The mashed potatoes were starting to stiffen in the bowl.
“Stop your whining and eat your meat,” Angela said to the four-year-old, before turning toward the others. “Sorry, Nathan, you were saying?”
“Just that when we were young, our lives were always ahead of us. Perpetually ahead, rigorously being plotted out. Now that we’re older, we look to the past and feel nostalgic. But I think what we’re really pining for is a sense of possibility. Of not yet knowing where we’ll go, who we might become. So we pine, even while feeling a little betrayed by the simpletons we once were.”
He took a pea from his spoon and held it between two fingers. “Do you know that chimps experience the greatest surge in serotonin during the anticipation of a reward, and not during the reward itself? Humans romanticize their childhoods in the same fashion. We project bliss onto our deepest ignorance.” He popped the pea in his mouth and shrugged. “I mean, what if the reward’s not so great after all.”
“I beg your pardon,” their mother said.
“Your cooking excepted, Mom,” he said and they all laughed.
The girl dropped her fork to the floor. Angela got her a clean one and sat back down. They felt the strength of winter in the blackness outside, and unconsciously moved their chairs closer to the table.
“So where’s the sweet spot? The magical place where we’re anticipating and realizing all at once?” Angela said. “Is it in our twenties? Our thirties? When we’re falling in love?”
He opened his mouth but their mother cut in. “Sorry, dears, but--” her voice rose--”did you take your pills yet, Pop?”
They looked dutifully toward the end of the table, where the old man sat. He straightened up, patted the front pocket of his flannel shirt, and painstakingly removed five small pills, lining each of them on the table's edge before washing them down, one by one, with an equal measure of water and effort. They let out a collective breath when he slumped back in the chair, exhausted.
“Everything okay, Grandpa?” Angela said, noting the barely touched food on his plate.
“But Mommy, I don’t want to eat it.”
Angela plucked the knife and fork from her daughter’s hands. “Here. Let me cut it.”
“No! I want to cut! Me! Me!”
“Fine. I’ll give you five more minutes, then no dessert. And for the love of God, don’t gnaw on it like that!”
After a minute, Nathan cleared his throat.
“The sweet spot, of course, is unique to the individual herself. And it’s too simplistic to view it as some one-time phenomenon. If human beings define any characteristic, it’s tenacity. We will invent new illusions for ourselves at every opportunity. We will retreat into others’ illusions, if we lack the creativity to formulate our own. We will invent new lines in the sand, like the arbitrary marking of a new year and the blank slate it pretends.”
Their mother put down her fork. “Heavens. Is this any kind of talk for the new year?"
“Now eat your sauerkraut. It's good luck.”
“Right,” Nathan said, catching his sister's eye, who smiled behind her napkin. “Because luck's just a big ol' helping of metaphysical roughage."
“You're making fun again."
"It's a joke, Mom."
"Well, I don't care to understand it. Why the two of you have to look down on simple things . . . simple people--"
"Jesus . . ."
The sparring devolved into bickering. Nobody noticed the old man catch the little girl’s eye and hold it for a good, long moment. He took up his fork in his left hand and pinned the side of pork to his plate. Then, sawing with his right hand, he forced the knife through the meat until a piece broke free. He put down the knife, switched the fork from his left hand to his right and lifted the meat to his mouth, holding it there for a good, long moment.
He looked at her and nodded.
She seized her silverware, looking at the individual pieces before her. A spoon clattered to the table. She gripped the fork in her left hand and stabbed the hunk of meat. Then, with her right fist held tight about the handle, she moved her knife bit by painful bit until a chunk of flesh ripped free. She looked up in surprise and found the old man’s eye trained squarely on her. He took the meat in his mouth and began to chew. The girl sat a little straighter in her chair and began to chew, too.
“Fine, fine,” he murmured to her, beneath the din.
She and the old man ate in silence, her legs swinging freely beneath the table. And when she smiled at him, a little bit of meat stuck through the gap in her mouth where a new tooth was just coming in.
For my Granddad, whose absence is felt at every family gathering.