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What to Do When Thanksgiving's Special Guest Doesn't Show

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I’d just heaved the turkey into the oven when I got the call from the Famous Author’s wife. “So sorry. We can’t come.”

Disaster. Famous Author, not Turkey, was the reason for this particular group of friends who’d agreed to celebrate the Feast of Togetherness at our nuclear family table.

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Despair. I’d spent far more hours working out who would sit next to whom than I had on my wild-mushroom dressing or bourbon-pecan pies.

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We were only ten, which made the strategies of jockeying for position all the more vital. Everyone would want to sit on the right or left of, or just across from the FA. His name was good for at least a year’s casual dropping. As in, “Well FA told me at Thanksgiving when he refilled my glass of port that it was all poppycock.”

My kids would be glad because they hated the FA’s brat boy. He stole their candy and broke their crayons. Banished to the TV room upstairs, my kids could now watch The Wizard of Oz in peace until summoned to endure dinner at their own little table next to the big one.

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Everyone else would want me to Drop Dead. Including:

  • the Victorian Bachelor, everybody’s go-to extra man, who sat at the best tables, knew all the gossip and transmitted same;
  • the Would-be Novelist, who earned his living teaching philosophy but yearned, year after year, to write the Great American Novel;
  • his Mouse Wife, a dead spot at any table because she never spoke, just nodded and smiled;
  • the Solid Couple, safe but boring, Midwestern born and doomed to thrive in the dentistry biz, which provided three solid sons with solid Ivy prep schools where they trained for football, hockey, and soccer and were thus unable to break for the holiday;
  • the Wildcard Divorcee, who glowed with both the glamor and disgrace of her banker ex-husband—a notable figure in D.C. politics until sent to prison for fraud.

In other words, a typical Princeton, New Jersey dinner table of the 1980s, mixing arts and academics, old money and new, in a game of musical chairs around a table of status and rank as calibrated as any of the Sun King’s at Versailles.

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When gnawing on a turkey bone was but a pretext for dining with the King, what was I to do now that the King was gone? Wot the hell was I going to do??

A thunderclap. God spoke. “French 75s and Lies.” How simple. How elegant. My husband, a professor on his way to becoming a Famous Author, loved brandy—throughout the meal. I loved Champagne—ditto. Combined, it was a deadly coupling. Perfect.

We’d greet friends at the door with a full glass before they’d discarded mufflers and coats. My husband would play the genial host, I the happy hostess. We’d pretend the French 75s were in honor of our Famous Guest because he’d once been awarded the Legion of Honour.

Everyone would get smashed, including the Mouse and Solid Couple, who’d be deceived by the seemingly benign effects of the bubbly until brandy undercurrents hit them fatally with no hope of return.

And I’d keep on lying that the Author himself had called to say they’d be late and please start without them.

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That we did, as our guests, true to the code of Princeton dinner parties, arrived promptly ten minutes after the set hour. In this case, 2:00 pm.

The wives, glasses in hand, wandered into the kitchen to Help Out with basting turkey and mashing potatoes. The men lounged in the living room to flirt with the gay divorcee, all of them happy as clams, or rather, oysters.

At 3:30 I put our first course of raw oysters in the shell (they were far cheaper then than now) on a giant tray with paper plates and napkins and a bowl of oyster crax to serve everybody in the living room while they drank.

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By 4:00 the Frenchies were fueling thunderous guffaws, stray pats on knees or bottoms, while attention turned to the large TV unmasked behind its covering doors to catch the kickoff of the Dallas Cowboys.

The kids had long since wandered downstairs to munch on peanut butter sandwiches, intrigued by the noise of all those bodies yelling in the living room. Hugged and squeezed, the kids were tossed like footballs hand to hand.

Forgotten was the Author, forgotten the Turkey, and all its trimmings, including the pies. By 7:00 the game was over. Who cared who won? Guests and hosts who’d bet exchanged bills.

Time to pour them out into the night, since most lived close enough to walk and the rest were practiced in driving very s-l-o-w-l-y the short distances home in a small town where local police were trained to help, not arrest. As I say, it was the ‘80s.

“We’ll clean up in the morning,” my husband and I agreed, wobbling upstairs to bed. In the morning, he was surprised to find he was still wearing his shoes. I was surprised to find a full Thanksgiving dinner for ten on my kitchen counters.

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We spent a family day eating delicious cold turkey sandwiches with lettuce and mayo and cranberry sauce. Even the kids were happy to help because they’d gotten to spend so much time with so many silly grownups.

Nowadays, when I silently ask God’s blessing on whatever Thanksgiving table I’m at, He knows I’m thinking not of turkey but of brandy and Champagne.

Betty Fussell is the author of Eat, Live, Love, Die, now out from Counterpoint Press.


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