My grandfather and me at Thanksgiving, around 1968
For me, Thanksgiving is my grandfather.
The preparations for the big family dinner always began the day before, with Aunt Inez’s arrival on Wednesday noon, the table-setting in the afternoon, and the ritual stuffing of the turkey – in those days before warnings of salmonella poisoning – on Wednesday evening, after which the turkey might remain in the cool laundry room, accompanied by pumpkin, mince and apple pies, until the roasting began early on Thursday morning. My grandfather always presiding over the stuffing, and it was the job of my cousin Barbara and me to help him. My father took pictures of this practically every year, and more pictures were taken the next day, when Aunt Meredith and her family arrived from the farm, and Aunt Patty and her family from another nearby town. Sometimes other relatives and friends were there too – “Auntie Vera,” a childhood friend from South Otselic; Inez’s friend Aunt Blanche; occasionally Minerva and Frank, or my paternal grandparents; and later, various boyfriends and girlfriends of the cousins in my generation, or friends brought home from college or work. Eventually a new generation of spouses, babies, and children was added. The table eventually became two, borrowed from the church parish hall and stretched end-to-end through the dining room and front living room and requiring two sets of china. To my family’s credit, I think, children were never relegated to a separate table. While the family milled around throughout the house, talking and drinking scotch and wine, cracking whole nuts from the nut bowl with its little pewter squirrel on the rim, and eating popcorn, my grandfather and father carved the turkey, giving liberal treats to my cousin Paul’s collie. My grandmother made the gravy on the stove while my mother finished the creamed onions and squash and green beans in the upstairs kitchen, and the other women brought more pies, cakes, vegetables dishes and homemade breads and put them on the old round pine kitchen table that always felt like the centerpiece of our family’s life.
Through all of the chatter and chaos of those memories –
which I can still replay from the level of a child, running between rooms on a
mission of hide-and-seek, or as an awkward teenager, or finally as an adult
returning home from far away – my grandfather is the serene center. I see his
face light up with delight as I come down the stairs, or walk in the back door
after months away; and feel his arms open up to hold me. He was eternally kind,
patient, and generous to everyone who entered that house, but especially to his
family. Thanksgiving seemed symbolic of the warmth of both my grandparents, but
especially of him, and I don’t think he was ever happier than when he looked
across all our faces, from his place at the head of the table to my grandmother
at the other end. The respect and love we all felt for him was absolutely
genuine and deserved because of his selflessness, not from some sort of imposed
idea of authority.
After dinner – which was always at lunchtime – Uncle Lee would have to leave to get back to the barn, and the other men would retire to the back room for football-watching while the women did the dishes and put things away, and then sat together in the front room talking and knitting. When we were children we headed upstairs to play – a favorite game, besides hide and seek, was “red-light-green-light” in the long upstairs hall, which meant that each turn took a long time. Sometimes – usually at my instigation - we put on plays and insisted that the adults come upstairs to watch us, and then somewhere in late afternoon everyone would crash from their mince-pie-and-ice-cream-induced high, and we’d hear a call from the foot of the stairs that meant the holiday was over. It all seems so simple now: especially during those Eisenhower years when time felt suspended and no one was very upset about anything at all.