Thanksgiving. A quintessentially American holiday. And I, the lone American on the island, was definitely the only one thinking about the meal I was missing back home.
In my childhood, on holidays throughout the year, both sides of my family blended together in one house. The tables crammed into every open space, couches pushed up against the walls. In my head the holidays blended together too. Only to be differentiated by our clothes and the weather. The Easters, the Thanksgivings, and Christmases, the Memorial Days, and Fourth of Julys.
We didn’t know the last holiday that we spent all mushed together like that would be the last at the time. I couldn’t pick out the day if I tried. Traditions had a tendency to stay the same until, one day, they just weren’t anymore.
When I took this posting, I didn’t think about the things I would miss. The moments. The mashed potatoes.
But what was I even missing? A seat at the kids table? A cramped table at my mother’s new bungalow home surrounded by moving boxes. My fathers’ empty seat and my sister’s growing baby bump. And I’d disappear into the background like usual. To be talked over and glossed over. The disappointment in the room.
My finger circled the rim of my glass, still an inch of whiskey at the bottom. “You look like you’re missing home. Or someone?” Sean was the nosy kind of bartender.
I rolled my eyes as Rory approached us at the bar. Sean poured him a Guinness. “Mashed potatoes,” I said. “I’m thinking about missing my mom’s mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving this year.”
Rory laughed. “You do know you’re in Ireland, don’t you? Potatoes are practically a main food group here.”
“Ha. It’s not the same,” I said. “It’s the nostalgia of it all, of a big family meal and a roaring fire and feeling so stuffed you can’t move.”
“That sounds incredibly American.”
“I used to spend hours in the kitchen cooking. That way I could avoid talking to anyone.”
“Oh, yes, that’s what the holidays are known for. Inviting all your family over just to avoid them.”
I eyed him. “You don’t know my family,” I tossed back the rest of my whiskey in one big gulp, “the overheated kitchen was a reprieve. Even when I was forced to mingle, it was like I wasn’t even there.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.”
“Feeling like you’re not enough in your accomplishments and life choices is also a very important tenet of American holidays.”
“And here I thought holidays were about being surrounded by the people that you love. And food.”
“Get with the program, Rory, there’s a whole level of insecurity you’re really missing out on.”
He laughed, bringing his pint glass up to his mouth and letting it linger there before taking a sip. My eyes flickered away from his lips.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I love the holidays. I love Thanksgiving. Who doesn’t love a holiday that’s all about the food? But underneath all that holiday cheer is some deep-rooted loneliness I’ve never been able to shake. Maybe it’s just par for the course, you know? On the days we are surrounded by all the people we love and should feel most loved, there’s this nagging feeling of not really being seen.”
“I’m sorry you’ve felt that way,” Rory said, his hand reaching for mine. And for a minute there I’d forgotten I was saying these things out loud. I’d forgotten someone was listening to me. Rory, of all people. But there was something about him that made me feel like I could tell him all my secrets. My usual barriers faltered around him. Because when he laughed, it wasn’t to make fun of me or tell me I was being ridiculous. It wasn’t to shoot me down. Coffee-machine breakdown aside.
I couldn’t help but smile. “Thanks.”
In the weeks since that little episode, I tried to forget the image of Rory in my little cottage. His towering figure in my doorway. His hands sorting through my things. The fire he lit. I didn’t understand him. The cranky fisherman who picked me up from a dock in Dingle and practically tossed me off his boat once we reached the island. He seemed so different that day. Like a totally different person. Did I seem the same to him? Was who I was that day who I was now?
I stared into my empty glass. His hand was still on mine. He gave it a little pat-pat and I pulled my hand back before he settled his down again. His fingers curled under into a fist. “Another?” he eyed my glass.
I shook my head. “Thanks, but I’ve got to get back. Ellis has an early errand run tomorrow and I said I’d join. If I have another I’ll sleep until noon.” I slipped a few bills on the counter for Sean and pulled on my coat.
“I owe you one, then.”
“After that emotion dump, I feel like I owe you. How about I get it next time?” He smiled. His dimples hidden under his ever-growing beard. He hadn’t shaved in a week. I didn’t hate it.
“You know where to find me.”
I walked home to the sounds of waves crashing that I couldn’t see. Surrounded by a sea of darkness, I looked up to see a sea of stars instead. Waves of twinkling stars washed across the sky. Thousands of stars I’d never seen before. Millions. I never knew just quite how many there were in the sky. It was impossible to know. Back home, most of the sky was washed out by the city lights. On a good night you could point out the big dipper, maybe the North Star. But here, wow. I wished I could capture it. Give me the best lens on the planet and let me capture this incredible sky. But even then, it probably wouldn’t do it justice. You had to be here. The earth of this rocky island beneath your feet and the north Atlantic sea surrounding you on all sides. Only then would you feel the great vastness of the world around you. The emptiness between you and the corners of the universe. Endless glittering galaxies. Peace.
“When I said I wanted to order a sweater, I meant like, a sweater. Just one.”
Sorcha stood proudly behind a pile of her creations, folded and stacked high. There were seven. One for every day of the week.
“I know but once I started, I couldn’t stop. You give off such beautiful energy and Niamh helped me pick the patterns and colors—she’s brilliant at that sort of thing—and Rory told me all about your clothing situation, so I thought it couldn’t hurt.”
“Well, I certainly have more than enough to wear now.” My fingers caressed the thick, woolen knitwear. “And Rory needs to keep out of my business.”
“Sounds like he needs to keep out of your room.”
“It is so not what you’re making it sound like.”
Sorcha grabbed a crate and nestled in the folded sweaters, ranging in colors from golden yellow to rusty red, and a mix of patterns and solids. She stuffed in a few pairs of wool socks, a scarf, a pink beanie (to match my coat), a blanket, and carefully placed on top a bag pulled closed by a drawstring.
“These are from Niamh,” she said, patting the drawstring pouch. “A wee welcome gift to the island.”
“You guys have got to stop giving me things, I am happy to pay. I want to support your businesses.”
“Oh, hush, we like to spoil you.”
“What do I owe you?”
She was such a liar. I slipped her an extra 50 because I just knew there was more in this crate than I even saw her stick in there and escaped out of the shop before she refused. Ellis waited outside with the horse and cart. I loaded the bouquets she’d ordered for the rental cottages and shoved my crate onto the cart.
“You buy a whole new wardrobe?” she quipped.
“Well, I ordered one sweater and got seven, along with a lot of other things. Sorcha is spoiling me.”
“It’s a miracle she even stays in business with how much she gives away.” Ellis loosened the reins in her hands as I settled on the back of the cart. I liked to sit back there every once in a while. I liked to watch where we came from instead of looking ahead. Sometimes things looked different as you got some distance.
“Where to next?”
“To the post office!” she said in a sing-songy tone. Ellis dropped off some letters and packages to family on the mainland and I waited on the cart. The sun was out today. A rare thing around here this time of year. And though it was cold beyond belief, the skin on my face soaked in the rays of the sun like it was a serum, warming my cheeks.
“Letter came for you, Miss Quinn,” Charlie said, appearing beside the cart. Envelope in hand.
“For me?” I took it. It’d had quite the journey. It was worn, a bit dirty. “Who would be sending me mail?”
He shrugged. I read the return address, but I couldn’t place it. Somewhere in New York. That could be anyone from back home. I’d Facetimed with my mom recently, as she settled into her new home and my sister and brother in law, when they sent me an early sonogram. The Wi-Fi wasn’t great out here but it worked well enough. Email was perfectly sufficient in reaching me. I tucked it away.
“What book are you on now?” I asked him.
“A Wrinkle in Time.”
“Oh, I love that one. It’s the kind of book I wish I could go back and experience for the first time all over again.”
“I’m only just starting it, so don’t spoil anything for me, Miss Quinn.”
“I won’t but promise me you’ll come by the café when you finish so we can talk all about it.” I held out my pinky and he wrapped his around it. “Book club snacks on me.”
“Deal,” he said with a nod before disappearing back into the Post Office. Before long, Ellis reemerged and handed me a crate of mail. She loaded up the cart and hopped back on the front, picking up the reins and leading us toward the first cottage of the day.
Ellis and I spent the rest of the day preparing a few of the rental cottages around the island for some tourists that were arriving in the next few days. Tourist season was winding down, but a few stragglers came throughout the year to hunker down and get away from home. We made the beds up with fresh linens, arranged vases of flowers, loaded some wood into the fireplaces, and turned on the heat. Ellis left some basics in the kitchens as I folded towels in the bathroom. It was busy. Monotonous. Just the kind of thing my brain needed right now.
“You okay, hon?”
“Yea, I’m almost done in here,” I said, folding the last of the stack.
She appeared in the doorway, arms folded across her chest. “That’s not what I meant. Rory said you were feeling a bit down.”
I let out a deep sigh. “Rory really can’t keep a secret, can he? I’m fine, I promise. Just feeling a bit nostalgic for the holidays is all.”
“Well, how about you take the rest of the day? I can’t roast you a turkey, but I can certainly give you a day off.”
“But we’re almost done, I can help finish up with the cottages.”
She steered me out of the bathroom and toward the door, grabbing my coat and tossing it into my arms. “Oh, go on. I can do the last cottage with my eyes closed. I’ve got it from here. Just see to the animals and I’ll see you for supper at the pub?”
“Um, okay,” I said, as she closed the door in my face.
Interesting…Ellis never shooed me away from work when there were things to be done. She might be lax on my hours but if there was work to do, it would get done. But I wasn’t going to complain about an afternoon off, even if I could use a distraction. I fed the goats and tossed out some feed for the chickens. Francis weaved in and around my ankles when I came through the door and I put out a scoop of food for him before settling by the toasty fire. This. This is what I wanted. A roaring flame. No responsibilities. A day off. I might not be able to cook up a Thanksgiving feast, but dinner with Ellis would do. That was enough.
My phone pinged, a sound I wasn’t all that used to these days. A text message from my mom lit up the screen. Happy Thanksgiving, it read. I wish I could send you a platter of food for dinner. But I don’t think it would last the journey.
I laughed at the image of some airline worker eyeing up my plate of dinner as it strapped in for the long flight. But I did get to do the next best Thanksgiving tradition. I took a nap.
When I woke up I only had about twenty minutes to get over to the pub to meet Ellis. I threw on one of my new sweaters from Sorcha (the rusty red one) and shrugged on my coat and was out the door in ten. Beanie weather was making it a lot easier on my hair routine. Less taming the curls and more, shoving the curls under the hat to deal with later. Good enough for me.
The village was quiet. Stores had shuttered early and there weren’t many people milling about, only a few here and there. It was like a ghost town. Where was everybody?
Through the windows I could see the lights from the pub were on and there were people inside. I pushed inside and stopped. I couldn’t be in the right place. I turned and checked the sign painted on the window. Nope. I was in the right place.
All the tables had been rearranged and pushed to the center of the pub to create one, long table. The tables were set with plates and utensils, and candles and wildflowers running down the center. The fire was lit and roaring.
“Miss Quinn,” Charlie shouted. “We’re having Thanksgiving!” His smile spread from ear to ear, his cheeks plump and rosy. Imogen, the pig farmer’s daughter, told him to shush, and he covered his mouth with his hand like he’d just spilled the biggest secret.
Sorcha was there with Niamh, finishing up the table decorations. Finn and Faye ushered the kids into their seats next to Niall. Liam was there. And so was Ellis, sporting a sly smile. They even wrangled the sheep herder, whose name I finally learned, was Hank. Sean was filling everyone’s glasses.
Jack and Lilly came in the door behind me as everyone turned and yelled, “Surprise!” Their faces beamed.
“What is going on? Is there a private party tonight?”
“For you, Miss Quinn,” Imogen said.
“Rory said you were homesick,” Finn said, snuggling up next to his daughter.
“And we just wanted to bring a little bit of home, to you.” Faye raised a glass of wine in my direction as Rory appeared beside me and helped me out of my coat. My eyes were wide and glossy. I couldn’t believe it.
“How did you do all this?” I asked him. It’d only been a day since our conversation. And since then he’d shaved a bit, leaving just enough scruff for me to see the dimples when he smiled. His eyes glanced away. Shy. Like he couldn’t quite look at me for too long.
“Didn’t take much to wrangle this lot. They’re happy to do it. You’re one of us now,” he said. “I couldn’t manage a turkey, but there’s plenty of mashed potatoes.”
And reader, there was.
It was perfect. Everyone had chipped in, bringing favorite dishes from their own family holiday meals and sharing them with everyone. Besides the mashed potatoes, there was another favorite of mine, stuffing, roasted parsnips and carrots, fried cabbage, baked ham, cranberry sauce, and so much more. Platters of food rotated around the table and my plate quickly filled up, as Sean kept all our glasses full. The table erupted into talk of the tourist season and the fishing that day and soon turned to fun village gossip. I couldn’t keep up. And I loved every second of it.
They didn’t expect anything from me. No life decisions, no grand news to share. Just their regular day. And they were here because they wanted to be. Not because some familial obligation required them to be. No elephants in the room to ignore. No family drama to navigate. And the crazy thing was, they did it for me.
Faye talked about the time one of her goats (Pippin) escaped and made his way all the way down to the village. Even Hank laughed at that one. I just sat there. A stupid smile on my face. Stomach full and happy. Surrounded by so much love.
Rory chuckled at something Ellis said, throwing his head back and letting out a loud laugh. I didn’t know how he did all this. How he got everyone in on it. How they all kept it from me. His eyes met mine from across the table, the orange light of the fire reflected in his brown gaze.