It's that time again. The long fast slide down to the new year. But first? Eating, drinking, and making Mary. Er, merry.
It's inevitable that I think back to Thanksgivings past around this time, me being the nostalgic type I am. This holiday out of all the others used to be the one time everyone came together, both the close and the distant of our family. All would converge here for Turkey Day in the days before my father got sick. I think we had the biggest dining room of all the family's houses, or perhaps we just had the most room to park. For whatever reason, this was the place for my mother's family to gather the third Thursday in November. It was always my Mom's side of the family; my Dad's people were all over MS and south LA so that sort of precluded them. So come the holiday we'd have scads of family here from all the branches on one side of the family tree; cousins, aunts and uncles, the works.
I remember being a little kid, warm in the den as the fire burned in the fireplace, watching the Macy's parade on the big console tv. It'd play while my mind and my body wandered to and far, near and away, wanting to see the balloons, wanting to go play, drawn to the kitchen to smell the turkey cooking and wondering which of my cousins would show, which favourites I really wanted to see and which not so much, and which ones might show up, the ones I hadn't seen in so long that their names were forgotten, their faces a memory from years ago. It always seemed to be cold around then, too, cold enough for flannel shirts and heavy socks, cold enough for a fire to burn brightly in the fireplace, set there by my father long before I woke up. There was always a fire burning in the fireplace in winter, it seemed, and of course the warmth of the kitchen. My mom bustling around burning the turkey and the green beans, my father trying to set up extra chairs and card tables here and there but mostly, since I now feel like he did then, dreading the massive invasion of mouths and arguments and such that that side of the family seemed to specialize in.
I think he bore it just for her, because had he any hand in it he'd have made a few polite phone calls to a few close family members and gone out squirrel or deer hunting, or more likely just walking in the woods looking for paint rocks or petrified wood for us boys.
And then it was upon us: cars driving up, squeals of delight or sighs of dismay as I saw who it was, and me being the bigger of the two of us it was up to me to help carry in hot plates and casserole dishes and huge pots and covered cakes, making a mental inventory of everything I wanted to try. And Uncle Joe would always be late even though he lived right next door to us, and everyone would be loudly asking "Where's Brother" or "Is Uncle Bubbie coming?" And after all the kisses from powdered aunts and the awkward pats and slaps from distant uncles were through there'd finally arrive someone I could play with and we'd be gone, hiding from all the adults and their giraffe-awkward ways.
After a long round of kite flying or playing the Atari or shooting billiards on our much-loved table someone would, at the sign from the kitchen of cooks finally clear their throat and announce to the shining upturned faces that it was time to eat. We'd gather in a loose mass close to the dining room since there was no way to fit us all in there, drawing close to a family member or a favoured cousin. Some would stand in the doorway, and some in the kitchen, and some in the parlor that Mom had turned the other half of the front rooms into, and heads would bow and someone would ask my Uncle Emile to say grace. For some reason it was always him, not anyone else, and I remember being so tickled the year I realised he was saying the same rote formula that we used at school. And better, that he said in the same sort of sing-song mumble we all used there. "Blessusolord forthesethygifts whichweareabouttoreceive fromthybounty throughChristourlord amen."
And then would begin that long slow procession across the laid out wealth of food. There were always the same cousins who made the same jokes about being at the back of the line, having placed themselves there to play 'cleanup' of whatever was left. It's a long full blur of food and scents and voices and faces and similar but disparate memories. All the main dishes were always in the kitchen, covering the counter to either side of the stove and across onto the other counter past the sink, flanking The Bird. The little round kitchen table would have all the glasses and drinks on it, and we'd make a long caravan of bodies around it. First stop was picking up plates and utensils at the big bureau that stood at the edge of the kitchen and the start of eying the dishes hungrily. As the line crept forward we'd slowly shuffle to each big dish or serving bowl trying to guess who had cooked what, trying to make room on the plate for a serving spoonful or two of everything, calling out jibes to the people in the front to 'speed it up,' or to 'save some for the rest of us,' and answering the same calls from behind us with feigned scorn.
All the adults would slowly fill the dining room and that dark wood table until it was full, a body in each tall red velvet chair, and the bronze tableware clinking softly against dish or bowl. The kitchen table would be filling fast with the middle-years folks at the same time, the glasses and ice making it's way from table to place setting as the cousins and family moved past. There was a surprising gap in years between mom's siblings who all married and had kids young and my parents who married and had their two boys late in life, so all the 'kids' would be sitting at the kitchen table, and then THEIR kids would be with my brother and I. And being the kids we had a lot more free rein, so we would be scattered all across the den or whatnot, finding places on couches and wooden chairs, eager to wolf down our meal so as to get back into the dining room. There on the long serving board would be all the deserts--cakes and pies and frothy frilly constructions, each made with many years of handed down recipes, each perfected in it's own way by many hands long past.
After we were stuffed we'd explode outside to run and play and be foolish while the old folks talked and had coffee and seconds on the pie and worked up enough energy to start whatever discussion that would later erupt into good-natured arguing. I remember trying to squirm though the crowd of legs and feet and stomachs to get to my room or back out of it, seeing the football game on the tv and my dad feigning interest enough to be mistaken as a fan but I know eager in his heart for these interlopers to be gone from his castle.
As I got older I graduated to the big table, but the crowds were narrowing. The kids were moving away, were old enough to have their own dinners to go to, and I found my lack of age no longer mattered so much. I was allowed quietly into the ranks of the older cousins as though I'd only had to speak up to be in, though I knew better. I remember the year I was allowed wine at my place, a smallish glass of deep purple table wine--Manischewitz or Mogen David. I thought I was something, even though the sharp alcohol burned my virgin throat.
And of course as time passed the gatherings became smaller and smaller as family drifted apart or died; as marriages were made and split new faces would carry our old faces away to other houses, and now it's just Mom and her two boys and their little families most times for that big lunch, and a little play time for the kids until we're whisked off to the in-laws houses for Thanksgiving suppers, and it's just not the same. There's no sense of occasion, no meetings of cousins and family long apart. No more huge gatherings of family on the front yard for photos, mixing and matching children and siblings for different cameras or different arrangements of generations. Now it's quiet, and I look down the lane at the houses that have cars overflowing into the street and it makes me sad, in a way, and glad in another. Glad as Daddy was when it was a small turnout year, but sad because some part of me really DOES miss those crowds of overly familiar and distantly unfamiliar faces and voices.
A big part of me misses the sweet potato pie my Aunt Bobbie made every year, with the crispy marshmallow crust. Part of me misses drinking wine and being allowed to use the heavy bronze utensils, specially brought out of storage and polished up for use only at the adult table, feeling like I had passed some important milestone. And a lot of me misses seeing my father out in the yard, pretending to let his dinner settle when in fact he was just wanting to get away from the maddening crowd to pick up a few pecans in his yard.
The parade is on tv right now, the surround sound picking out each cheer and horn, the flat face of my making each float and balloon pop with vivid colour. The floats are familiar for the most part; Snoopy and Ronald and Big Bird. The bands sound the same; crisp horns, sharp snaps of snare drum and the twirl of batons. It all draws back the memories, making me miss those long-gone cousins and meals and games of pick-up football in the front yard. Mostly, though, I miss my father; quiet and dour, sitting and smiling, wanting nothing more than a little peace and a pocket full of pecans to crack.
I'm about to head to my brother's palatial home for The Meal. It'll be my niece and my two nephews, my daughter and wife, my Mom and my brother and his wife. And there'll be an empty place, one I'd long to fill.
Go kiss someone you care about, right now. Tell them you love them, while you can.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all, my friends. The people whom I've known for all my life, and my friends whom I've not even met in person yet. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.