Binding Abundance & Placeholder for Hope

Excerpt from Chlora's Book of the Month Club: November
Revised Nov. 2015, Copyright Ginger Henry Geyer

It is Thanksgiving Day at the family farm, and Chlora’s setting the table.

Mom said, OK now, let’s talk turkey.
Guess who’s coming for dinner.
Hilda Marie and Clarence.
They just called
and they are on their way.
Chlora raised her eyebrows.
That pair of distant
relatives was a bonafide nut case
and they looked like balloons from
the Macy’s parade on TV that morning.

Sunlight hit a colander above the sink just right
and it sprinkled its Stars of David
all over the countertop.
Chlora’s Mom filled the colander
with green beans, handed it to Chlora
and told her to top ’em off.
Now don’t spill the beans,
but I invited Hilda Marie and Clarence.
Didn’t think in a million years they’d come,
but sometimes you need to get your
meat and your manners, too.
Rinse these green beans first
and remember to
strain the gnats instead of
swallowing the camel.

The crying and laughing
from peeling onions had settled down
and things had come to a slow boil,
as if someone was ready
to fly off the handle or a pressure cooker
was about to blow.
Things had reached a near disaster earlier
when one of the many cooks
in the kitchen accidentally poked
a fork through the aluminum
turkey roasting pan
and seeping grease caught on fire.
This could have been a major emergency
that warranted a fire truck visit,
but it was easily contained.
It turned out better than the time back home
when the oven self-converted
into its clean and scour mode
and locked itself shut
with the turkey trapped in there.
Now that was bad.

The kitchen was still smoky
and the star of the show
was taking his time in the oven.
The smoke was more of a haze by now
but it had begun with a long curly wave
hovering along the ceiling
and crawling down the hallway.
Chlora had been in the hall
drawing horses on butcher paper
she’d tacked on the wall
and she was the first to sound the alarm.
She then ran out to the porch
both to escape the smell and
the frenzied rescue of the turkey.

And now this.
Hilda Marie and Clarence
hadn’t been fully welcomed
to any family get-togethers since
the year they set a skunk loose
under the dining table.
Well, it wasn’t a real skunk,
just a pelt that Clarence
draped over a wind-up race car
which belonged to Jerry Pete.
Clarence strategically sent the
wired up skunk whizzing under the table,
right between the feet of
well-heeled ladies
who all screamed bloody murder.
Hilda Marie had squealed and
kicked back from the table so hard
that her spindly dining chair
crashed beneath her.
She took out the antique dessert buffet
right behind her and got a
lemon meringue pie in the face.
All the dogs rushed in
barking and licked Hilda Marie’s
face clean before she could
devour any of it herself.

The three-legged birddog, Tripod,
then latched onto the skunk
and ran off with it.
Jerry Pete ran after him, hollering
Tripod, give back my racecar!
In all the hubbub, Aunt Helen
had dashed to the pantry and
was ready to douse the dog
with tomato juice
to offset the skunk odor
when Clarence gave it all away
by howling with laughter.
It’s only a pelt!
They had ruined the nice Thanksgiving
dinner that had taken two days to prepare.
Furthermore, Hilda Marie
did not help one iota
in cleaning up the mess.

After that Thanksgiving,
Hilda Marie and Clarence
had suffered the quiet insult
of being removed from the
fridge door photo gallery.

Nobody was exactly sure how
they were related,
step-cousins by marriage
twice removed or something,
but Chlora and her siblings just
called them Aunt Hilda Marie
and Uncle Clarence.
They were some sort of odd graft
to the family tree, but they did
provide color and more shade.

In front of them, Chlora’s little brother,
Jerry Pete, once asked
how do we pick our family?
Did some businessperson
cut a bad deal here?
Mom explained to J.P. that a
family is not a business
and it can’t be run like one.

Hilda Marie was big as a barn
and her elevator didn’t go to the top floor,
and she had been married
at least three times before Clarence.
The previous one, Uncle Max,
was a drunk, and a mean one.
They had all gone to his funeral
but afterwards Chlora overheard
Uncle Ernest say good riddance,
that sonnavabitch
was evil in a three piece suit.

Uncle Max was always red-faced
and all liquored up. Max claimed
he couldn’t do all those twelve steps
because his liver and
his legs wouldn’t hold out.
That ailment did not prevent him
from chasing kids.
If he caught you, he’d tickle your ribs.
At first the tickling made you laugh
but he wouldn’t quit until you cried uncle.
And at that point, he’d make you
go fetch him another long neck beer
which he called his Texas Tea.
He really liked that tea.
After a few of them, he’d tell gross stories.
He would always stretch any story,
like that Madonna with the Long Neck painting.

Once Max held Chlora upside down
by the ankles and swung her around
in dizzy circles. That was fun until it wasn’t.
Mom lit into him like a wet hen and
from then on, Mom made sure
Chlora, Jerry Pete and especially
the teenaged Joanie Kay
were never left alone with Max.

It took him awhile but Max finally died off,
yellow as a chicken’s foot.
So next time around Hilda Marie
found herself somebody ten years
younger who had bad teeth.
She was working her way up to being
the woman at the well,
who had at least six husbands.

Hilda Marie was fat, full and sassy,
but also jolly. Mom said she
had hidden talents.
Hilda Marie liked to play
the role of long-suffering wife,
since Clarence had every ailment
in the book including B.O.
He was uglier than a mud fence but
he loved her and she was his dessert—
Puddin’, Cream Puff, and Sweetie Pie.
The pair of them took turns
defending one another
so they could remain freeloaders.

It wasn’t Clarence’s fault that he had no filters.
He was too young for Old-timer’s disease.
Hilda Marie claimed he had
been hit by lightning and he’d
been off kilter ever since.
Uncle Ernest, the ever-practical farmer
and handyman, made sure that’d
never happen here.
He posted a lightning rod on the barn
hard-wired to the wrath of God.

Each and every body part
on Clarence ached, apparently.
Especially bursitis in his shoulder.
You’d think that was the most interesting
topic in the whole wide world, as often
as he talked about it.
Next to that, he complained about
his bad back that prevented him doing chores,
which was aggravated by the corns on his feet
or his broken thumb that was never set right.

Aunt Helen took up for Clarence,
saying that every family needs its very own
hypochondriac, and Clarence is ours.
Aunt Helen muttered something about
her sins of omission and pulled the
smiling portrait of Hilda Marie and Clarence out of a kitchen drawer.
It was from that last visit, and they
grinned while holding up the
skanky skunk car.
Aunt Helen wedged the photo
under a magnet on the fridge door.
I know she’ll look here.

Chlora wished she had her own fridge door
full of magnets. Instead of family photos
she’d stick up all fridge-worthy
still life paintings of food,
going from minimalism to maximalism.
But art history is full of food;
she’d have to limit her choices.
The best ones were Spanish,
like the one with hanging fruits.
Then there was the stark but luscious
one of cupcakes. And she’d add
a downright disgusting one
with dead deer and skulls,
and even a dead swan.
What kind of hardhearted idiot
would shoot something as
elegant as a swan?
Uncle Max once bragged that
he’d bagged three of them
and would serve ‘em up for
Christmas dinner.
Fortunately that never came to be.

Yes, they really stretch the word
family, Mother said to Aunt Helen,
but we’ll just put a leaf in the table
and make the best of it.
Chlora, help us pull the table apart
so we can put it back together again.
Gotta make room.
And then we need to set it.
Chlora replied that for Hilda Marie,
they better put two leafs in the table.

While they were wresting with
the dining table, a loud boom came
from the kitchen, and a freaked out cat
burst through the swinging door.
Someone had set a Pyrex pan
of baked asparagus on the stove top,
not realizing the burner was still on,
and the belabored casserole
of Velveetaed vegetables flat out exploded.
The ceiling was plastered
with green and orange goop,
a dreadful and drippy color combination.

Aunt Helen took it well, and handed out
spatulas and paper towels for the
massive clean-up operation,
noting that the asparagus wouldn’t be missed.
We already had enough cheese
to constipate a horse.
Then all conversation stoppers
got unplugged when Clarence
and Hilda Marie barged
through the back door.

Hey, what’s cookin’, good lookin’?
Haven’t seen you in a coon’s age!
Oh, hello Hilda Marie. Hello Clarence.
Welcome to Thanksgiving.
Hilda Marie walked straight to the fridge,
opened the door, and
a crystal bowl of cranberry sauce
fell off the crammed shelf.
With crimson now splattered on the floor
and green smears on the ceiling,
Hilda Marie said oh you’ll never miss
that bowl and kicked a shard under the table.
I do declare it looks like y’all
have had a food fight in here.
I think I’ll slice myself some of that pie.

Clarence said the long drive gave him
a sinus headache. He hacked to clear
his throat, snorted like a pig,
spit out unnamable clots
into his hankie, and pronounced
them thick as chewing gum.
He said, yep we’re back from
your Babyloney exile, but knew
it’d be fine with y’all, since we are
all in the family. Now I’m gonna
sit a spell and just watch and then
Cream Puff and I are gonna rest our
tired feet from being in the car so long.

Sit a spell?
Maybe he was under God’s spell.
like in that musical.
Aunt Helen bit her tongue, said
you are a sight upon this earth,
and got them each a slice of cherry pie.
Chlora observed the usual drivel
and went back to plucking
the green beans. Mom added
liquid to a sizzling skillet and
it roared with applause.

Once they were settled and the
ceiling and floor were cleaned up,
Helen reverently retrieved a stack of
pretty china from her cupboard.
She had full sets of crystal and silver
that were hardly ever used but
she couldn’t do without.
She joked that farms
need finery and if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Now, Chlora honey, you won’t understand
the importance of all this
table setting until you’re older.
Till then, just put up with it.

Hilda Marie overheard this and
hollered out, why don’t we use
paper plates so we don’t have to
wash all those dishes?
Chlora muttered back,
why do you care, you don’t help
clean up anyway. Hilda Marie
was all savor and no labor.

A stack of placemats was already
on the dining table, with matching
napkins rolled up in gold crowns.
A classic vice and virtue was printed
on each linen, representing
character building or character destroying
traits, now long out of fashion.

Why are we using these?
Who wants to eat off of these?
Chlora picked up a napkin labeled Sloth.
Her Aunt replied that it is all
about place-making and that holiness
is nothing but a set of habits,
so we might as well get habitual about it.
Chlora asked what is the difference
between a habit and a chore?

Chlora wondered which of the
seven virtues was the best of them all
and resolved to specialize in it.
Or visa versa, which virtue was
the worst one?
Problem was, they were
all linked together and you
couldn’t practice just one
without the others piling on.
Same with the vices.
And then there were several
she had never even heard of,
like intestinal fortitude and temperance.
As with the virtues, there were only
seven vices, obviously not enough
to go around. Where was that list
in the Bible, somewhere near the
Ten Commandments?

As Chlora set out the placemats
and napkins she recalled a picture
in the Prado Museum catalogue
by that crazy artist Bosch.
It was called a table of the
Seven Deadly Sins, and the caption
said it was oil paint on wood.
Chlora couldn’t tell from the photos
if it was a real round dining table
or just hung on the wall, next to Bosch’s
Garden of Earthly Delights,
which was as weird as all get-out.
It probably stood there like
sin on long legs, in the middle
of the museum gallery, unavailable
as a dinner table. Even if you could
use it, who would want to sit
around that sinful table, all
surrounded by Four Last Things.
The Bosch table was pretty preachy
and Chlora wondered if Bosch himself
really painted it. His work was outrageous
but anything but dogmatic. If she had to
set Bosch’s table, she would cover it with
a tablecloth, not just placemats.

Chlora asked how many places to set,
and who sits where, prompting
a shout from the other room—
We wanna eat in here!
Get out the TV trays!

The temptation of football again
was surely one of the bigger vices,
especially when a whole day
of it loomed ahead.
Every male in the family was glued to the TV
and they tossed a football back
and forth, passing it on like a tradition.

The little kids whined that they wanted
to eat outside like the Pilgrims and Indians.
No you can’t. Why? It is too cold.
And anyhow families eat together;
that is just what they do.
You are not going to eat outside
or sit in front the TV
and whomp down your good dinner.

This is about communion and
communion means union, togetherness.
Besides, you’ll get tangled up
in those TV tables
and most of them are broken.

Aunt Helen always won any argument
that involved food.
Turn off the TV and go wash up.

She rang the triangle for all the girls
triangulating in other parts of the house.
Then outside she rang the big dinner bell,
which Chlora was glad to hear. She
felt rather light-headed & grumpy.

Aunt Helen was surely a
glutton for punishment.
Back to setting the table,
Helen fretted over supplementing
the placemats with some plain linen ones.
Chlora put out the seven vices and virtues
that had been handed to her.
How come gluttony
wasn’t on one of these napkins?
Of all the vices, that was the one
for Thanksgiving Day.
Chlora offered to decorate
the plain placemats with
some new vices and virtues,
along the line of naughty and nice.
Do you have any magic markers
in tones of gray?
Or just add more layers of hope.
Hope was on the top placemat
alongside its opposite, despair.

Chlora put down that placemat first.
Thankfully, the napkin and silverware
would cover up that poor distraught lady
who had hung herself.
Chlora presumed the two needed
each other to stay in balance.
Despite the morbid fascination
with despair, she held up the hope lady
and looked her over. The lady
leaned forward, reaching for a crown
from wisdom, way up in the corner
of the picture. She hadn’t quite reached
the crown yet, but looked determined
to receive it. The hope figure’s feet
remained grounded; she wasn’t
floating off into an abstract state
of transcendence.

How come we are suspicious of hope?
Is it nothing but cockeyed optimism,
escapism? A means to manipulate
the oppressed? Like in, dinner is almost
ready, keep hanging on?
Chlora knew what it was to yearn
for what she could not have; did that
mean she should give up her dream?
Nothing was worse
than getting your hopes up
and then getting them laughed at,
a favorite trick of narcissists
who promise you the moon
and then when you reach for it,
they cut off your arm.
As if the moon was theirs
to promise anyhow.
Dashed hopes break trust,
and trust is hard to rebuild.
Plus hope could be dangerous—
it can overthrow a government.
But Chlora supposed that
without hope, you might as well
either resort to violence
or curl up and die.

Mom suggested they put away
all of the placemats
and just use these printed tablecloths.
Tablecloths indicate more togetherness
than placemats do.
The table was so long
that they’d have to layer
three or four of them.
That was OK with Chlora;
she liked all the vivid combinations
of clashing designs,
so she fluttered out cloths
of flowers and fruits on the table,
topped off with a bright plaid.
Aunt Helen’s face fell.
This will never do;
it does not match the china.
We can exist without table coverings.
What we need are plates
and silverware and glasses.

Each plate was lovingly placed
like an island on the shiny expanse of table.
The plates all matched and there was
just enough to include the two extras.
Chlora would some day make
her own set of mismatched china,
somewhere between Judy Chicago’s
dinner plates and Haviland.

Mom handed Chlora the forks and knives
and she dutifully dispersed them
in the proper layout.
But where were the spoons?
Of all things, we needed our silver spoons,
to remind us of our privileged birthright.
Had the dish run away with the spoons?
Chlora found them at the back
of the silverware drawer,
spooning together, curved into each other
like they were in love.

So who sits where?
There seemed to be some sort of
hierarchy at meals.
You could tell which family member
was in the doghouse by the place cards.
All these identity issues surface
at dinner time, like the disciples
James and John arguing over
who got to sit at the right hand of Jesus.
If Chlora had been there,
she would’ve just climbed onto his lap.

It was important to have the
elderly at each end of the table,
like bookends. And, lefties had to be
on the right ends of the table
because they were communists.
Then you had to intersperse the highchairs
beside their parents,
in a strategic location where
the babies could make a mess
and be quickly exited from the room.

Who could best tolerate
Hilda Marie and Clarence today—
she belched and elbowed
as she ate and he had halitosis.
Why not set up a card table for them
and the noisy kids?
Chlora knew if that happened
she’d get stuck there too
and never get any gravy or rolls
from the main table.

Mercy! This was going to be crowded.
The whole family would just have
to squeeze in at one table.
Helen mused that even Judas
got to sit at the table
and take communion.
Here, pull up the piano bench,
it’ll take three of you.

Chlora visualized the image of hope
upon each place at the table.
Hope is insistent;
it had to be distributed;
you had to save a place for it.
In the Proverbs, Wisdom has set her table,
and Chlora knew she has expectations.
How come Wisdom
wasn’t one of those virtues?

Chlora placed the turkey shaped
salt and pepper shakers,
and the sacred cow butter dish,
and the candles on the nice dining table.
Aunt Helen plopped a cornucopia basket
full of fake fruit in the middle of the table,
all the while denigrating herself
that she had not fixed up a prettier centerpiece.

She quick-stepped to retrieve
the serving platters and utensils.
We forgot to put out the butter
so it’ll get soft. And remind me to
remember the rolls.
And here’s the gravy boat and ladle.
It is never big enough for all
that turkey gravy I make.
And this is the china sauce bowl,
not to be confused with the gravy boat.
We rarely use it, it is like an untouched soul.
Which reminds me, Chlora,
go check the pantry for an old can
of Yankee cranberry sauce.
I hate that jiggly stuff but since
Hilda Marie broke my favorite crystal bowl
full of our homemade cranberry sauce,
that may have to do.

Chlora pawed through two shelves
of canned fruit and came back and reported
there was none to be had.
Well then, let’s find something red,
how about strawberry jam?
Chlora knew that jam,
it had flabby, seedy strawberries
in it, and she squirreled up her nose.

Aunt Helen picked up a skinny pail
and then just as quickly dropped it
and grabbed the cornucopia basket
from the dining table. She dumped out
the fake fruit, handed it to Chlora,
and said Chlora, dear, go pick up
some pomegranates, they’ll kill
two birds with one stone.
She took off her apron and
slipped it over Chlora’s head.
Fill up the pockets, pick ‘em all,
because could be an ice storm’s coming
by the smell of the sky.
Jack Frost is visiting tonight
and he may bring all his friends.

Chlora passed through the living room
and the cousins watching TV asked
When are we gonna eat?
When the food is ready.
This is the opposite of fast food you know.
And the table isn’t ready.
Why don’t you guys occupy yourselves
with some food for thought?
One of them threw a football at her head.

Chlora went outside to the territory
to be conquered, like a spy infiltrating
the Promised Land.
She would be an advance scout of hope,
and heroically return like the ancient Israelites
heavy laden with gigantic grapes,
figs and pomegranates,
plus tall tales about giants.
She knew about those spies from a painting
reproduction in her Sunday School classroom.
They were like James Bond, sneaking around
and looting the good stuff, eternally
trudging their plentitude through the Louvre.
The land flowed with milk and honey
but the spies in the book of Joshua
didn’t bring back any cows or bees.
They didn’t allow the women to go
because they would’ve made all that
milk and honey into some new sort
of pagan communion ritual
with the birds and bees.

That was another patriarchal mistake;
a milk and honey hot toddy
would be a good concoction
for sore throats.
Chlora kicked through the leftovers
of autumn in the yard, a thick mass
of colored leaves and grasses
that had resisted the rake.
Low-lying fruit is easy to collect
and in no time she filled
the basket with a baker’s dozen
of pomegranates. They were hard to count because some of them
came in double dares, like Siamese twins,
and triple threats, clusters so heavy
they hung their heads
at the embarrassment of riches.
The cornucopia basket was heavy
and she set it on the ground.

What was that myth about Persephone,
also called Proserpina,
who got tricked into eating pomegranate
seeds and got stuck in the underworld?

Or the one about the priest Aaron
having pomegranates embroidered
on his robe?
The mythology encyclopedia
went on for pages about pomegranates.

What Chlora knew was that she would
have to lean in like the hope lady,
or like Adam in the Sistine Chapel
to reach the high ones.

Chlora needed a step stool out there,
but through the kitchen window
she could see it was in use
by her little brother up at the counter,
pinching off blobs of bread dough to eat.
That yeasty dough tasted terrible,
and Jerry Pete’s stomach would
probably blow up.

The pomegranate bush produced in exceedingly
abundance, and she wanted them all.
Chlora jumped for a big pomegranate
way up high, but to no avail.
She tugged on the scrawny branches
but it was still out of reach.
With no way to climb that
skinny tree-bush, she stood
on the cornucopia basket.
and managed to get ahold of
the big red prize.

Below her the basket groaned.
Then it snapped and sank,
sending Chlora to the ground
on top of an array of fruit that burst open
like grenades of garnets.
If it wasn’t so messy, it would’ve been
like a resurrection, joy exploding
from internal pressure,
shedding juice and seeds of the Land of Plenty.
She knew the basket was to be the
Thanksgiving table centerpiece,
and in a family where centerpieces
are important, Chlora gritted her teeth.
Rationalizing this wreckage
would be tricky.

Basket weaving made her a basket case,
and there was no hope for reshaping this one.
It was definitely squished.
If you can’t fix a disaster
you’d better at least disguise it.
Chlora took off the apron and tied the strings
around the cornucopia and the pomegranates.
It was the laughable futility
of binding up abundance,
like trying to hang onto Mother Nature’s
apron strings in a storm,
fully well knowing you
cannot control the wind
or contain the spillage of love.
It was like forgiving seventy times seven,
this insane bounty, this belly of
abundance that exceeded itself.

Chlora stumbled toward the house
all the while dropping and retrieving
the pomegranates. While she was at it,
she grabbed with a few pecans
that had fallen in the yard.

After all, it was Thanksgiving,
where less is not more.
It was like in Roman art,
when they carved sculptural
festoons of fruits of all four seasons,
even though back then
they couldn’t get out-of-season produce.
Now we all know it is better to eat local.
The backyard was about as local
as you could get.
Chlora cradled the plentitude, shivered,
and plopped her bounty in the kitchen sink.

Aunt Helen chose four split pomegranates
to be seeded for a cranberry sauce substitute.
Their burgundy juice was
as drippy as a bloody nose
but in a prettier shade of red.
Chlora tightened the apron strings
around the broken basket
and proudly set the fruits of her labor
in the middle of the dining table.
Her centerpiece looked mighty fine,
better than a bunch of cut flowers
that was pretty but short-lived,
like a lot of spirituality.
Be fruitful and multiply.
Or should we simplify?
Are we bound up by our abundance?
We have so much we can’t tie it up.
In the binding, we must give back.
One pomegranate and a few pecans
rolled away from the set up.
Chlora figured they were just
following the scripture about binding up
the broken hearted
and setting the captive free.

As far as Chlora was concerned,
the warped basket
represented generosity, which surely
was a Thanksgiving virtue.
Somebody important, one of those
people destined to concoct classic lists,
needed to add generosity
to the big seven.

Chlora adjusted the napkin rings
and realized they were golden crowns,
shaped much like the top of the
pomegranates. She had plucked a lot
of wisdom today.