A Life Apart

Chapter 9: Post Christmas Dinner (pg. 57)


Billy was the last to be seated. Upon his arrival, his mother got up and retreated into the kitchen. His father and Mirabelle were deeply engaged, talking politics. Since the conversation was of no interest to him, Billy inserted is MP3 earpiece and tuned out the table talk. Momentarily, Jill entered the room with a hot platter. It was the final element of the meal she had spent the afternoon preparing. She set the hot plate down next to Paxton, removed her padded gloves, and placed the cutting utensils within Paxton’s reach.

“If you will do the honors, father, we can begin to serve our family.” As she moved quickly to her seat on the other side of the table, she continued, “I hope you all enjoy my cooking. I gave Betsy the day off and channeled Martha Stewart. I got the idea for this meal from one of her books.” She sat down with an air of confident expectation. Before her on the table was a large ham covered in ground cloves and surrounded by sliced pineapples, a plate of asparagus cooked in virgin olive oil and lime juice, fresh squash, skinned, par-boiled, sliced and grilled in sesame oil with currants, a loaf of partially pre-baked French bread which she had just pulled out of the oven, and a gravy bowl which was her only cause of concern. She had never been successful with her sauces or gravies. Usually the gravy bowl was passed around with either no takers or with a polite, but reluctant sampler. This time she had made a special effort to make her gravy enticing. She had whisked egg white in a bowl with sour cream, milk, crushed and cooked onion, Dijon mustard, and freshly ground black pepper. While whisking her ingredients together, she had poured in the hot ham juice reserve from her Dutch oven. The result looked creamy and appetizing. Gazing at the gravy bowl, she seemed to be gauging what might be missing: she had set aside the chopped dill she thought could be added, though not called for in the recipe. She looked up at her family around the table with anticipation. It was now their time to assess the fruit of her labor.

As Paxton began to slice the ham into serving portions, Mirabelle took her mother’s plate. She also took up the conversation that had been interrupted by her mother’s entrance. “Actually, I don’t see any justification for bombing civilians in any war, not even a so-called ‘just’ war. The fact that this war was waged preemptively makes the moral grounds even shakier.”

Paxton placed a thick slice of ham in Jill’s plate and responded, “This was not like any other war. We were fighting terrorists who hid within the borders of sovereign nations and amongst the civilian population. They didn’t wear uniforms and bore no allegiance to any nation, just their perverted ideology. Did you expect us to wait until they attacked us before we responded? The President was right: we had to fight these idiots in other countries before they reached our homeland. We were simply defending ourselves the only way we could against this new type of threat. Sure it’s unfortunate that innocent people had to die. There’s always collateral damage in war. It’s unavoidable. It’s reality. What else can you do? Wait for another attack on one of our metropolitan centers?”

Mirabelle handed the plate to her mother and reached for Billy’s plate. “Dad, there is another way to fight a perverted ideology. You fight it with a better ideology, one that demonstrates the fundamental values we all share. You can’t eliminate a movement by creating martyrs and killing innocents. We only succeeded in germinating hatred for our cause and new recruits for those who stereotype our efforts. We became the great Satan they believed us to be.”

“Billy!” Jill broke in. She reached across the table and yanked Billy’s arm.

He pulled the earpiece out of his ear and turned a sour face on his mother. “What?”

“This is the family dinner we couldn’t celebrate together last week. The least you could do is to be here with us.”

“I’m here. I was here last week too. It’s not my fault that my sister was in the loony bin.”

“That’s enough,” Jill responded with a tone of disapproval, then added on a pleading note, “Your sister was in the hospital. We’re all glad that she’s home now and can enjoy this wonderful dinner with us.”

Billy did not respond to his mother. Instead, he received his ham portion from his sister without acknowledging her either.

Mirabelle likewise ignored her brother’s remarks and continued to address her father. “I also don’t accept the taking of innocent lives as collateral damage. ‘Collateral’ implies unintended. Yet the very use of the term to justify the bombing of towns and cities belies the obvious. We know beforehand that civilians, non-combatants—women, children, and the elderly—will be killed. The term ‘collateral damage,’ like so many used in war, is duplicitous. As such it’s an offense to any moral person.”

Paxton glared at his daughter. “Now you’ve gone too far. What makes you so self-righteous? The reality is this: there has never been a war without civilian casualties, what you call collateral damage.”

“Stop it!” Jill raised her voice. “Can’t we just enjoy this meal together without all these distractions?”

Mirabelle and her father turned sheepish looks towards Jill. Billy was staring questioningly at the gravy bowl. Finally, he put words to his facial expression. “What's that stuff for?”

Jill tightened noticeably. Before she could answer, Mirabelle spoke up. “Mom, your gravy looks really great.” She reached for the gravy bowl, poured a generous portion on her ham, and sprinkled dill over the whole. Then she passed it to her father. Paxton did likewise and then passed it to Billy.

“No thanks,” said Billy.

“Then would you be so kind as to pass it to me,” added Jill.

Silence fell around the dinner table . . .

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