Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thanksgiving Comes First

Our contribution to Suldog's Thanksgiving Comes First campaign - C & P

To every thing there is a season.
Ecclesiastes 3:1


I think it's the smells that I remember best: cinnamon, nutmeg and pumpkin, roasting turkey and baking bread, a whiff of onion and sage, a note of coffee, and all of that floating above the faintest hint of fresh floor wax. If there is a heaven and if I should go there, perhaps it might smell something like that.

But I'm getting ahead of the story.


All Wednesday morning we watched the clock. A half-day: 11:45 could not come soon enough. Our teachers taught us poker-faced, pretending it was a school day like any other. For our part, we pretended to work as we counted down the minutes to the bell. They couldn't fool us in any case. We caught them sneaking their own looks at the clock.

The bell still echoed as the school doors burst open and we poured into the street. Slowly, I walked home, savoring my freedom, shuffling and crunching through errant drifts of leaves. The gray November sky hung low over trees that had given up their October brilliance for muted brown, maroon, and mustard. The air was sharp and carried the musty scent of fallen apples.

My mother practically met me at the door with a bucket and some rags.

Christopher, I need you to scrub the baseboards.


It never occurred to me that this was all a ruse: a way to keep me quiet, out of the kitchen, and to get some work done in the bargain. We were having no guests. We were going to Nana's for Thanksgiving. But children don't question these things. I set to work.

The house seemed warmer than usual. It was, of course: partly from the oven and simmering saucepans, partly from the alluring aroma of baking pies rising on humid air. Still, the prospect of a fine Thanksgiving dinner filled my father with an uncharacteristic and expansive good cheer. He would bake pie after pie, tapping out rhythms on the mixing bowl with his wedding band, filling the house with his rich baritone.

... kissed my girl, by the factory wall, dirty old town, dirty old town.

His good mood was contagious. My sister and I sang and dusted and scrubbed, forgetting that these were chores.

Evening held in store a light supper of grilled cheese and soup. We munched our sandwiches, wishing they were the pies on the sideboard. We were dutifully bathed, brushed and trundled off to bed, left to dream of roast turkey and pie.

Thanksgiving had almost come.


I awoke to the sputtering percolator and the smell of strong coffee. I knew a bag of doughnuts would be waiting: fresh doughnuts, still crisp on the outside. My father was already dressed. We munched away in cheerful silence, occasionally glancing at the pies. Waiting.

Thanksgiving had almost come.

This was one of the rare days when I would not be welcome at Nana's before the appointed hour. She was preparing and I would have been underfoot. There was nothing to do but wait. Absently, I watched the build-up to the Macy's parade in black-and-white and wondered at all the fuss. I tried to care and failed. And I waited.

At noon we were dutifully starched, pressed, and buttoned-down. Combed, brushed, and photographed. Handed one pie each and bundled out the door for the walk to Nana's. The walk took about five minutes. This was the parade that mattered.

I turned the key in the doorbell. My grandfather greeted me heartily, as if he had not seen me just the day before. He quickly ushered us in. All hugs would wait until the pies were safe and the hugs could not wait. He held out his arms and I wrapped my own around him. My fingers did not touch. I squeezed him as hard as I could. He pretended it was too much. It was our custom. Nana gave me a fleeting smile, a one-armed hug, a cursory kiss, and a shoo.

Thanksgiving had come.


I think it's the smells that I remember best: cinnamon, nutmeg and pumpkin, roasting turkey and baking bread, a whiff of onion and sage, a note of coffee, and all of that floating above the faintest hint of fresh floor wax. If there is a heaven and if I should go there, perhaps it might smell something like that.

To my knowledge, my grandfather never drank. Even so, he enjoyed playing bartender to my sisters and me. With great fanfare, he mixed us his signature cocktail: Fresca with cranberry juice. We were free to roam, anywhere but the kitchen. We searched for hidden dishes of candies and nuts. We slid on the stairs. We wandered among the adults busy gabbling about football, politics, and other things of no importance. We picked out tunes on the parlor piano. My great-aunt winced at every sour note. An electric knife whirred in the kitchen. We made happy nuisances of ourselves until Nana appeared in the parlor door and solemnly handed me a pewter bell.

I suspect the entire neighborhood knew that our dinner was served.

We packed into the dining room and arranged ourselves: Grampa at one end of the vast table, Nana at the other. I took my place at her right hand. I did not yet understand the significance of this. Grampa stood for Grace

Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts
Which we are about to receive from Thy bounty,
Through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

Casting a twinkling eye on us, he added his own prayer: "... and Lord, give us the grace to guide the children wisely." We children always joined in on the "wisely," drawing the word out. Everyone laughed.

And now the meal began in earnest. Dishes were circulated: butternut squash, mashed potato, tiny peas, my mother's creamed onions. Dressing with sausage. Baskets of biscuits and strange little Hawaiian rolls. I smiled to see my father and grandfather scowl at the turnips. Jellied cranberry and cranberry relish. Sweet mix and olives. Gravy and butter, salt and pepper, and a drumstick all for me.

It's the bountiful plate! Christopher has the bountiful plate! My sister trilled.

Indeed, it was. We set to work. While the adults gabbled about football, politics, and other things of no importance, my sister and I crafted careful forkfuls, attempting to recreate the entire meal in each bite. Now and then, someone would declare this to be the best Thanksgiving yet. Nana would simply nod. The dishes circulated again.


And now, a few words about jello salad: Perhaps you may cringe at the thought. I understand. Not really a salad at all. But perhaps, if you're like me, if you're of the right age and disposition, you remember these fondly. My very fashionable aunt always brought an elaborately molded jello salad to Thanksgiving, back when that was fashionable. It was a two-layered affair: cranberry jello, with celery, apples, and walnuts. A sweet sour cream business separated the layers.

In hindsight, it doesn't surprise me that we children could have all we wanted. I'm sure the adults thought it mostly for show, yet we loved it. When else could we eat dessert with our meal and still have all the dessert we wanted after, as well?


When the last trace of gravy had been mopped up with the last biscuit, the adults repaired to the living room. They sprawled on the sofas like walruses in the sun, ignoring the television, talking about football, politics, and other things of no importance.

Nana whisked me into the kitchen. Now I would earn my keep. Coffee was set to perk. The window over the sink was thrown open. Dishes were washed, dried, put away. Leftovers were organized and set aside. Pies and sweets were set out with plates and forks in neat array. Ice cream, whipped cream, fruits and cheeses. Nana relaxed visibly as each item was brought forth. Her smile warmed; her tone softened. Soon, she would consider her work done for the day and enjoy the party.

The doorbell announced the start of round two. The somnolent walruses roused themselves. Aunts and uncles, cousins and friends were arriving for pie. Dessert was strictly self-service. Again and again, we served ourselves. No one was watching and no one cared. I made another meal of pie. On what other day could I eat all the pie I wanted and be asked if I wanted still more?

The lights were dimmed. There was soft music from the radio. The sweet aroma of strong coffee. Adults gabbling about football, politics, and other things of no importance. Cheeks were pinched hello and kissed goodbye. My, how you've grown and how is school? Don't eat yourself sick and would you like more pie? I carried coats and hats upstairs and fetched them down again. The evening built in a slow crescendo and just as slowly faded.

I joined my father at the kitchen table for a final sandwich, on Arnold's white bread, with dressing and cranberry and extra mayo: the perfect coda to the day's excess. Leftovers were packed for travel. Dad walked home to get the car for my now sleeping sisters. Returning, he carried them out one by one. Love and smiles. Hugs and kisses. And we all agreed that this was the best Thanksgiving yet. We made the short drive home in cheerful silence.

Thanksgiving had come, but it had not yet gone.


Friday morning dawned in shades of gray and brown. I awoke to the sputtering percolator and the smell of strong coffee. My father was already dressed. He nodded and smiled. Still in her nightdress, my sister drifted in. We were about to enjoy one of our traditions, one we looked forward to all year: pie for breakfast. I cut her a slice of apple, mince for myself. Two wedges of cheddar. I put water on for tea. In our hearts, we gave thanks for hot tea and cold pie. It was still Thanksgiving.

There would be Christmas sales that day, but these weren't part of our world. My very fashionable aunt would likely be there, but even to her these were sales like any other. She was not rushing to Christmas. She just wanted her shopping done. In our house, it was still Thanksgiving. There would be cold turkey sandwiches for lunch. Perhaps hot browns for supper. All day long we'd nibble at pies, recovering from our day of excess with a day of slightly less.

And we still had Saturday and Sunday.

All week long, that bird would feed us. Sandwiches hot and cold, open-faced and closed, on bulkie rolls or Arnold's bread, with dressing and cranberry and extra mayo. Turkey sliced thin or chopped fine for turkey salad. Reheated with gravy or served as pot pie until his poor old bones were all that was left and we boiled them down for soup.

Then, and only then, was Thanksgiving truly over.


I love Thanksgiving. It's been my favorite holiday as long as I can remember. There have been changes, of course. My father is the grandfather now and I am the father. My children are the happy, noisy nuisances. Yet there is still something of those long-ago celebrations in every turkey and every pie. Nana is in my kitchen making sure the gravy has no lumps. Grampa still rises for Grace, and prays that we guide our children wisely. It is more than a memory. At least it is to me.

They are really there.

And I hope someday my children will remember our Thanksgivings as I remember mine. A time for family and friends and pies. A time to give thanks for all we have, and for everyone who has touched our lives. And whether my children realize it or not, I know my grandparents will always be there for them too. Even when it is beyond our awareness, love never fails.

Our lives breathe like the tides. A wave of weddings, then a lull. A wave of births, then a lull. A wave of funerals, then a lull. We float along on the surface. We welcome newborns, we mark milestones, we bury our dead. With a little luck, we play our parts: child, parent, grandparent. With a little luck, we greet each season of life with new eyes and an undimmed sense of wonder at each unique and unrepeatable day. And we give thanks.


Why not resolve to make this Thanksgiving more than a day? It is a season all its own. It deserves three days, perhaps even five. Resolve to ignore anything Christmas, at least until Black Friday. Christmas will come in its time, I promise. But I will say no more about that right now.

Thanksgiving comes first.

Respectfully Yours,



Cricket said...

Editor's Note: This year, I first encountered full-on Christmas at Macy's on October 7th!!! The displays were well set up and had probably been there for longer.


Suldog said...

With all due respect to our fellow TCF contributors, this is my favorite piece. It perfectly captures the spirit of the holiday. I consider this a true masterpiece.

Hilary said...

This is still, and probably always will be the most beautiful piece I've ever read about a holiday, family, traditions and memories. And I've read many fine pieces including by your swell pal, Suldog and my own favourite writer, Frank. This one touches me like no other. It's, as Jim says.. a Masterpiece. Thanks for reposting it.

lime said...

this is truly a wonderful tribute to what is also my favorite holiday. it brings back so many of my own memories of a house crammed full of relatives and relatives crammed full of food and the lingering days of leftovers which extended the holiday. reading it gives me the warm glow of my own happy memories as i enter into yours. thank you.

overnight prints said...

Wow we are waiting to watch next series. Great cricket is most favourite game.

Cricket said...

Overnight... um, yeah, ok... Happy Thanksgiving.

CiCi said...

Funny how I realized that I was looking forward to reading this post again this year. As soon as I saw you had a post, I was clicking on it and getting a cup of decaf coffee to relax and read. This story will never be out of date or uninteresting. It is Family. Not so much Food. Thank you for this post. It warms my heart.

silly rabbit said...

I can smell the aromas and hear the happy chatter. All things Thanksgiving are found here, from the cleaning and the spiffed up children to the dwindling turkey meals. It feels very much like home.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

"the perfect coda to the day's excess"

Most lovely memory. You took me there. I, too, remember that walnut jello salad -- ours with lime jello and cottage cheese.

Enjoyed this visit. Thanks for putting me into the spirit.

Suldog said...

You hit the big time over at Hilary's again, and well-deserved, too!

TexWisGirl said...

truly a tear-inducing masterpiece. thanks to hilary for giving it a POTW so i could share in your thanksgiving wonder...

Shrinky said...

Cricket, my goodness, you have put me in mourning for all the Thanksgivings I have never had! I did feel as though I was sitting right there at the table with you, reading this, I savoured every drop. What a beautifully written post, so filled with warmth, and the sweet sincerity of true family love.

You are an amazing writer, I so enjoyed reading this.

Kerry said...

Beautiful, evocative, and so honestly felt. This is a great piece of writing.

Joanna Jenkins said...

Big sigh... "I suspect the entire neighborhood knew that our dinner was served." THAT'S why I love Thanksgiving... The whole family coming together and all the preparations and wonderful smells.

And of course Jello-- No Thanksgiving is complete without it :-)

I loved every word of this. Congrats on your POTW from Hilary.

Anonymous said...

Still love reading this - I can't imagine a better TCF post! I'm glad you posted it again!

Lynne with an e said...

I actually look forward to the sandwiches more than the turkey. And having the Canadian Thanksgiving in early October allows plenty of time to digest before Christmas.

Phyllis said...

I am so glad that you guys are still holding on to the Thanksgiving First tradition, one I still whole-heartedly agree with!
Thanks so much for the offer of a postcard from RI! That was one state I was worried about, it being so small. Just mail us a postcard that is kid-friendly and perhaps a suggestion of a dish or dessert that would represent RI, in your opinion. Thanks again.

Clare Dunn said...

Wow. If I could write, I could have written this post. Our families and our traditions are nearly identical.

In agreement with Sully, this is my favorite 'Thanksgiving Comes First' article. You nailed it! Thanks so much for sharing it with us!

xoxoxo, cd

Jackie said...

Monday morning in South Georgia

I came here from Jim's blog, and I leave with tears in my eyes...the
'good' kind.
Through your blog, I have been transported home, and I love being there...
I'm very happy that I read your blog, and I hope you don't mind if I visit again. I loved being here this morning. It's warm and full of sounds, smells and feelings that tug at my my heart.
Thank you for sharing your talent.
Warm smiles from Jackie

Brighton Pensioner said...

Many thanks, Cricket. As a Limey, I have little notion of Thanksgiving holidays but now I can see the day perfectly.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely lovely; a holiday classic to be repeated year after year. You and Suldog should become a holiday team.

Thanks for awakening fond memories of my own maternal Grandmother and her yummy oyster dressing, which no one has been able to duplicate. Your Thanksgiving piece is a gentle reminder to awaken and be thankful for our past holiday memories.

The Broad said...

Beautiful post -- there are not many things that make me homesick, but Thanksgiving Day is one of them -- this post brings back to me so many happy memories of my childhood and our family's Thanksgiving celebrations.

Heidi Olivia Tan said...

I too came from Jim's blog and want to thank you for such an evocatively descriptive (oops, I'm getting effusively repetitive) piece.
Having never experienced Thanksgiving in person (I hail from a different planet, I mean, the other end of this planet), I've only seen from movies and read from fiction how Thanksgiving is celebrated but this blog of yours has made me feel like I'm experiencing it in person, down to licking my chops and feeling bloated over the excesses. And the smells, I could smell it too....
Amazing writing!

Unknown said...

How beautiful, Cricket.

Three Hundred Sixty Five said...

Lovely ~ thank you for sharing your wonderful memories, and may we all have the same this Thanksgiving!

Joan said...

I have my Mom's jello mold, I will use it, and I do consider it a salad. :)
Love your story.

Ruby said...

I came over from Jim's blog. Thanksgiving is not celebrated in India, but I've always been enamored by this holiday ever since I learned of it. Your post captures the essence of the holiday and I enjoyed reading it. It reminded me of some of the festivals we celebrate over a number of days :)) And I was very touched by the ebb and flow of life you have described in the penultimate passage. Thanks for sharing this!