The Kids’ Table

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My second Christmas story was written in a difficult year. In 2009 our beloved pastor, mentor, father, brother, and friend retired to Heaven. We needed a much different Christmas story that year, one we could laugh at, one that had no special memories attached. And so, ‘The Kids’ Table’ was created.

 

The Kids’ Table

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12

 “Hark! how the bells, Sweet silver bells
All seem to say, ‘Throw cares away.’
Christmas is here, Bringing good cheer,
To young and old, Meek and the bold”

Jason paused on the next to the last step and closed his eyes. Pine tree scent, check. Christmas carol playlist ringing out, check. The sounds of voices and laughter – kids, parents, spinster aunts and mostly deaf Uncle George hollering over everyone else – yes, he could hear it coming at him from every room. This was the Franklin house at Christmas time, where nothing ever changed. Nothing. Ever.

He hopped down the last few steps and turned left into the living room. Change was too much to expect, he supposed. Jason peered into the sea of festive sweaters and tweed blazers hanging around the punch bowl under the watchful eye of the GE angel that had been leaning crookedly from atop the Christmas tree every year for as long as he could remember. He’d just finished his first semester at college. He’d been away from home for four months, taking care of himself, handling classes and a job and normal life pretty well, he thought. A lot had changed for him. But after five minutes back home he’d been reminded that here, among his family, no matter how much time had passed or how many birthdays he counted, as the only child of his parents, he’d always be a kid.

Jason made it through the edges of the crowd with a few smiles and mumbled ‘hellos.’ Grandma Eleanor gave him a hug and a peppermint. The New York cousins, skinny jeans and plaid shirts and thick-framed glasses worn like some kind of uniform, surrounded him to talk craft beer and Instagram accounts. Jason nodded, hands in his pockets, and slid as smoothly – and slowly – as a glacier into the dining room. There he found it. Parked just east of the family’s massive dining room table. The proof that his semi-independence and lofty stature of adulthood had disappeared.

The kids’ table.

Six mis-matched chairs around a plastic folding table. Vinyl reindeer-decorated placemats at every place, red paper napkins, and assorted plastic cups were festive enough, but had nothing on the crystal and china and cloth napkins in glittering napkin rings on the main table. Jason stared down at the further evidence of his mom’s craftiness. He poked a finger into the hollow eye of the cardboard snowman that smiled around his pipe-cleaner pipe and clutched the dreaded place card labeled ‘Jason’ in awkward calligraphy in its wooly-mittened hands. He felt his lips twist in a wry grin.

“Hey, Google, play Blue Christmas!”

The song changed and suddenly Elvis had been invited to Christmas dinner, too. Jason wouldn’t be surprised. This year The Franklin House seemed to be the place to be. Every family member, from 92-year-old Great Aunt Sarah, to the Atlanta contingent wearing all Bulldog red and Arch black and chortling about the Rose Bowl had accepted his parents’ invitation to a ‘traditional family Christmas.’

“I know.” His father laid a hand on Jason’s shoulder. “But someone’s got to bite the bullet, son.”

Jason shook his head as dad walked on, swiveling his hips along with Elvis. His father had been quick to remind him this morning that the elegant dining room table was a finite space and if they tried to sit one more person there, with the adults, the very universe itself could implode because of Pauli’s exclusionary principle or Einstein’s theory, or, as Jason wasn’t exactly listening in the first place, maybe Mr. Spock’s senior thesis on wormhole physics. Jason shivered. Far be it from him to contradict Mr. Spock.

The snowman smirked up at him with its one remaining eye and Jason sighed. Yep. It was the kids’ table for him – again. Just because he thought living away from home might nudge him over the threshold into adulthood didn’t guarantee that any other member of the Franklin clan would acknowledge it. Oh, well, he dropped his shoulders into a melodramatic slouch; maybe it wouldn’t be that bad this year.

“Hey, Jase.”

Then again, maybe it would. Jason turned from his torture of the now winking snowman place card to confront the owner of the sticky voice behind him.

“Frankie,” Jason drawled.

There he stood in all his glory – Franklin D. Franklin.  A thirteen-year-old collection of every murky strand of DNA and personality defect that had ever surfaced in the Franklin family gene pool. Jason laid most of the blame at the feet of the kid’ parents – Aunt Virginia and Uncle Jack – who had saddled their son with the most redundant name since Galileo Galilei. Galileo, Jason surmised, had never had to contend with school bus bullies or the occasional sight of his own jockey shorts flapping from the top of the flagpole. But Frankie’s parents had also insisted on dressing him like a rhinestone cowboy, complete with steel-tipped boots, fringed jackets, and an unfortunately large collection of bolo-ties. They had, thereby, consigned their only child to one of two schoolyard classifications: perpetual victim or bad-tempered bully.

“Yikes, with that hair I thought you were a girl for a minute there,” Frankie chuckled, the fat fingers of one hand wrapped around an oversized candy cane.

No great surprise which stereotype little Frankie fell into. Frankie was five years younger and still the kid could dredge up fond, nostalgic memories of steamy locker rooms filled with sweaty jocks, wedgies, and massive feelings of inferiority. Was Galileo a bully, Jason wondered, before idly considering whether or not a steady diet of country music led to brain damage.

“You’re short,” Jason replied obliquely, shoving both hands back into the pockets of his jeans to remove the temptation of wrapping his fingers around his cousin’s throat. The kid’s neck had to be in there somewhere between the cow skull bolo tie and the proudly jutting chin.

The candy cane endured some more abuse as if Frankie could suck some wit out of the red and white sweet, and Jason watched his cousin’s eyes narrow in concentration. Jason stood patiently, rocking slightly up and down on his toes, waiting. Waiting. Waiting…  C’mon, kid, don’t strain something, he thought.  The candy cane was finally pulled from Frankie’s sticky mouth with a loud pop.

“My momma says if a guy’s hair is longer than his collar, he’s a momma’s boy.”

Jason could only blink a moment at the irony. He let his gaze linger on the kid’s blond buzz cut before trailing it down the blue and black plaid shirt straining at its mother-of-pearl buttons, pausing at the oversized belt-buckle in the shape of stampeding horses, down the starched jeans to the steel tips of the carved cowboy boots. “I suggest she take the matter up with Troy Polamalu and then get back to me.”

He strode towards the punch bowl figuring he could grab a handful of Chex mix, a cup of eggnog, and probably re-read War and Peace before Frankie’s lightning-fast intellect caught up with that one.

“Robert – where did you get these glasses?  Ellie – Eleanor!” Grandpa Eddie grabbed at the sleeve of his wife’s red, reindeer infested sweater and waved his cup of eggnog through the air. “Ellie– look at these glasses – look!”

Grandma Eleanor took a step backwards to avoid the wave of thick yellow liquid that punctuated Eddie’s outburst and sloshed onto the pale grey carpeting at her feet.

“Oops, sorry,” Jason’s grandfather laughed, clutching one antler of the moose head glass he was still brandishing towards his wife.

Jason made a swift detour to the kitchen to pick up a wet towel and gave his mother a quick hug from behind to thank her for being so normal… considering.

“Jason!”  The shriek was ear-splitting. “You made me lose count!”  His mother huffed loudly and plucked the cucumber slices from the top of the large salad bowl and began again. “One, two, three…”

Mostly normal, anyway, Jason thought. Ducking warily under Grandpa Eddie’s waving arms, Jason bent to wipe up the stain while trying to tune out references to the ‘jelly of the month club’ and whether or not squirrels really are high in cholesterol, hoping that someone would get the man off of his favorite Christmas movie before Jason was wearing his next glass of eggnog in his apparently too long hair.

“Oh, what a nice boy you’ve raised, Robert,” Great Aunt Sarah gushed as he climbed to his feet. “Didn’t even have to be told, did you, sweetie?”

Jason smiled down… and down… at the tiny old woman, leaning over as the wrinkled hand rose to pat him on the cheek.  At least she didn’t –

“Ow!”

– pinch, he thought grimly, rubbing one hand along the offended area as he turned to keep an eye on Aunt Sissy who stood smirking at his back – and wasn’t THAT name the worst pairing of personality and title in the history of names everywhere? With her wide shoulders, short, wiry hair, and square jaw Sissy should have been named something less … prissy and more – well – linebacker-y. Like Gertrude. Or Wilhelmina.

“Jason has all the characteristics of an only-child – or ‘super-first-born’,” Jason heard his college-professor father ramble on in the background as he stared down the thick grasping fingers of his least favorite maiden aunt.  A nun – she would have made a great nun, he thought, having no trouble imagining Sister Sissy putting the fear of H – E – double hockey sticks into tiny children everywhere. But she’d taken care of Aunt Sarah for years and was fiercely protective of the fragile old woman, so Jason was willing to cut her a little bit of slack over the whole butt-pinching incident.

Inching his way sideways out of the line of fire, he hurried back towards the kitchen, carefully bypassing little pools of relatives as he walked down the wide hallway decorated with holly, pine boughs, and his mother’s collection of nutcrackers. An unmistakable high, tenor voice oozed around the corner of his father’s study. Uh-oh. Jason froze, the proverbial deer watching those fatal headlights come closer and closer.

“… but it’s the perfect time, Nathan, you’ve got to jump on this volatile housing market – get them listed – they don’t have to be perfect, just putty, patch, and paint. I’ve got the best stagers in the business – they can make a cracker-box look like an HGTV masterpiece. You can’t be waiting around for tile from Italy or let the county catch up with you for permits…”

Ah, this is where cousin Grant was hiding. He was determined to make his first million before age 30 and didn’t mind sharing his Five Keys to Financial Success with anyone who slowed down long enough to get caught up in his fun-sucking whirlpool. At Jason’s high school graduation party, he had been backed into a corner by the man and subjected to a twenty-minute lecture, complete with visual aids by way of the PowerPoint App on Nathan’s phone. Jason slid along the wall like a particularly stealthy ninja, hoping to ease past the open doorway before he was spotted.

Whew! Made it.

“Jason!  We’ve been looking for you!”

Oh… Holy Night, he sighed, screwing up his eyes. Just when you thought it was safe to go into the kitchen. It was the triplets.

“Whatcha doin’?”

“Do you like our dress?”

“Did you see you’re sitting next to us at dinner?”

Squinting one eye open, much like a soon to be eviscerated snowman place-card, Jason knew his goose was cooked. The three little girls looked, to the unsuspecting, like perfect Christmas angels – long blond hair, fancy silver dresses with different colored satin sashes, and the tenacity of bull terriers. And, apparently, while he’d been away, they had not found a new object of their stalking- er – affectionate attention.

“Hi Staci. Traci. Lacey.”  Was there some kind of naming curse that ran in his family? “You girls look nice.”

They preened. They posed. They chattered like little feral chipmunks. Jason threw a glare at his mother’s unsuspecting back. The kids’ table. Maybe next year he’d take his roommate up on his invitation to spend Christmas with his crazy family. What was it his dad always said? ‘A change was as good as a rest.’ Well, he was certainly willing to give it a try.

After the usual adjustments, the strategic placement of chairs, the perennial grumbling of Grandpa Eddie, and one more plea to Uncle Dan to leave his perch in front of yet another college bowl game on the television, everyone was finally seated. Jason had managed a quick sleight of hand while the other kids were distracted, and his own tattered snowman now sat firmly between Frankie and the youngest cousin, five-year-old Matthew, who could not have done anything bad enough this year to have earned a place at Frankie’s side. Across the table, the triplets frowned a moment at the unexpected change in position, but Jason only looked down crossly at the snowman, silently warning it to keep its mouth shut.

The kids had been allowed to fill their plates first, but Jason was kept busy, hopping up and down to fetch this or that that one of them had forgotten, or hadn’t had room on his plate for the first time around.

It was strange, constantly traveling that no-man’s-land between the kids’ table and the adults’, especially after the first face-stuffing silence gave way to semi-sated conversation again. Jason listened, considering.

“I know the fix was in on that one, Danny, or Pittsburgh would never have lost to Cleveland – Cleveland!  Seriously!”

“Last weekend we made snow angels all along the front walk – and mommy made hot chocolate for after – I love snow!”

“But with the volatile nature of Chinese imports right now, the Consumer Price Index is pretty useless.”

“And I asked Santa for Legos. The new Harry Potter set. It’s huge!” Matthew’s grin wobbled. “Will you help me, Jason? Mommy says it might be hard for me.”

“Sure thing, runt,” Jason answered as he headed back to the big table for another bowl of cranberry sauce.

Uncle George was shouting. “What’s in this, Annie? It’s after six, and what with the diabetes and the high blood pressure, I gotta be careful or I’m gonna spend the rest of the night in the…”

Jason moved off hurriedly, juggling the cranberries and a basket of warm rolls, and quietly reciting the words to The Twelve Days of Christmas under his breath to block out whatever came out of his uncle’s mouth next. He glanced out the dining-room window during his escape and noticed that the first flakes of snow were just beginning to cover the ground. Wow. Nice. How often did that happen? Snow on Christmas?

Smiling, he plunked down in his seat and turned to his young cousin. “What else did you get from Santa, Matthew?”

From his other side, Cowboy Frankie snorted. “C’mon, Jase – you know-”

A well-placed kick under the table sent Frankie howling and Jason turned back to the wide-eyed child sitting to his left. “Matthew?”

“I got this really cool Transformers helmet – it makes my voice sound just like Bumblebee, and it looks like him, and plays stuff from the movie and everything!” Matthew gushed. “And a new sled – I hope it snows, Daddy said it might. He said he could work from home and we could go to the big hill at the park if it snowed.”

Lacey – or maybe Traci – bounced in her seat. “Yeah, my Dad said the same thing – it would be like another Christmas! Jason, is it gonna snow?”

“Did it snow when Jesus was born, Jason?” Another triplet asked, frowning. “The preacher didn’t say.”

Jason frowned. “Good question. I’m not sure how much snow Bethlehem gets.” He reached for the phone in his back pocket and then stopped. All eyes were fixed on him as if he held the secrets of the universe. “Um, the shepherds were out with their sheep, right? The flocks were grazing and, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to do that if there had been snow.”

“And the stars were bright, ‘member?” Matthew nodded.

“That’s true,” Staci agreed. “And the angels came to sing, and nobody said anything about not being able to see them because of a blizzard.”

“The roads weren’t closed.”

Jason turned, eyebrows rising, to stare at Frankie’s not-snotty, not-snide tone of voice.

“Momma says just a little snow makes the roads bad. And, well,” the irritating pride seemed to have run out of the kid, “the kings got there from far, far away. On camels. I think that would be pretty hard in the snow.”

“I think you’re right,” Jason found himself agreeing.

Matthew rubbed the back of one hand across his nose. “Still. It would be nice. I think baby Jesus would have liked some snow.” His eyes were worried. “He only got three presents. Snow would be like a special one, from his Daddy up in heaven.”

Something warm glowed in Jason’s chest. Maybe it was just the jalapenos in his mother’s cornbread, but Jason suddenly had a great idea. “I don’t know about Bethlehem, but I heard it might snow here.” He leaned low over the table and whispered. “Maybe we should go look.”

Lacey glanced over towards the adult table where her father’s face was red from his enthusiastic defense of his golf hero. “Can we?”

“Can we, Jason?”

Weird. Where did the Terrifying Triplets, the Bronco Bully, and the hyped-up munchkin go? With just one little promise of a peek into the yard on the off-chance of snow, the kids Jason had happily resented had turned into real little people. What was up with that?

“Okay, but let’s try to be quiet,” he whispered.

The kids scrambled quickly from their seats and Jason looked down to find that Matthew had slipped one hand into his.

Straightening, he put one finger over his lips and led the little troop into the shadowy family room. The lamps had been turned off by eco-conscious Aunt Mickey and the room was lit by just the colored bulbs on the Christmas tree and the orange glow of the dying fire, adding a touch of mystery to the familiar furnishings. Jason noticed a thrill of anticipation beginning to creep up his own spine. Huh. Maybe he belonged at the kids’ table after all. This was a lot more fun than fielding questions about his college life or fending off Grandpa Eddie’s gall bladder stories.

The heavy curtains over the wide bay window hung silently, as if they were hiding a deep dark secret. Frankie and the triplets climbed up on the couch and propped themselves over the back, waiting, and Jason plucked Matthew up and perched him alongside the others before reaching for the cord.

“Oh, look!”

Big fat flakes dropped from the sky, a blanket of white covering the cars parked up and down the driveway and frosting the pine trees along the edge of the yard.  Feeling like a stage magician, Jason gestured with one arm at the glittering scene and turned back to his audience.

Eyes big, the five children sat transfixed, faces pressed closer and closer to the glass until their breath misted its surface. The silent tableau held for a moment before Traci slipped from her spot and ran towards the dining room.

“Daddy, Daddy! It’s snowing! Come and see!”

Jason stepped back as a few of the adults crowded around, the little girl merrily tugging her father towards her discovery.

“Oh, great. Just what we needed.”

“Gonna be a nightmare trying to get home in this.”

As the men and women slowly made their way back to the dining room, Jason stood quietly in the corner by the tree, watching. Watching the happiness of the children, listening to the grumbling of the adults, and wondering why he’d wanted to sit at the adults’ table so badly anyway. These kids could teach their parents a thing or two about appreciating Christmas. About being thankful. About what was really important. Not snow, or presents, he thought to himself, but Christmas miracles, a baby in a manger, and, especially, joy. Joy in all the little things.

“Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away.” Matthew 19:13-15

Frankie glanced over his shoulder and noticed Jason there. “Hey, Jase – remember when I creamed you in the face with a snowball last year?” He chortled and turned back to stare at the wintry sight.

Jason felt his mouth crook up into a half-smile. Yep. The kids’ table was still better.

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