Over the River and Through the Mood Swings

by Kristen Bealer

"You can't be serious!"

Daria flinched and looked up from her homework as her mother's raised voice interrupted her concentration. Even Quinn, sitting on the other side of their shared bedroom, was surprised enough to stop brushing her hair.

"Of course I'm serious! Why would I joke about something like that?" Jake's voice was just as loud. Daria stood and went to the door, opening it and stepping outside. Her sister followed.

"Because that's the only explanation I can think of for making plans for Thanksgiving without even consulting me first!" Perched on the stairs, Daria and Quinn watched the argument unfold.

"How was I supposed to know you promised your mother we'd have dinner at her house?" The girls turned to look at each other. Even at nine and ten years old, they could tell this was not going to end well.

"I did, though, so you're just going to have to call your mother and cancel!"

"Me? What about you?"

"Ohhh, no. I am not giving Rita the satisfaction of backing out of Thanksgiving dinner!"

"Well, I'm not going to cancel, either! You hear that, old man?! I'm going to make time for my family, unlike--" As he looked up to shake his fist at either his dead father or the upstairs bathroom, Jake noticed his daughters on the stairs. "Oh, hi, girls! Your mother and I were just discussing plans for Thanksgiving this year."

"Yeah, we heard," Quinn replied cautiously.

"And so did most of our neighbors," Daria added.

Softening her voice to the point of sickening sweetness, Helen continued the "discussion." "Jake, I'd like to point out that we had Thanksgiving with your family last year."

"Yeah," Jake replied with fake cheerfulness. "But if you remember, we spent both Christmas and New Year's Eve with your family."

Pretend smiles frozen on their faces, Jake and Helen stared at each other with folded arms. Finally Helen spoke. "Look, we can't have Thanksgiving with both of them."

"Why not?" Quinn asked. Everyone turned to look at her. "Grandma Barksdale and Grandma Morgendorffer both live close enough to us that we could go to both houses in one day, right? So we could just, like, eat light and do two dinners on Thanksgiving."

Their parents looked back at each other and shrugged. "It's not an ideal solution, but I can't think of a better one," Helen admitted. "We can have an early dinner with your family and a late dinner with mine."

"I'll go call Mom," Jake said, relieved that the issue was resolved and eager to leave before a new argument started.

As the girls headed back upstairs, Quinn commented, "I am so good at solving problems. I mean, the answer was staring everybody right in the face and no one saw it but me! Pretty good idea, huh?"

"Yeah," Daria replied with a small smirk. In an ironic tone, she added, "What could possibly go wrong?"

"Jake!" Helen complained as she plugged in the bread machine. "Stop getting your things mixed up with mine. My oatmeal pumpkin seed loaf doesn't include marshmallows!"

"Sorry, Helen," Jake replied as he poured out more melted butter. "I'm trying to make sure I get my mother's sweet potato recipe right."

Looking at the huge amount of brown sugar Jake was measuring, Helen said, "Just keep all those high-fat ingredients away from the bread machine. Apparently, now that Rita's latest divorce is final, she's on yet another diet." She gestured at the machine and grumbled, "So of course Mother is insisting on a low-calorie Thanksgiving."

Daria sat at the kitchen table, trying to ignore the flurry of cooking. She tapped a pencil against the notebook sitting open in front of her and tried to think. "'What Thanksgiving Means to Me'," she muttered. "It means stupid, meaningless assignments that teachers always give out over holiday weekends." She sighed. "Oh, well. If I get it done now, I'll still have the rest of the weekend to myself."

"Careful! You almost knocked over my flax seeds!"

"I'm doing the best I can, dammit!"

Daria flipped the notebook shut. "I'll work on it later. Maybe inspiration will hit during Thanksgiving dinner. Either one of them."

"Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother's house we go!" sang Jake as he drove.

Daria groaned quietly and sank down into her seat. The thought of two Thanksgiving dinners in one day was bad enough, but her father's overly-cheerful singing was killing any appetite she may have had to begin with.

"Come on, everyone!" he called out. "Sing along!"

There was a moment of silence. "Jake, I don't think the rest of us know the words," Helen gently explained.

"Is that all?" Jake asked. "It goes...uh, it goes..." He hummed the song to himself for a minute before finally giving up. "Well, we can make up our own words. Daria, you start!" He prompted, "Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother's house we go!"

Daria didn't say anything, so Jake continued, "Can you think of something that rhymes?"

Ever eager to please, Quinn sang in an off-key voice, "And we're bringing some bread made from dough!"

"We'll eat until our stomachs start to grow," Helen offered.

"My enthusiasm for rhyming is low," Daria stated flatly.

"Not bad, Kiddo," Jake commented. "But it's supposed to be a song about Thanksgiving."

"Oh, okay then," Daria said in mock-understanding. "Um...Spending time with family we hate just because it's the status quo."

Jake chuckled nervously. "That's not exactly the kind of thing I--"

"How about, we'll celebrate the systematic decimation of the natives who lived here centuries ago."

"We're here!" Helen called out. "Thank God," she muttered in an undertone.

As the family piled out of the car, Jake asked, "Should we bring both pans in?"

"No, just take the sweet potatoes," Helen replied. "I don't want to explain why we have two different dishes with us, and the bread will keep fine in the car."

Ruth Morgendorffer opened the door to let them in. "Happy Thanksgiving," Jake said as he handed his mother the dish.

"Happy Thanksgiving, Jakey," Ruth replied. "Your sister and her family are already here." The four of them walked into the living room as Ruth headed back to the kitchen.

"Hello, Leah," Helen greeted her sister-in-law before turning to Leah's husband. "David, how are you?"

"So nice to see you, Helen," Leah replied sweetly. "How are things with that little job of yours?"

Ruth stepped into the living room and announced, "I could use a pair of strong hands to carve the turkey."

"Just fine," Helen said to Leah through gritted teeth. "My career is really starting to take off and I expect to make partner at Nelson, Farber, and Voigt any day now."

"I'll take care of that turkey, Mom." Jake stepped nervously away from his wife, who was beginning to shake slightly.

"That's great," David said to Helen, though his tone made it clear he thought just the opposite. "It's just too bad you can't stay home with your children like Leah does with our Ben. I can't think of a better calling for a woman than that." Leah preened and gave Helen a condescending smile.

Lips pressed close together, all Helen could say was a strained, "Mm-hmm." She abruptly turned and stalked into the kitchen. "Step away from that turkey, Jake. I'll take it from here."

Jake practically ran out of the kitchen. "Dinner'll be ready in, uh, just a little while," he said with one last wide-eyed look behind him.

Daria sat down on a couch and pulled a small notebook out of her pocket. It only took about a minute and a half for Mom to get pissed off at Uncle David and Aunt Leah this year. That's gotta be a record. Leaving the adults to their passive-aggressive conversation, she pulled a pencil out of another pocket and opened the notebook to brainstorm ideas for her essay.

Ruth walked in from the kitchen, saying something over her shoulder about unladylike use of a knife, and saw Daria and Quinn sitting off to the side. "You girls don't need to sit around being bored," she told them. "Ben is upstairs if you want to go up and play."

Daria shrugged, stuck the pencil and notebook back in her pocket, and walked upstairs with Quinn. Ben wasn't hard to find; they just followed the sound of gunfire until they found their thirteen-year-old cousin in front of a television, immersed in a violent video game.

He nodded slightly to acknowledge their presence before focusing his concentration back on the game. After a minute or two of watching the screen, Quinn ventured to ask, "What are you doing?"

"Killin' commies," he grunted, jabbing a button repeatedly on his controller.

"Oh," Quinn replied. A little more time went by before she asked, "What are commies?"

Ben rolled his eyes. "Buncha red bastards who wanna destroy the American way of life," he said as if the answer should have been obvious. Suddenly, the game buzzed and the words "Game Over" appeared on the screen. He let loose with a long string of profanity that sent Quinn running for the door.

Daria pointed to the controller. "Can I play?"

Ben snorted and pulled the controller out of her reach. "Girls can't kill commies," he snapped.

She arched an eyebrow. Oh, yeah? she thought, but kept quiet. Instead, she pulled the notebook out again and this time began jotting down ideas for a short story.

A few minutes later, Ruth called up the stairs to them, "Dinner's ready!"

As everyone sat down at the dining room table, Ruth set down the dish Jake and Helen had brought and uncovered it. "What is...that?" Ruth asked in surprise.

Jake's eyes widened and Helen winced slightly before answering, "Oatmeal pumpkin seed loaf." She glared at her husband, who looked miserable as he realized his mistake in grabbing the wrong dish from the car.

"Sounds like hippie crap," Ben muttered.

Everyone began passing food around the table. Jake, Helen, Daria, and Quinn took small portions of each, all very aware that they'd be eating once again in just a few hours.

"Now, you all really need to have more turkey than that!" Ruth admonished. "It's so rare that you get to eat a proper meal, you have to make the most of it." Faint tearing sounds could be heard as Helen shredded her napkin under the table. Daria was impressed. I've never seen anyone do that with a cloth napkin before.

Desperate to change the subject, Jake said, "Hey, Ben, my man! How's, uh, school?"

Spearing a hunk of stuffing with his fork, Ben replied, "Fine."

Leah spoke up, "He's just excelling at Buxton Ridge." Jake smiled nervously and picked up a piece of oatmeal pumpkin seed loaf. She continued, "Last month he got the best time out of his entire class on the rope climb." Jake's hands started shaking, so he gripped the bread with both hands to steady them. "He also wrote this year's school musical! You all must come and see it when it's performed."

Pumpkin seeds flew everywhere as Jake's clenched hands flew apart, ripping the bread slice in half.

Ruth shook her head in disapproval. "Properly cooked bread shouldn't break apart so easily. I expect it was overcooked." She picked up a small piece and tried it. "Tastes like it was machine-kneaded, too."

Helen drained her glass of wine and set it down with a louder-than-necessary thump. Jake was mechanically shoveling food into his mouth, red-faced from the effort of suppressing a full-scale rant.

"But I see Ben isn't the only one who's flourishing," Leah continued, oblivious to the interruption. "Quinn, you look just lovely. Such pretty red hair!"

"Yeah," Daria said. "But how fast can she climb a rope?"

Gesturing at her older daughter, Helen said, "And Daria has been getting straight-As in school."

"That's nice," Ruth commented. "But her hair isn't nearly as pretty as Quinn's." She looked at Daria. "Now, really, dear. Wouldn't you rather have a more feminine hairstyle than that?"

Helen's eyes narrowed as she put a hand to her own hair--which was cut in a very similar style to Daria's.

Ruth took no notice of this as she kept her attention on Daria. "I'd be happy to pay for a new haircut, if you like. I'm sure one hundred dollars would cover it, wouldn't it?"

Daria raised an eyebrow at the obvious bribe. "I don't know," she began slowly. "I don't think I can get a decent mohawk for under two hundred dollars."

"Muh--mohawk?" Ruth stammered.

"You're right," Daria corrected herself with a nod. "Mohawks are way too old-fashioned. Maybe I'll just shave my head. That would definitely free up space for a tattoo on my scalp."

Ruth narrowed her eyes at her granddaughter and harrumphed slightly. After a moment of awkward silence, she finally said, "I'm going to go put the pies in the oven to warm. Everyone, help yourselves to seconds."

Reluctant to give her mother-in-law anything further to complain about, Helen put more food on her plate and gestured at her daughters to do the same. Jake was already nearly finished with his third plate of food, having discovered that eating effectively distracted him from visions of Corporal Ellenbogen.

By the time they left the house, with Ruth's disapproving "Going so soon?" at their backs, all four felt that they had had far too much--too much both of food and of family.

Most of the car ride was spent in tense silence. Finally, a mischievous smirk on her face, Daria began singing in a monotone. "Over the river and through the--"

"Not now," Helen snapped as the car pulled up in front of Mrs. Barksdale's house.

"Should I bring the sweet potatoes in or...?" Jake asked, still sheepish about the earlier mix-up.

"Bring them. I'm not walking in empty-handed."

Three out of the four family members plastered fake smiles on their faces as they approached the second stop on the Great Morgendorffer Thanksgiving Day Tour.

The door was opened for them by Daria and Quinn's fifteen-year-old cousin. Dressed in designer jeans and a baby-doll t-shirt, Erin looked the family over for a moment before she spoke. "So, like, you can throw your coats in the master bedroom, but don't put anything on my jacket because it's suede and your big, ugly coats would probably wrinkle it or something."

Helen's fake smile wavered slightly. "And how nice to see you, too, Erin," she said.

Quinn couldn't resist speaking up at this point. "You know, you really shouldn't have worn suede. It might snow, and if your jacket isn't waterproof it could end up ruined."

Erin blinked at her cousin. "But I look really cute in that jacket!"

"Oh, I'm sure you do," Quinn reassured her. "But it's wasted if you're just going to put it away in a bedroom, and besides, it's just family here so there's no one you want to look good for, right?"

At that moment, the phone rang. Erin turned away to answer it, but not before saying, "I like the way you think, Quinn," with an approving smile.

Daria frowned. "Wow, Erin's really conceited."

Quinn smiled slightly as she watched her cousin go. "Yeah."

"Helen, Jake, I'm so glad you could make it!" Rita said as the Morgendorffers entered the living room. A dark-haired man sitting next to her nodded a greeting.

"We'd hate to miss Thanksgiving with everyone," Helen said with feigned enthusiasm. "It only comes once a year, after all."

"Except when it comes twice a day," Daria remarked. Jake choked back a laugh, but Rita and Helen were too busy sizing each other up to notice.

"It's just that it must be very hard to tear yourself away from your work," Rita replied. "I mean, I know how important it is to you."

"Oh?" Helen said, back straight and fists clenched. "And what is that supposed to--"

"I'm going to go see if your mother needs any help in the kitchen!" Jake suddenly interrupted. He hurried away before he could get caught in the middle of the crossfire.

Erin came back into the room. "That was Amy on the phone," she announced. "She said, 'I might be a little late, so please go ahead and begin the fight without me.'" As she walked out again, Quinn followed behind her and tried to copy her cousin's walk.

Rita and Helen both forced chuckles. "Oh, that Amy," Helen said. "Thinking we'd fight at such a pleasant family gathering."

After a moment, the man sitting next to Rita coughed gently. "Oh!" Rita exclaimed. "I'd like you all to meet my beau, Stewart. He's a chauffeur."

"A chef, actually, darling," Stewart corrected.

Rita rolled her eyes. "Whatever."

Daria pulled out her notebook and pencil once again as she sat down in a corner to work on her essay. She'd gotten as far as "Thanksgiving is a holiday that--" before raised voices broke her concentration again.

"Well, excuse me for having an active social life! What, do you think I should have cloistered myself or something?"

"Rita, calm down. I just think a week seems a bit soon to start dating after a divorce. I mean, I'd hate to think you were on the rebound...again."

"For your information, I haven't felt the same about any man as I do about Steven--"

"Stewart," mumbled the poor man as he slowly sank into the couch cushions.

"Stewart," Rita continued without missing a beat, "so you can mind your own business!"

Mrs. Barksdale's voice carried in from the kitchen. "Jake, have you seen the wine I was using to baste the turkey? I could have sworn I left it right here on the counter."


Dinner was served shortly after, and the Morgendorffers uneasily sat down with already-full stomachs.

Rita wrinkled her nose at the sweet potatoes. "Those must be absolutely packed with calories! Helen, you know I'm on a diet!"

"You don't have to eat any," Helen shot back. "I'm sure you can make do with the bag of dinner rolls you bought from the grocery store on your way here."

The phone rang, and Erin sprang up to answer it while rolling her eyes.

"Don't use that tone with me!" Rita cried. "I don't have the time to cook."

"Yes, I'm sure sitting at home with no job must really eat up your free time."

"Helen!" admonished their mother. "Leave Rita alone. She just got over a very trying divorce."

"Got over it in record time, too," Helen muttered with a glance at a truly miserable-looking Stewart.

Erin returned to the dining room. "That was Aunt Amy again. She said, 'I'm sure you've all forgotten that I'm on my way and started eating already. I've probably missed some really good insults, but for now please tell everyone that they're completely right about everyone else.'"

"So, Stewart," Jake said, eager to change the subject. "Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?"

Stewart, visibly relieved at the new topic, replied, "I'm actually new to the area. I grew up in Connecticut."

Rita frowned slightly. "I thought you were from California."

With a nervous chuckle, Stewart said, "I'm pretty sure it was Connecticut, sweetheart."

Helen couldn't resist a triumphant smirk. "California is where Brock was from. You know, your most recent ex-husband?"

Rita glared across the table at her sister. "Helen," their mother said firmly. "This is not appropriate dinnertime conversation."

"Better to save it for dessert," Daria helpfully suggested.

"And Erin, how have you been?" Jake asked in desperation.

"Okay, I guess," Erin said with a shrug. "This stupid weather has been drying out my hair. I think I even found a split end this morning." Quinn's eyes widened in horror, and she began studying her own hair intently.

"I'll call Antonio tomorrow," Rita assured her. "He can do miracles with hair, although he's not cheap."

As she said the last part, Rita glanced at her mother, who immediately said, "Oh, don't worry about that. Would two hundred dollars be enough?"

Daria raised an eyebrow. "That should be almost enough for a decent mohawk."

"Oh, and of course I'll give the same amount to you girls, too," Mrs. Barksdale added quickly. "A hundred for Daria and a hundred for Quinn."

"Well, I have been saving for that tattoo," Daria said.

"That won't be necessary," Helen told her mother firmly, offended by the obvious favoritism. "We've done without your assistance before, and I'm sure we can do without it now."

Rita narrowed her eyes. "What are you trying to--"

"What a great dinner!" Jake exclaimed loudly.

"The sweet potatoes are bland," Erin remarked just before the phone rang. Without another word, she hopped out of her seat to get it.

Jake sputtered for a moment before Stewart stepped in. "Oh, they're not so bad. They just need a little extra kick. You know, Jake, I've got a recipe for sweet potatoes that I could share with you. You use chili and cayenne pepper, and the mix of sweet and spicy is just perfect."

"Hey, that sounds great!" Jake replied, the insult immediately forgotten. "I've been looking for something to spice up my cooking, and I bet that's just the kind of thing I need."

Stewart smiled for the first time that day. "Well, maybe next time I see you we can talk over some ideas. Just remember, the important thing about using any kind of pepper is--"

"Aunt Amy again," Erin interrupted as she returned. "She said, 'Looks like I'm not going to make it after all, but usually at least one person has stormed out of the house by now, so I guess it all works out. See you at Christmas, unless I can possibly help it.'"

"That's just like Amy, missing such an important family holiday!" Mrs. Barksdale complained.

"Lucky Amy," muttered both Helen and Rita.

After dinner, the Morgendorffers managed to eat at least a few bites of pie before giving up. Helen's face was starting to twitch and Jake was looking for an escape by the time the dishes were cleared away, so by silent agreement they began saying their good-byes.

"Yes, we should be leaving as well," Rita said as she stood. "Would you mind gathering our coats, Stanley?"


"Oh, who cares?"

Helen, Jake, and the girls took this as their cue to escape, and they waddled more than walked out to the car. As they drove away, Jake commented to Helen, "I'm sure glad we got to meet Stewart."

"Oh, definitely," Helen agreed.

"He's such a nice guy."


"It's too bad he'll be long gone by Christmas."

"Such a shame."

It was too dark for Daria to get out her notebook, so she just looked out the window and thought about her essay.

"What does Thanksgiving mean to me?" she whispered to herself. "Food?" She suppressed a small burp, clutched her over-full stomach, and shook her head. "Family?" She only shuddered at that one. "Hmm..." After a moment, she began to smile. "That could work."

On Monday, Daria handed in her essay. Intrigued by the look on the student's face, her teacher glanced down to read what she had written.

What Thanksgiving Means to Me

By Daria Morgendorffer

Several centuries ago, the Pilgrims traveled for many weeks under grueling conditions to get here. Upon arrival, they faced starvation and illness, leading to the loss of many beloved family members. It is popularly believed that these pious settlers held the first Thanksgiving to celebrate the teamwork and self-sacrifice that allowed them to survive the first year of this ordeal.

Now, we celebrate Thanksgiving by traveling for a few hours at the most in the comfort of our cars. We gorge ourselves on food until we feel sick and visit relatives we sometimes wish were dead. Afterwards, we trample over each other in stores to shop for luxuries we don't need and start diets out of regret for the previous day's gluttony.

I'm not certain, but I suspect a few wires got crossed somewhere along the way.

Anyway, what does Thanksgiving mean to me? A lot of screwed-up family problems and getting depressed by the end of the day. And some stuff that rhymes with "go."

Thanks to RLobinske for beta-reading.