As we prepare this week to get family together, to prepare food, and to thank God for our blessings, I found myself thinking about how it is "Thanksgiving? Again?"
56 Novembers. 56 Thanksgivings.
As well as I can remember, I have never been away from the family table for this annual meal. As this year rolls around and the cooking and the cleaning and the preparing for out-of-town family begins, I think of how much I miss the Thanksgiving of old, the ones with my parents and their traditions.
I know that we shared very few of those holidays with my mother's family as they had jobs that only gave them the one day off; they would not have traveled the eight hours. I know that we did share a few of them as I have photos of us all standing around the table, all dressed up for dinner. In one photo, I am in a blue jumper -- my brother in shirt and tie -- my mother in a tan shirtwaist. We dressed for Thanksgiving dinner in those days...
What is it about holidays as we age that makes them a blend, a blur, none of them standing out too distinctly from the one before?
Maybe you have clearer memories, traditions, and experiences that make this holiday something other than a montage of hazy memories -- maybe to me now -- it is just simply getting to be about the food?
When I was younger, there were dishes served at Thanksgiving that I simply turned up my nose to. I was a finicky eater as a child, not liking the meals that my mother, who worked full-time, put together for her four children and husband after she arrived home: frozen flounder rolled in bread crumbs and placed under the oven broiler, canned tomatoes as a side dish, or instant mash potatoes made from potato flakes and water.
The sixties and early seventies became a modern era -- a time of television dinners, pre-packaged frozen entrees, and food, prepared quickly with few steps from stove to table, to meet the demands of a rapidly changing society. In spite of the stuff I didn't like, she did a whole lot of things I did: peach cobbler, asparagus casserole, salmon croquettes, or her famous one of a kind vegetable or tomato sandwiches.
My parents insisted on the family around the table for the evening meal. We waited for my brothers to finish their paper route, my sister to finish baby sitting, or for me to return from afternoon practice with the drill team.
We sat down, prayed over the food together, ate together, and when done, we asked to be excused, but not before it was crystal clear as to who was doing the dishes, a chore we shared, rather loudly and usually with complaining and calls out that someone "wasn't doing his part." After we finished cleaning up, my mother would come behind us --- bringing the kitchen to the level she wished.. as she would comment later, "it was about the process, not the product."
The Thanksgiving meal was different -- in its preparation -- its presentation -- in the expectation of it.
One of the dishes prepared for this meal was cranberry relish. My mother grind-ed fresh cranberries [with the meat grinder -- a heavy steel contraption with moving parts and a crank that she attached to the counter top to give it leverage] to make fresh relish, a dish that I found bitter and sweet to the palate. Even though I liked the look of the berry, its red color reminiscent of winter, I could never quite get a love for that relish. For her, it was a tradition that went back to her own up-bringing.
My father made the dressing [stuffing --even though it was never "stuffed" in the turkey] --- a crazy concoction of left over bread pieces [mostly end pieces of loaf bread that were saved in a bag in the freezer for months] which he tossed with celery and onion, an array of unknown spices (not even he knew exactly what he put in it] and wetted through with broth [also left over from food cooked months ago] and cooked in a shallow pan in the oven, its fragrance, as it cooked, much better to me than the dressing itself. The result varied from year to year -- some years it was good -- some year it wasn't. My sister swears that when it was good -- its still the best she's ever tasted .. and she's a wonderful cook.
Since both of my parents worked, they bought the turkey early, frozen solid, and then the bird, its flesh white and bumpy and its legs and wings upturned in the air, would defrost in the lower refrigerator in a pan for a couple of days before Thanksgiving. I hated opening the refrigerator to that turkey -- it always looked forlorn --- abandoned -- and naked, and it looked like the animal that it was --- all the pieces there except for the head.
My dad sometimes got up in the wee hours of the Thanksgiving morning to put the turkey in the oven, always fretting about whether it would be done in time for the feast. In fact, my parents always had the traditional turkey discussion every year about how next year "they'd have to start earlier."
Another aspect of that turkey that grossed me out as a child was the innards ---turkey neck, gizzards, and livers that my mom extracted like a surgeon and set aside. The accidental sight of those "parts" laid out on the counter would send me fleeing from the kitchen --- I never knew exactly what happened to those parts -- rumor was my dad cooked and ate them --- and thinking about them now gives me the shivers -- but not my mother, who was raised killin' chickens and hogs with her farmer daddy.
At the time, I remember thinking that all this "preparation" was "not worth it" to me for a meal that took days to pull together, that at the end product, I would find unsatisfying. What a kid I was -- not nearly appreciative of the way my parents worked to make the day important, signature, and worthy of my "thanks"giving.
The more memorable vision I have of childhood Thanksgiving was the home made decorations that my mother used each year. She loved to dress the table --- it made her happy to use a linen tablecloth [that she ironed] and napkins [also ironed] and set the table with her best china and silver, all in a festive way.
Each year she brought down from the attic two straw cornucopias, carefully wrapped in paper and stored in a box for the year. These were placed in the middle of the table and stuffed with fresh fruit or small pumpkins. From outside she brought in leaves, pine cones, branches, or holly berries to lay about in a festive manner ... and then stepped back from the table, foolin' with this or that until she was pleased. Amazing what she did with stuff from the yard -- a decoration tool that she used all her life for each season --- cut forsythia or dogwood in the spring --- what every bloomed, she brought in and used.
Mother rounded out the meal with the typical of the time ---- perhaps green beans or lima beans -- or corn -- or broccoli -- and some kind of packaged brown and serve rolls in its own container for heating -- usually made by Sunbeam with the slit tops -- that I slathered with butter. I could make a meal of those rolls, and I think at Thanksgiving, I used to do that.
At the end of the meal, we always had pumpkin pie, a favorite of my dad's. I know that my sister and brother also loved pumpkin pie, but I didn't appreciate it until I was an adult.
I was like -- "Ewww. Pumpkin? I've seen mother scrape the inside of that thing."
My mother made those pies the day before, and didn't refrigerate them, and they cooled their heels on top of the washing machine, which was in the kitchen, covered in waxed paper till the next day. Nowadays, I think we call that botulism.
Before the Thanksgiving prayer at those childhood meals, we would gather around the table in our Sunday best, mom's covered with an apron, and we perhaps said aloud what we were thankful and grateful for --- and then my dad, a man known for his eloquent prayers, would give a prayer of Thanksgiving for the blessings we had that year and hopefully for the year to come.
Now, I am thankful for all that -- for all they did, gave, and sacrificed.
Yes, thank God. I'll take it.
BTW:I grew to love all of the food associated with Thanksgiving. Trust me -- it shows in my waistline.