Thursday, November 1, 2012

Thanksgiving Comes First





At the request of my dear friend and swell pal,
a repost of our contribution 
to Suldog's Thanksgiving Comes First campaign - C & P


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


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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.


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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.

Right.

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.


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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?


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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




7 comments:

Suldog said...

Thank you for re-posting this. It is my favorite piece of writing concerning Thanksgiving. You have captured every nuance of the emotional tug I feel each year.

Stephen Hayes said...

Very well written, and I do so agree with you.

Hilary said...

How I love this. Every year, you post it. And every year, I savor it. You and Suldog both have the knack to make me feel as if you're writing about my own memories, though they differ from mine considerably. I like to think of that feeling as nostalgia by proxy.

Thanks for that, my sweet friend.

Jeni said...

As always, I love reading your posts especially when you take us down one of your memory lanes. Like you, Thanksgiving is a very special, very family-oriented day now as it was when I was a child, when my children were mere children too. As you recall your Gramps and saying Grace, I know one of my kids will remark at our Thanksgiving dinner about "Aunt Lizzie" and her plum pudding that refused to ignite one year and how "Uncle Arch" told her to slosh a bit more whiskey on it! Always brings a lot of chuckles from the kids and I know they too, like me, are remembering those loving faces from the past, so the light doesn't go out completely. Happy Thanksgiving and I'm so glad it does come first!

CiCi said...

I join the annual list of your regular readers to say thank you for posting this sweet sweet story. Knowing how you grew up is like hearing about things that were impossible to comprehend when I was a child. But knowing from people like you the true stories of family and tradition warm my heart beyond description. Your story gives folks like me a glimpse into something magical: Family. Bless you, my friend.

Buck said...

What everyone else said... this piece is like the Norman Rockwell of Thanksgiving posts, Cricket.

And then there's this (forgive me if I mentioned this before):

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.

I am X2, and I DO.

lime said...

this is such a beautiful remembrance. i swear i can smell the turkey and taste the cranberries when i read it. happy thanksgiving season to you and your family, my friend.