24 November 2006

The Real Feast of Thanksgiving

Mileposts. That’s what holidays are. We measure our days by the feasts we keep, and the trail of changes that, like time lapse photography, take a snap shot of our lives annually as we gather round the bird.

I find it hard to remember specific Thanksgivings. Those from my childhood blend together not only with each other but with similar occasions – Christmas and others. Tue, the gigantic dead bird at the table is often a clue, but memory does not locate itself around the food as much as the company.

Reason and memory tell me that we hosted more than we guested, we being six and our various greats and grands being fewer. I can place all of my departed family around the table, often at my elbow.

The strongest is my maternal great grandmother who, having given birth quite young, was younger than my paternal grandfather by a generation. I think they met less than a handful of times and being as different as sodium and water this may have been planned by my parents. We often ate at her house, but I cannot recall Thanksgiving itself.

Her daughter, my grandmother, may have been there when I was young. I feel more certain when she was older and she was less capable. It is a cinch that her sister, my great aunt, who was the family eccentric, was there. Her swain for some years, Victor, was there at least once or twice. The house swarmed when she and Victor and her mother arrived, bringing in the aroma of lavender and soap and the memory of pill box hats with fashionably small black lace veils.

When we moved from the family compound (Maryland) Thanksgiving became a nuclear thing, one of which was almost as explosive as it came soon after my dad was severed from his position in a political shuffle that left him unemployed when he was in his early fifties, younger than I am now. Good heavens.

Mom was trying hard to remain positive but was a seething cauldron of anger at the injustice done to my father and at his calm acceptance of it. I am sure a cocktail, to which my mother was habituated, lubricated her tongue even more and there was a terrific moment when she could stand the polite silence no more and demanded to know why dad just took it. He replied that he saw no reason to rail when it would do no good. A frequent point of conflict in their long and vastly more happy life together.

When I got married, my wife being an only child and I the oldest of four, we spent the bulk of our holidays with my in-laws. Within five years my father-in-law died and the gravity of mother and daughter was even more potent. Thus for the second half of my life Thanksgiving was spent in her company and assorted parts of her clan. A family devoted to tradition, those years truly do blend together, the biggest change coming when my mother-in-law ceased to host the event and it fell now her nephew who lived closer than us.

Over all, it is the memory of crowded tables with to much of everything to take in – people, silver ware, serving dishes, food, conversation. Growing up where and when we did the one distinctive feature at our family tables was sauerkraut, the vestiges of German immigrants both to the area where we grew up (Maryland) and deep inside my own family (Gminders, Brubachs, Fowbles, and more perch on my family tree). Doing without the Teutonic version of kimchee would be unthinkable, as heretical as eating something other than turkey (which we did once when I was a teenager and my mother choose to roast a goose. Memorable but not delectable.)

I noticed recently the end of mince meat pie, a staple of my youth now gone. It did not likfe it when I was young but came to treasure it. Out here in the Midwest it was less common than on my east coast, and so they hear my memories of it as idiosyncratic as the presence of sauerkraut.

This morning, the day after Thanksgiving, I officiated at a memorial service. The family chose the date because they would all be here for the holiday. Among the speakers, the daughter stood out for describing her father as the imparter of family lore. She perceived that her dad wanted bestow the family history before dying and so she took on that role. Coming at Thanksgiving made it especially apt and touching, as these are the days we expect and even need to bring out the feast of memory. I hope you will forgive me sharing mine, but feel free to share yours as well. In the end, this is the banquet to which we are all invited and from which we call can be fed without ever taking too much or running out.


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