Yesterday I stopped by my closest supermarket to pick up a few things I needed. These days, with grown children, I am usually a Thanksgiving guest at someone else’s house. This year, my contribution will be a cheesy potato gratin and a raw brussel sprouts salad. But clearly, the shoppers around me were preparing for entire feasts. Some couples pushed more than one cart. I remember doing the same and smiled at the thought. But I also remember Thanksgivings that seemed to happen almost mysteriously. I don’t remember family negotiations, long shopping lists or the excitement (and stress) of finding new recipes and tracking down old ones.
Those are the Thanksgivings from when I was a child. At 63, I don’t remember any of the days-ahead preparations. I remember waking up on Thanksgiving morning to the smell of coffee perking and the occasional clatter as my mother prepared the stuffing so the thawed bird could roast all day. I’d roll over and snuggle deeper under the covers.
A little later came the slam of car doors, the squeak of the back door opening and the sound of voices as my grandparents arrived, carrying pies -- always at least three kinds and one of them pumpkin -- and freshly baked dinner rolls. My grandmother was a professional cook and no one’s pie crusts were flakier, fillings were sweeter and rolls were crustier on the outside and softer in the center than hers.
That’s when I jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes and wheedled a slice of pie from my grandmother. Pie is the perfect breakfast, and I’d savor mine with a cup of coffee and a dollop of half and half -- just the way Grandma Hazel drank hers. “Here’s mud in your eye,” she’d say as she joined me at the round oak dining room table.
Our menu never varied much. Turkey, bread stuffing with sage, mashed potatoes and gravy, candied sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce from a can (carefully sliced into rounds), rolls, butter and homemade jam, a red jello salad with fruit cocktail -- my other grandma’s annual contribution. The only difference would be the vegetable -- hot (as in carrots or cauliflower) or cold as in a green salad. My only contribution was the relish tray, which I would prepare as if it were a ritual and the queen were coming to dinner: Carrot and celery sticks, radishes, olives (though only my mom and her mother ate them), green onions (which no one ate) and Grandma Hazel’s home-canned bread and butter pickles. By the time I’d finished the relish tray, my Grandpa Nels, Danish by birth, would be offering the adults a “snort” from his bottle of vodka. I’d watch him slosh it into high ball glasses and top them off with Squirt. Grandma Haught would refuse over and over before she’d agree to a “small one.”
My other job was setting the table. My mom’s good china came from Sears. The good silver (plate, I’m sure) was the reward of hours spent gluing Green and Gold stamps into little books to be redeemed for cutlery we used twice a year. The glasses, always a mishmash, were from second-hand stores where my mother loved to go “junking.” All that went on a white tablecloth that I don’t remember being stained like all the ones in my own linen closet.
Dinner was in the middle of the afternoon. I remember sampling everything but saving room for pie and the turkey sandwich I’d make later that evening. I have no memories at all of the adult conversation going on around me. Needless to say, I didn’t stay at the table longer than I had to. Dessert was always postponed because everyone else at the table was “stuffed.” Grandpa Nels, who’d usually spend the entire day in an overstuffed chair in the dining room, staring out the sliding glass doors as the pine trees swayed in the wind, would resume his position, but not before he’d slipped his false teeth into his back pocket and unbuttoned his pants.
My dad and his mother would retreat to the living room for some quiet conversation. I don’t remember where my siblings disappeared to. I shut myself in my room and opened a book. My mom and her mother sat at the table, surrounded by dirty dishes and leftover food, gossiping about people the rest of us didn’t know. Eventually, I heard the sound of running water and dishwashing and sought deeper refuge in whatever book I was reading. Once the dishes were done, I’d re-emerge and ask if I could make a sandwich. I remember my mother’s exasperated stare. “We just finished the dishes,” she’d say, as if that meant anything to me.
That’s about the time my dad entered the kitchen to make a batch of peanut brittle. That’s the only time I’d see him cook and we kids left him to the hot syrup, gathering only when he poured it out on the cold marble slab so it could cool before he broke it into pieces.
These fleeting childhood memories gave way to those of my own family. Those are far more vivid and likely to live on in my heart and my sons’ memories. But my grandparents and parents are gone now. And my siblings live their own lives far away. And as I unpacked my russet potatoes and brussel sprouts, I decided to write down what I remembered from my childhood Thanksgivings. Just so that it won’t be forever lost -- at least to me.