15 November 2016

My Favorite Thanksgiving

I was getting kind of annoyed with Grandma who was chattering away oblivious to the fact that no one was listening to her. Her voice was grating as it was plus she had a tendency to repeat herself. When Grandma made an observation she liked she’d always repeat it. “That Lolita Barnes dresses like a blind man picked her outfit. That Lolita Barnes dresses like a blind man picked her outfit.”  We heard you the first time, Grandma, is what all of us thought but never said. It was different when she was younger because at least then she’d cook for us and bake cookies. Now she let Grandpa do all the cooking “it’s just too painful fer me with this arthritis,” she’d say. That would have been fine but Grandpa was no great shakes as a cook. Still they’d always hosted Thanksgiving and weren't about to stop.  Ma and my aunts would be sure to do as much of the cooking as they could, leaving Grandpa to just ruin the turkey. There was no offering to cook it for him either. “It’s my house and you're my guests and you bring enough food as it is, least you can let me do is make my own gall dern turkey!”

So this Thanksgiving Grandma’s sittin’ in her rocker rattling on about this or that — no one could be quite sure what ‘cause she went from one subject to the next in the course of one sentence — and with her voice being so loud it was darn hard thing for anyone else to talk. There was no getting a word edgewise with Grandma either because once that spigot of a mouth was opened it just flowed and flowed. Ma and my aunts were lucky because they were in the kitchen so they could indulge in honest to goodness conversation. My brother Karl and my sisters Beatrice and Lorraine and my cousins could escape for awhile and play or shoot the breeze outside  —except like this Thanksgiving when it was cold and raining. Sometimes we’d go up in the attic or into the guest room but there wasn’t much room there. Meanwhile Pa and my uncles and my oldest cousins Beth and Bennett had to sit there and stifle yawns. Beth and Bennet were too old to occupy themselves with us younger cousins.

The one saving grace for everyone but us kids was liquor. The men would sip some good Kentucky bourbon while the women sipped sherry and then once dinner was served everyone would have at the wine. Everyone made sure to bring plenty of alcohol so that they could stand grandma’s palavering and the inevitable row she and grandpa would get into. They managed one good argument a meal, usually while everyone else was trying to enjoy the food. There wasn’t a teetotaler in the family save grandma who wasted her and everyone else’s time at one point or another with one of her lectures on the evils of demon rum.

The one good thing for me and my cousins at the grandparent’s house was Nikki and Beanie their two golden retrievers. They were beautiful, happy and friendly dogs who we just loved to death. Everyone did. Except of course Grandma who merely tolerated them. She often complained that Grandpa loved and paid more attention to his dogs than he did to her. Who could blame him, we all thought.

This one Thanksgiving, when I was 12, we all got a break that no one could have anticipated. Grandma got an awful headache and went in her bedroom to lay down for a bit. Suddenly the parlor was alive with conversation with one person sharing this and another sharing that and everyone enjoying hearty laughs, warm memories and observations about events in the world. Cousin Bennet revealed that he was gonna “join up.” He meant the military, of course. Bennett reckoned that the US would soon enough be involved in the war over in Europe and meant to do his part. Uncle Hobie said he doubted we’d be fighting, “unless those Nazis start sinking our ships.” Pa thought there’d likely be war but said it was probably gonna be against the Japs. Uncle Hobie said to that, “well if it is, we’ll be fightin’ the Germans too.” Aunt Eloise heard the talk and suggested that the men find something more pleasant to discuss. Then Grandpa ambled in from the kitchen and reminded everyone that he could have fought with Teddy and the Rough Riders “if I’d a mind to.”  Uncle Gus, who’d been silent to this point just had to ask him why he didn’t have a mind to.

“Cause you’d just been born, for one thing, and your sister Eloise was just a baby. I couldn’t take a chance of leavin’ your ma a widow.”

Well at that the conversation did turn to other matters like the weather and no sooner had that talk begun then we noticed that it’d started snowing. Pa said, “I don’t recall it ever snowing on Thanksgiving. It’s snowed the day before and the day after but never the day of.” Uncle Burgess, who was my uncle by marriage to Aunt Eloise, said he believed Pa was right.

“Nothin’ wrong with Thanksgiving day snow!” barked Grandpa. He was assured that no one said there was and we were just making an observation. Grandpa had turned into a cantankerous old man, although at times he could still be playful or gentle or tell a good story. I always thought that Grandpa’s orneriness stemmed from having had to listen to Grandma’s ceaseless yammering for -- at this point -- 42 years.

After a bit more talk about the weather the blessed announcement came from the kitchen that everything was ready and we could all tie on our feedbags. Aunt Eloise went to see if Grandma’s headache had stopped pounding enough where she could eat. She came back and reported that Grandma had been dozing but was awake now and feeling fine. I for one, greeted this news with mixed emotions. No, I’m lying. As much of an annoyance as Grandma was I loved her and so did everyone else. Sure she was kin but more than that when it came right down to it she was a gentle, loving soul who loved everyone of us without conditions. When Uncle Hobie got arrested for assault and battery she stood by him and wouldn’t brook a word against him. Boy did she holler with joy when the charges were dropped.

We were by no means a religious family but for Thanksgiving dinner my Great Aunt Elvira insisted on saying grace. In my opinion she went on far too long with all the things she gave thanks for and all the things we hoped God would bless and all the protection and good fortune she asked for. The word “amen” at the end of her soliloquy was one of the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard because it signaled we could all tear into the big bird and the multitude of side dishes that comprised our feast. We rampaged through the food with the happy knowledge that once we’d stuffed ourselves there was all manner of pie yet to come topped with ice cream or whipped cream.

Somehow Grandpa had managed to cook the bird to perfection, there being a first time for everything. The mashed potatoes and stuffing and gravy and even the beets and string beans were all delicious. I’d learned from cousin Lloyd, who was 16, that if you ate slowly you could both enjoy it more and ultimately eat more. I tried my best but everything was so good that I went at my plate like a hungry wolf.

Meals were one time that Grandma kept her yap shut. She was intent on her eating and never said anything other than to please pass something or such and such is really good and boy howdy she didn’t realize how hungry she’d been. And miracle of miracles we were spared the usual squabble between the grandparents. Another first.

After the turkey was just a carcass and there was no more than a dollop of anything else left, we all sat in stupor for awhile. Cigarettes and pipes were produced and the room filled with smoke. After dinner brandies were served — strictly to the grown-ups, of course — and we all took turns raving about the meal and saying how full we were. Us kids then cleared the plates and before you knew it our stomachs were put to another test by the profusion of pies before us. There was pecan, apple, boysenberry, pumpkin and banana cream. I must have sampled all of them.

After desert the adults went back to their brandy and cigarettes and pipes as we all collapsed in the parlor. It was dark outside by this time and the snow hadn’t let up. I loved the snow. Outside it was fun to play in and inside it was chance to appreciate being cozy and warm and part of a loving family. I crawled up on the sofa and squeezed in between Pa and Ma. I sat there thinking what a magical place the world was with such a cornucopia of foods and the Christmas season coming and the snow outside and sledding and skiing and picture shows and friends and family. Most of all family. I loved every one of them, even my gabby old grandma. To be surrounded by family and so much love made the world seem safe and comfortable and forever warm and bright. I never imagined that it could ever be any different. But it was.

Eleven days later came the attack on Pearl Harbor. Cousin Bennett and later cousin Lloyd went off to war. Bennett was killed at Anzio and Lloyd’s left leg was blown off at Omaha Beach. Uncle Hobie died in car accident two months after that Thanksgiving dinner and Ma and Pa did the unthinkable two years later and got divorced. Grandma died in ’43 and Grandpa followed her to heaven a year later. Uncle Burgess and Aunt Dot moved to California for war work and never came back.

Thanksgiving 1945 was nice enough, I suppose. Great Aunt Elvira had moved into my grandparent’s house and she had those of us who were left over. I was 16 and more interested in girls than family, by this time I’d been going steady with Nancy Pike for two months and I was angry about having to turn down her invitation to have dinner with her family. The worst thing was that Ma brought her new beau some jackass named Ralph who owned a department store. What he had in money was cancelled out with what he didn’t have for a personality. Pa stayed away what with Ralph being there so it was doubly bad.

I sat at dinner thinking about how each Thanksgiving since the one in 1941 had gotten progressively worse. I couldn’t wait to go off to college and not bother with family gatherings again. I wished we could have frozen time and stayed in that 1941 Thanksgiving. But I’ve since learned that you’ve got to move on and that’s what I’ve done.

Now I have my own family with a wife and three children and we’re about to have a big Thanksgiving dinner at the home of my mother and father-in-law. A new cycle of Thanksgivings are in progress, this time I’m one of the adults, but I still have a child’s love for family and special occasions. I know that Thanksgiving will never be like it was when I was a kid, but it some ways that gives the day a richer meaning, having seen an experienced it through a child’s eyes and now with my progeny. Everything’s different and everything changes and all you can do is enjoy what you’ve got today. That’s what I do, anyway.

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