My grandchildren have taken the seats at our Thanksgiving table, now vacated by our elders. I no longer awaken on Thanksgiving morning to the sounds of my mother in the kitchen, up very early to prepare the feast for us, because she had worked too late the day before in the Elmwood Market grocery store to get anything done. I’d go downstairs, increasingly enveloped in the wonderful scents of cooking all ready under way. Often my mother would be singing in her not very good voice, either “Over the Woods and Through the Snow,” or “We gather together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing.”( which in reality we never did.) I’d join in the songs.
Smells, sights and sounds imprinted unforgettable memories.
The weather was always cold in the Thanksgiving of my youth. Frost might etch the windows, the trees would have lost their leaves weeks earlier. Now that the leaves were carpeting the ground, I’d get a clear view of the meandering Connecticut River, at the base of our hill in the back of the house. It all felt Currier & Ives, even if it wasn’t. If there were a few snowflakes in the air, so much the better.
Thanksgiving was a dining room event, barely large enough to hold our family of four, my aunt’s family of four and a few stragglers who depended on us for a seat at the table. A children’s table would be set up as needed. Uncle Sam, not my Uncle at all, but an old friend of my father’s, was always present. When I look back now, I’m quite sure he was my father’s old gay friend, but such things were never acknowledged or talked about at that time. It was an unusual friendship but always a comfort to have Uncle Sam on the scene. My father always enjoyed needling him for one reason or another and it was fun to watch the scenario play out, as they both got increasingly drunk, and my father would irritate Sam more and more. Poor Sam quickly ran out of comebacks. He was no match for my father’s wit. But their interactions varied little from year to year.
I’d be allowed the privilege of setting the table with my Mom’s best china, along with the just polished sterling silver and the large linen napkins and ornate linen table cloth, ironed to perfection . For many years a Butterball turkey would be brought to the table, thought to take all the guesswork out of roasting the bird, even if it took out most of the flavor as well, because it was frozen. In later years, they switched back to “native” turkeys, greatly improving the taste and setting standard for the local birds we seek out today. The cranberry sauce was canned, and the green beans mixed with cream of mushroom soup topped off with canned fried onion rings. There’d often be a jello mold which I was particularly fond of and of course a large dish of pureed sweet potatoes topped with perfectly toasted marshmallows. And, of course, pecan pie.We ate this exact same dinner at Thanksgiving throughout my childhood. Why mess with perfection?
After dinner, the men retired to the den to watch football and fall asleep, while the women went directly to the kitchen to tackle the waiting mountain of dishes.
These were memories which have clearly lasted a lifetime. Now Thanksgiving dinner is a more complicated affair in terms of guests and location. It’s a bit like herding cats trying to figure out where to have it, because we’re spread between coasts. Now, my children seem more excited about celebrating it than I do and they’ve taken on most of the work. I’m grateful for that, because the day always holds a bit too much nostalgia for me to ever be as exciting as it was in my childhood.