(by Diane Zinna)
1 bunch celery
16 oz. Philadelphia cream cheese
small jar of green pimiento-stuffed Manzanilla olives
1. Start by separating and washing the celery in cold water. An easy way to remove the strings is to crack each stalk near the fatter base end and pull it backwards; this will remove some, but not all, of the strings. Repeat to remove more strings.
Caution: if you don’t stop, you may end up with most of the celery shredded to a cloud of green candy floss in the sink. Do it the way your mother first taught you: gently.
2. Slice celery stalks into one-inch pieces.
3. Using a butter knife, fill each piece with a small dab of cream cheese. This was your job as a child, working at the already-set Thanksgiving table with the brown tablecloth, the orange cloth napkins, the purple felt cow-shaped container always brought out on holidays to hold half-and-half coffee creamers, and the Tom Turkey stuffed animal that your dog once got hold of so that it is eternally stiff and hard in spots with his dried slobber. Your mom works a few feet away in the avocado-green kitchen, her back to you. Your father is in the living room playing chess against himself. You are a family of three, and a family of three is a delicate thing, built on hopes that nothing will go wrong.
4. Look at your mother. Try to memorize everything about her. Memorize the shape of her body, her belly still round, years on, from being pregnant with you. Catch the constellation of her beauty marks, the flowery patterns of her polyester clothes, her little coughs as she clears her throat. She hands you a jar of olives, and your hands touch. Her skin is silky. You always thought her skin was made soft from smoking. Like if you ran your hand over her hand, it would become a wisp, then air. But that’s now, when you think she’s near but can’t feel her.
5. When each log is filled with cream cheese, arrange the celery logs on a serving platter in a sunburst pattern. Begin on the outer edge, placing each celery log beside the other for support. Add a second circle beneath the first, leaving room for the small glass dish of black pitted olives. This dish can also be surrounded, flower petal-style, with circular rounds of sliced pepperoni. Across the kitchen, your mother is staring into a lineup of empty white serving dishes as though imagining each next step to make everything right.
6. Once your sunburst is complete, stick a small Manzanilla olive in the center of each celery log. Remember how your husband once made these for you on the anniversary of your mother’s passing. You came home from the late shift, and he had these all set up on the living room table, with a Coca-Cola for you in one of her rainbow-hued wine glasses, and he had a candle lit, and you burst into tears. He had gotten everything right except he forgot to…
7. Sprinkle paprika lightly over all of the celery logs, giving the platter a festive green-red-white look just perfect for the holidays.
8. Present this platter to your father in the living room and enjoy it together while your mother remains in the kitchen for another two hours. Your father will be wearing his favorite, pilly brown sweater, smoking a More cigarette, and playing against himself on his electronic chess game. On the TV will be the Thanksgiving Day parade. Watch it sitting on the floor, drinking Coca-Cola out of a wine glass.
9. On the next Thanksgiving, after the death of your father, agree to go with your mother to a seafood restaurant you have never heard of. It will be dark inside, with fishing nets on the walls. The drinking glasses will smell of old dishwater.
10. Remember when you came outside, you and your mom were both happy. It was snowing. So early in the season. You and your mom were laughing and marveling. In that moment, it felt like it could be okay, just the two of you.
11. On Christmas Eve, agree to go to the Jewish deli for dinner, the one that brings out a free bowl of pickled tomatoes to each table. Later that night, make a mix tape of holiday tunes from the radio while your mother weeps downstairs. Take care to start recording each song just after the DJ speaks so it doesn’t sound like you taped it from the radio.
12. Notice that your mother has been wearing your father’s pilly brown sweater your entire Christmas break from school. She has been sleeping downstairs on the couch all day. You can drive now. You get McDonald’s for yourself for lunch almost every day. Your boyfriend gives you a bottle of peppermint schnapps for the holidays and you don’t drink, and you don’t know what to do with it, so you hide it in plain sight at the back of the china cabinet, hopeful your mom won’t catch you with it.
13. On Christmas morning, she rolls away from the wall long enough to open her present from you—a small bottle of Chanel N°5. Each of you should put some on. It smells like a special day. Like the babysitter coming for you so your parents could go out. Like the final touch before your mother put on her dress for your cousin’s wedding, the one where she danced with your father until she got blisters and bled all over the backs of her new shoes. She always used it before going out with your dad, and now you think you are both realizing it at the same time: Chanel N°5 reminds you of your father.
14. Call home, Christmas, years later. You are at a job that requires you to stay overnight. When your mother doesn’t answer, call again and again (approximately 45 minutes if using a rotary-dial phone, faster if using electronic). Call the police and ask them to check on her for you.
15. Wait almost an hour. The police call back saying she won’t answer the door. They are banging on the window and can see her lying on the couch. She is facing away from them, toward the wall. You can see that so clearly.
16. Listen to the sounds coming through the phone as they break down the door. They tell you she’s okay. That she had just been drinking. You have never known your mother to drink—never in your life. She gets on the phone, and her voice is slurred and strangely cheerful for someone whose door was just broken down.
17. Next Thanksgiving, decide to make Thanksgiving for her. Set the table with the brown tablecloth, the stuffed-animal Tom Turkey toy with your old dog’s dried slobber. Looking for the purple creamer cow, you’ll discover that the bottle of peppermint schnapps you hid in the china cabinet as a teenager is gone, and she’ll respond to your questions not with, “Remember the night the police broke down our door?” but just, “Remember that night you went away?”
18. Imagine, every year since she has died, making the special dishes for her, only for her. Imagine that she can be the one sitting in the living room drinking soda from a wine glass, watching the Macy’s parade while you prepare everything start to finish, all the recipes you have learned by heart. Imagine her talking to your husband and your daughter while you cook.
19. Teach your daughter how to make the celery logs when she is three. How much cream cheese, how much paprika. Look over and see your daughter, age seven, smiling as she arranges the celery logs into a sunburst pattern.
20. Turn back to your work. Stare into the glossy white of each serving dish, imagining all that is to come.
Diane Zinna is a writer who lives in Fairfax, Virginia. She is the author of The All-Night Sun, which was longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and the Cabell First Novelist Award. She teaches a variety of writing classes, and beginning in Fall, 2022, she will be the Darden Professor of Creative Writing at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She can be found at www.dianezinna.com.