—   What’s that smell? Fiona demands as she steps into the kitchen accompanied by a swirl of frigid air.

—   Can’t you say hello like a normal person? says her mom.

—   Is something burning? demands Fiona.

She kicks her boots off and leaps to open the oven door; acrid smoke billows out. She grabs the oven mitt and pulls out a cookie sheet revealing two halves of a golden butternut squash plus a paring knife, its plastic handle completely melted into the pan. Fiona opens the back door and runs out in her stocking feet, throwing the cookie sheet on top of the pile of snow at the side of deck. She comes back in and props the door open.

—   What was that? demands her mom. Was the oven too dirty? You need to clean it more often.

—   The oven’s fine, says Fiona, trying to stay calm.

How could Mom be so careless? she wonders as she takes off her socks and puts on her slippers.

—   You left a knife by the squash, she says to her mother, and it melted.

—   No, I didn’t, her mother retorts.

—   I’m sure it was an accident, but you did, Mom. That’s the smell: melted plastic.

—   Well, it wasn’t me.

Normally, Fiona would let it go. She’s the one who placates, who smoothes over the rough patches in their family dynamics, but this time…. She’s lying, thinks Fiona. She should admit it and apologize.

—   Mom, you were the one who put the squash in the oven. I just walked in the door, so it obviously wasn’t me.

—   Maybe Neil was poking at it to see if it was done. Neil! she shouts. Neil!

—   Where is he? Fiona asks.

—   Playing on the computer like always. Neil! Get down here!

—   Mom, stop bellowing! He’s not five years old! He’s a grown man.

—   Well, he doesn’t act it, as you well know. Still living at home at thirty-four. It’s shameful.

—   And he’s not “playing” on the computer, he’s working. He designs web sites.

—   Why do you have to contradict everything I say?

—   What’s up? says Neil.

—   Hi ya, bro!

—   Neil, did you leave a knife in the oven, ask his mother.

—   No, he says, looking confused. Why would I do that?

—   You weren’t poking at the squash to see if was done?

—   No, I’ve been upstairs. What’s that smell?

—   Overdone plastic, Fiona says. Mom left a paring knife beside the squash in the oven and it melted.

—   It wasn’t me, says her mom.

Fiona throws her hands up.

—   Look, forget it, she says. No harm done. I’ve got lots of knives and we can have broccoli instead of squash.

She shivers and closes the back door, but opens the window a crack. The smell is still pervasive.

—   Luc will be home soon, she says. He’s making Marsala chicken*.

—   I can cook the chicken, says her mom. Why do you make Luc do all the cooking? He’s had a hard day at work.

—   So have I, says Fiona. And I don’t make Luc do the cooking, he likes it. It relaxes him. Besides, he doesn’t do all of it. I do a lot on the weekend, and I bake.

—   I never would’ve let your dad cook, says her mother, shaking her head.

—   Yeah, and look how well that turned out, says Neil.

There is a moment of frigid silence.Oh, oh, thinks Fiona, now we’re in for it.

—   What do you mean by that? comes the icy retort from their mother.

—   Cool your jets, everyone, says Fiona. How about a pre-dinner glass of wine? I have a very nice bottle from Rufina.

She gets out three glasses; family lubricant, she thinks.

—   Sorry, Mom, says Neil mechanically. I didn’t mean anything.

—   If you haven’t got something nice to say, it’s best not to say anything at all, their mother responds.

Fiona hands them each a glass of ruby-coloured wine. Apropos of nothing, her mother says:

—   Did I tell you about my friend Agnes?

—   Your friend from bridge, right? asks Fiona, relieved to be talking about anything other than that darned knife.

—   Yes, that’s right. Well, her friend Dorothy hurt her shoulder doing something, I’m not sure what, but she didn’t get it seen to. And then last week she goes out into her yard to fill the bird feeder and slipped on the ice and broke her hip. And because of her damaged shoulder she couldn’t move. Three days later she was found. Dead from exposure.

—   That’s terrible! says Fiona.

—   What are you insinuating? asks Neil.

Fiona gives him a sharp look for stirring it up.

—   Nothing, nothing. Just telling a story, says their mother.

—   Not a cautionary tale? asks Neil.

—   Well, I think she was a very silly woman for not getting her shoulder looked after. It might have saved her life.

—   Enough of this cheerful talk, says Fiona, forcing a smile to her face and raising her glass: Here’s to our reunion.

They clink glasses.

And now for the fresh hell of Christmas, thinks Fiona. Why do I invite them every year?

*Pollo alla Marsala

Serves 4 or 5

1.5 lb boned and skinned chicken breasts, sliced to 3/8-inch thick and pounded to ¼-inch thick
2 ½ tablespoons flour
8 tablespoons butter
½ pound mushrooms, sliced
½ cup Marsala wine
½ cup beef stock

  1. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper, then dip into flour and shake off excess.
  2. Melt half the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. When the foam subsides, add the breasts 3 or 4 at a time and brown them, 3-4 minutes per side. Keep warm.
  3. In the same pan, melt the rest of the butter and sauté the mushrooms until they’re golden. Add a ½ tablespoon of flour and stir. Add the Marsala wine and stock, and simmer for 10 minutes. Put the chicken into the sauce and heat it through.
  4. Serve with linguine and a big fresh salad.