The worst Thanksgiving dish I ever had was a lemon and lavender cauliflower cheese baked by my Aunt Bristol.
She was an excellent cook. People always said so. In fact, what they said was: “Whatever else they say about your Aunt Bristol, she’s certainly an excellent cook.”
I remember that her cauliflower cheese looked very inviting, just like all the delicious dishes she’d brought in the years before. The cheese on top appeared to be browned to perfection, and although I have never loved cauliflower in the way I love broccoli or chard, I was certain that she had created another “pièce de résistance”. That is what my mother always called Aunt Bristol’s dishes, though she pronounced “pièce” in such a way that it sounded like “piss”.
I had loved Aunt Bristol from the moment she gave me a miniature scarecrow for the garden behind my dolls’ house. That is my first memory of her. The garden originally contained nothing but little plastic flowers in tiny red plant pots, but later she helped me lay out real earth beds and plant seeds. The plastic inhabitants of my dolls’ house never seemed too impressed by the crop of cherry tomatoes the size of their heads, or by the rosemary trees which soon stretched up out of their reach, but then, they had never expressed any gratitude for the care I lavished on them.
Aunt Bristol read me The Borrowers, and when we reached the end and I asked her whether she’d ever caught sight of a real live tiny person cutting bristles from her doormat or taking postage stamps from her desk, she smiled mysteriously.
Aunt Bristol was really called Olivia, but she had gone to live in Bristol, Maine, after finishing college, and since that was such a long way from Montpelier, Vermont, everyone called her Bristol. It suited her better.
At the time of the cauliflower cheese, I was thirteen. I know that because I’d just fallen in love with Claudia Grace, and I was in a state of miserable confusion because Claudia Grace was a girl (even if she did wear her hair short and try to persuade people to call her “Clay”), and I was a girl too, an ordinary one with long hair and a set of miniature dolls dressed mostly in tiny frilly dresses which sat in the living room of my dolls’ house looking haughty and unimpressed, and which I still liked to play with even if I was too old for it “by a long shot”, as my father said.
Although I was certainly not planning to tell anybody about my unfortunate state of loving Claudia Grace, I couldn’t help thinking that Aunt Bristol would understand – at least, better than anyone else would. Aunt Bristol was not married. She came to Thanksgiving alone, except for one year – the year before the cauliflower – when she brought a delicious chocolate beetroot cake and a tall woman named Anthea Snow, whom everyone called “Aunt Bristol’s Friend” far more often than was necessary. Anthea Snow admired the scarecrow and the rosemary in my dolls’ house garden, and gave me some seeds which she said would grow into baby carrots. That was the only time I saw her smile during her whole visit. She had long, narrow fingers and a beautiful sweep of grey hair.
She did not come again the year Aunt Bristol brought the cauliflower. We sat at the long table in Grandmother’s dining room, and as always, I tried to imagine Aunt Bristol sitting at that very table as a little girl. It was easy to think of my mother wearing one of those little blue dresses that never fitted me, solemnly watching Grandmother serve the turkey. And even though my father obviously did not live in that house when he was small, I couldn’t help imagining him too, guzzling sweet potatoes and bellowing at my mother, “you leave all that to me,” but in a tinny little boy voice. I never could imagine my Aunt Bristol as a child; she was too much herself in her dark blue jacket that looked much better on her than it would on a man, her hair pinned up on her head in a complex pattern.
“Where’s your friend this year, then?” my father asked her. in a way that would have been friendly if he hadn’t bared his teeth afterwards in one of those laughs I always hated
“She wasn’t my friend,” said Aunt Bristol softly, cutting her turkey into thin strips. “She was much more than that, as you very well know.”
My father’s eyes bulged, but I could see he was going to reply with a joke. First, though, he took a large helping of Aunt Bristol’s cauliflower cheese. Meanwhile, my mother tried to change the subject to talk about how proud she was that my brother had been chosen for the school water polo team, and Grandmother asked Aunt Bristol when she was going to come back to Vermont. She always asked that, and Aunt Bristol always said, “Just as soon as the Governor of Vermont offers me one million and one dollars.” But this time, Aunt Bristol said, “Anyway, she’s gone now,” and I took a tiny mouthful of cauliflower cheese, because I always wanted to savour Aunt Bristol’s dishes. It tasted like soap mixed with lemonade and milk. I drank my whole glass of cordial to wash away the taste, but my father didn’t succeed in maintaining such good table manners. He took a giant bite and then spat it right out on his plate.
Aunt Bristol stood up, and although she looked years older than before, I suddenly saw how small and young she was, too, how she would have looked at the age of seven, her hair black and curly, her eyes flashing as she stood up from the table, letting her chair fall over, glaring at each of the family in turn.
I looked around, and saw that everyone was choking or gulping water, soapsuds frothing from their mouths. I followed Aunt Bristol out of the room and out of the front door to her truck.
“Take me with you,” I said. But she didn’t.