January Exercise: Sunday Dinner

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January Exercise: Sunday Dinner
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Mon, 01-15-2001 - 3:22pm

January Exercise: Sunday Dinner


****This is an excerpt from a key scene in my novel, so is not entirely self-contained and a few preliminary notes are in order: Claire and RH were forced to move to RH's family farm in Iowa when the Depression cost him his job in KC. They have two children, Roberta--2, and Carl Eugene--6 mos. Claire has a rocky relationship with RH's mother, Julia, but Claire keeps trying. The setting is the home of RH's parents, Julia and Carl, the end of Sunday dinner, mid-November, 1932. Also present are Samuel, RH's older brother, & his wife Dolly; Sadie Mae, RH's little sister; & Edgar, Sadie's boyfriend. (And the above note is NOT included in my 1,000 word limit!)****

"Mother Julia, this cake is delicious," Claire said, smiling at her mother-in-law. "Perhaps you can teach me your secret to baking. I'm sure Robert Henry would appreciate it, maybe even as much as Roberta."

Everyone laughed, looking at the sticky little two-year-old with icing in her hair. Julia merely nodded, but she seemed pleased. Under the table Robert Henry gently squeezed Claire's hand. Claire returned the squeeze, then leaned over and kissed his cheek, suddenly filled with a simple joy and faith that everything was going to work out. She then turned her attention to Dolly, who was talking to Julia about Thanksgiving.

"My mother gave Samuel and me a heaping basket of sweet potatoes," Dolly was saying, "she had such a large crop this year, so I thought I'd candy a batch for Thanksgiving and that would be one less thing you'd need worry about." She turned to Claire. "Heavens, Claire, you think Mother Julia's cake is good, just wait 'til you taste her mincemeat pie--she only makes it at Thanksgiving--lands, I can taste it already."

Claire pierced her last bite of cake and lifted her fork. "I'm sorry we'll miss it," she said.

Julia's head snapped up. "Why would you miss it?"

Claire's fork stopped mid-air; she thought Robert Henry had told them. "We won't be here for Thanksgiving," she said. "We're going to Kansas City, to my mother's." Claire could tell from Julia's expression this was the first she'd heard of it. The conversation around the table stopped. Claire put her fork down and turned to Robert Henry. "Robert Henry, didn't you tell them? I thought you were going to tell them."

Robert Henry shifted uncomfortably. "Now Claire, that was never decided on," he said in a low voice. "We just talked about it, that's all." He pressed at the crumbs of cake on his plate with his fork.

Claire felt the blood drain from her face. "Yes, we talked about it," she said. "We talked about going down and spending time with Charlie, remember, and visiting with Fredrick and Irma." She turned to Dolly. "My brother and sister-in-law are coming in from Los Angeles, my mother sent me a letter," she explained for some reason, then turned back to Robert Henry. "We talked about it and you never said no and it's been two weeks, so I just assumed--"

Julia cut Claire off with a wave of her hand. Fixing her stare on Robert Henry, she said, "You mean to tell me you're planning on taking that infant in that bassinette over there on an automobile trip to the city? In winter weather? What kind of a fool idea is that?"

Robert Henry said nothing.

Claire's head began to pound. "Doc Grover said it would be fine, Carl Eugene's nearly six weeks old now," she said, toying with her fork. "And we're not driving, we're taking the train." Then before she could stop herself she added under her breath, "A train's a lot warmer than that drafty old house we live in, anyhow."

Samuel heard her and his eyes narrowed. "That drafty old house you refer to was good enough for this family to live in," he said. "I reckon it's good enough for you and your kids, too."

"Eat your cake, Samuel," Dolly said, flustered.

Roberta began to fuss and Sadie Mae jumped up, glad for the opportunity to escape the storm. She lifted Roberta and took her into the kitchen. Edgar followed with his eyes, obviously wishing desperately he could go with her, yet he stayed rooted to his seat.

Julia kept her eyes locked on Robert Henry's face.

"Taking the train, are you?" she asked. "And how do you have money to take a family of four on the train? I reckon that Claire's mother sent you the money for that, too? Well, I suppose it's none of my business what that woman does with her money, it's not for me to judge but the good Lord only. But in this family, the way family shows they care is by sticking together, being together at holidays and such. This would have been your first Thanksgiving at home, son, since you moved away to the city and--"

"No, that's not true," Claire said, looking straight at Julia.

"Claire," Robert Henry started.

"But it's not, Robert Henry," Claire insisted. "We were here for Thaksgiving three years ago, the first Thanksgiving we were married."

"That's true enough," Carl said, grateful there was something uncontestable he could contribute to the conversation.

"And I have a family, too," Claire went on. "My son Charlie's in Kansas City and I'd like to spend the holiday with him." Edgar's eyebrows shot up. Claire noted his reaction and in a flash she was angry. "That surprises you, Edgar? I don't suppose Sadie Mae ever told you I have another son by a different marriage. Perhaps she forgot; it seems quite convenient for this family to forget about that." She turned back to Robert Henry. "And you, Robert Henry, did you forget too?" Her voice began to tremble. "We talked about this, Robert Henry, and you said--"

"Yes, we talked, but I don't remember coming to a decision," Robert Henry said softly but firmly. "Get a hold of yourself, Claire. Mom's concerns make some good sense. And there's no need to go off on Edgar here."

Claire looked at Edgar; the boy appeared mortified. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Edgar, I do owe you an apology," she said quietly. Then, with a quick but pointed glance at Julia: "We all do. It seems we have forgotten our manners." She lowered her eyes. But you may as well learn now, she thought.

Claire turned back to Robert Henry. "I guess we'll just have to talk about it some more, then," she said, folding her napkin. "At home."

Julia at last turned her steely eyes to Claire. She looked at Claire for a very long while, then she spoke slowly and deliberately. "You are at home, right here," she said. "This is your home now, this farm that feeds you, feeds your children. The same people who own this farm and who own this house here, own the house you sleep in, too, don't you forget it." She pushed herself away from the table. "And you shouldn't feel the need to make apologies to anyone at my dinner table for anybody's behavior but your own." With that she stood up, signaling dinner, and the conversation, was over.