the market buying wine for Thanksgiving and…,” Mom begins.
“Who’s Lil?” I can’t keep Mom’s friends straight. There’s Alice who always announces herself by sing-songing “Yoo-hoo! Me, Alice! I brought you some cookies and such!” And a whole collection of personalities who all get along great with Mom but don’t do well in groups. I secretly call them “her patients.”
“LIL! LIL! You know Lil!” When my mother starts making furious hand gestures with kitchen appliances, it is best to agree.
“Oh yes, of course! Lil!”
“Lil,” Mom nods affirmatively. “Anyway that Mabel comes right up to her in the store and embarrasses her! She starts yelling about how liquor is evil and leads to all things unclean. Can you imagine?”
Uh oh. “You didn’t say anything, did you?”
I’m afraid to look at her. I already know the answer and I also know we are both going to start laughing. We stare at Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando dancing around for a few minutes as Mom runs the ancient mixer. Once it begins to get that burny smell, she shuts it off.
“Well, not at first!” I look up but Mom doesn’t meet my eyes as she speaks. “I had to…you know…go over there because people were starting to gather around.”
Now I realize I know who Lil is. She’s a round chubby lady who shows up at every church event. She bakes, she sweeps and she sings. Pretty well, too. Lil is not an average church lady but she is very devoted to the congregation. Mabel is really named Mabel and I think it makes her mad because she is a nasty bitchbag.
“Mabel is a bitchbag,” I say.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Mom agrees as she pours batter into cake pans. “Even Jesus knows that! So when she keeps at Lil I just said, ‘What’s the big deal? Jesus turned water into wine so I hardly think He’s going to smote Lil down for a couple of bottles of Chardonnay!’”
That’s reasonable, I think. “So then what happened?”
I wish you could hear the noise I’m trying to spell. It’s a across between “Hmmm” and “Harump.” Essentially it’s “Hmmppp!” but you have to make sure to turn down the corners of your mouth and snap your neck a bit.
“Hmmppp!” Mom snaps her neck. “She wanted to tell me all about once being divorced and what does Jesus say about THAT!”
Uh oh. Again. “Then what, Mum?”
Mom shrugs. “I said, ‘Yes I was married before. I like a vodka and tonic before dinner and I can dance like…..”
“NO! Don’t say it, Mum! Wait! Yes! Say it!” I am already laughing.
“ELVIS!” she howls and stamps her feet. “Yes! Elvis was playing in the store and I started dancing to Hound Dog!” She adds shyly, “The other ladies even clapped.”
“But not Mabel?” I ask. Mom shakes her head, grinning. ”Oh no, you know there’s gonna be a call about that!”
I wish I could have seen it, because I know my mother. She would always throw down in the best ways. March with a protest sign or dance like The King. From the television, Nicely Nicely Johnson preaches in song and it makes us laugh harder.
“I sailed away on that little boat to Heaven. And by some chance found a bottle in my fist. And there I stood nicely passing out the whiskey, but the passengers were bound to resist! The people all said, ‘Siddown! Siddown you’re rockin’ the boat!’”
In the final days of home phones tethered to long tangled cords, my father opens the garage door, looks at us and shakes his head. “Margo! Are you guys deaf??? CAN’T YOU HEAR THE PHONE? Pick up the extension! Reverend Russ is on the phone and he wants to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!”
“I bet he does,” I say under my breath as my mother hurls a dishtowel at me. She wipes her hands on her apron and picks up the phone. “Hello?”
The conversation was short and I could only hear Mom’s side of it.
“Oh yes. That is absolutely true.”
I start to cringe. My mother didn’t deserve a reprimand for sticking up for someone. Especially not this year. I moved closer to listen. Mom starts laughing.
“She is! And I agree. Jesus does not want people being called out at the grocery store! Especially with all that Brandied Fruit she cooks up in that hillbilly still she calls a kitchen! Oh sure, I can still jitterbug like nobody’s business! Oh yes, I do too. I took my daughter to see him and it turned out to be his last tour. So she can say she saw Elvis live. It was pretty great! Yes, I will. I promise. Thanks so much and Happy Thanksgiving to you!”
Mom hangs up the phone. I can’t take the silence. “What did he say?”
My mother smiles a little smile; a modern day Mona Lisa. “He told me that Mabel called and he had to tell her to read Ephesians. ‘Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.’ And he told me that although he loves Guys and Dolls too, he disagrees with the song. He says rock the boat whenever you can!”
I should have known. What a cool guy.
“Then he said we should pray for her ‘cos she ‘ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog anyway’ but he will deny he ever said it!”
“You remember that,” Mom shoves the cakes into the oven. “You rock the boat when you need to! That’s what God really wants.” The television agrees.
“And as I laughed at those passengers to Heaven [Ha HA!], a great big wave came and washed me overboard. And as I sank and hollered, ‘Someone save me!’ That’s the moment I woke up, thank the Lord! And I said to myself, ‘Siddown! Siddown you’re rockin’ the boat!’ The Devil will drag you under, with a soul so heavy you’ll never float! Siddown! Siddown! Siddown! Siddown, you’re rocking the boat!’”
We both freeze for a second. We think about a rocking boat. A real one. But since we’re tough Irish chicks, we shake it off wordlessly.
Mom sighs. “Except when you’re…you know. In a real boat.”
I can tell she’s going to cry so I hop to the TV and flip to wrestling.
I think Reverend Russ knew Mom’s faith was a piece of thread tied to a brick swinging off a skyscraper. It had been less than a year since my grandfather’s lost body washed back into Scituate Harbor during a spring thaw.
The turkey smells good. I wonder if they’d let you roast one at the Drive In theater if you brought your own gear? Probably not and too bad. We still have a one of the few outdoor theaters left in the South. I don’t been the trendy South Beach show-it-on-a-building. I mean a real true Drive In. And I think I’ll go Friday night.
It’s been six months since my mother died. I think I have been sitting quietly for too long. Maybe it is time to rock the boat and dredge my mind’s harbor. At the very least, I can tell you more stories. Like what happened to my grandfather.
Author’s note: Below is turkey our way. Try not to drink the maple syrup.