Since I was a little boy, nothing excited me more than the week prior to Thanksgiving. Yes, I loved dressing up for Halloween, and Christmas was brimming with delight and mystery (in the years when I still believed in Santa), but Thanksgiving was the family holiday that seemed unmatched on the calendar. This was the week when old friends came back to visit my parents, as well as relatives I had never met or rarely seen. It was a truly joyous time without the frenzy of Halloween or the clutter of Christmas, when the house seemed smaller because of the huge decorated tree and the train set going in circles beneath it.
When I was a boy my father’s parents lived with us in a two family house in Queens, New York. Nana was the best cook I have ever known. She would start early on the Sunday before the big day, getting ready to clean vegetables and fruit piled in various bowls on her kitchen table. Nana had expertise in a variety of culinary areas, but her true love was making desserts. I have never tasted anything like her puddings, pies, and cakes.
I would assist her in the peeling process, which could become arduous for a nine year old boy after the tenth potato. We would peel what seemed like hundreds of white and sweet potatoes (which I later learned were actually yams). It seemed impossible that these would become the creamy mashed potatoes and the whipped sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top (still one of my favorite taste memories of Thanksgivings past).
We’d finish with the vegetables and then begin washing and peeling the fruit. Invariably I’d be shooed away after sampling one too many chunks of apple or sneaking a few of the sweet dark cherries. She would send me down the hall where Pop was rolling up the rugs in the living and dining room. Pop rarely did housework, but for big events he would vacuum and then take up the rugs, sweep the wood floors, and buff them with a special machine. Of course, I would be in his way as well, so I’d leave their apartment and run upstairs to check on Mom’s progress.
Mom would have loaves of bread sitting in big bowls similar to the ones down in Nana’s kitchen. The bread would have to dry out and become stale to be used in Mom’s glorious stuffing. There was a big box of raisins on the counter (Dad and I would get a personal batch of stuffing with raisins that Mom put in the bird’s neck which made them even sweeter) and numerous cans of stock for the gravy that was to be made.
I’d go to school that Monday and feel like I couldn’t sit still in my desk. “Three days!” I would mumble to myself, wishing that somehow they would pass faster. All the kids in school seemed similarly hyper, and the teachers were no doubt looking forward to that four day weekend in order to get away from us after three days of exuberance and agitation.
The night before Thanksgiving eventually came, and I was more than happy to help my father get all the chairs and two long folding tables up from the basement. By now the house was filled with a medley of enticing aromas. Mom’s kitchen smelled of stuffing in the oven (she’d make two large vats of it in addition to what she put inside the bird) and cleaned vegetables ready to be cooked. Downstairs, Nana had been baking pies and treats. She also believed in cooling the pies the old fashioned way: on the windowsill. Sometimes I’d run out into the yard, stand among the falling leaves, and just suck in the fecund warm smell coming from the kitchen.
In the morning I awoke to heavenly odors and the sound marching bands in the Macy’s parade my sister was watching on the living room television. In those days the old King Kong movie was broadcast every Thanksgiving (to this day I don‘t understand the reason why), and I would watch that after the parade ended. Breakfast was just a bowl of Cap’n Crunch on those mornings; no sense in wasting any stomach room unnecessarily. There were sweet potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and that succulent bird ready to be eaten with generous slices of pie afterwards.
Around three o’clock the bell started ringing, and that meant guests were arriving. In those days people came from both sides of the family: My mother’s father and his second wife, my father‘s brother and his children, my mother’s sister and her kids, and assorted other friends and relatives who were “aunt” and “uncle” and otherwise twice or thrice removed. We kids would run down the basement to play, and the adults drank and smoked (yes, in those days people smoked throughout the meal) and Dad and my uncle tried to catch a few minutes of a football game on the TV.
Once the bird was ready, Dad was on duty. He was never more serious than when standing over that simmering turkey with the long fork and huge knife. It was kind of like surgery as he began methodically dismembering the thing, and I often wondered if I ever would be up to the challenge myself when I got older (actually, I’ve only done it once as an adult and I sort of botched the job). After Dad had carved the bird up into platters of white and dark meat which were carried into the dining room so that the feast could begin.
These were loud affairs. We, at the kid’s table were all talking and eating and not minding our manners terribly much. The adults seemed not to care as they howled with laughter, ate and drank copious amounts, and chattered their way through the meal. By the time the pies and treats came out, most everyone would grunt and groan about being too full, but the truth is Nana’s desserts were so irresistible that they would vanish before long.
I never wanted the day to end, but alas my cousins and I would scoop up the coats smelling of moth balls from the bed in the master bedroom and distribute them to the adults. Soon hats were on, kisses exchanged, and everyone was gone. Even worse than taking down the Christmas tree, I dreaded helping my father close up the folding tables and chairs, lugging them down the basement and shoving them into the bin where they would stay in the cool dark until next year.
After all these years I still look back on those days wistfully. Many of the people have passed on now, but their laughter and faces remain vividly etched in my mind. The gathering at that table was all about family, and the tradition of Thanksgiving facilitated the coming together over distances big and small. I think that the thing that stands out most for me is the size of our gathering: twenty-five to thirty people, sometimes more. I know what my parents did and how they did it, but I still can’t believe it now.
These days Thanksgivings are less crowded. My cousins and I all have our own children now, and unfortunately we are spread out far and wide instead of all together. I suppose this happens naturally over the course of time, and the way things were when we were young can never be replicated in just the same way. While I wish I could bring back the aromas of those mornings, see Nana peeling her apples and feel her slapping away my hand, hear Pop with his raucous old vacuum, or help my father carry those clunky chairs up the basement steps, I know those days are gone.
Now, with having to cook and entertain as a parent (for a much smaller group), I don’t have the same experience. Still, it is what will be my daughter’s memory that we are creating. She will watch the parade (but old King Kong is gone); she will play with her own cousins, and hopefully remember wistfully one day what we shared. Yes, the pies will be store bought, the turkey pre-cooked, and the fixings not from scratch, but the gathering is the thing: a harvest of traditions passed on once again. Indeed, there is something to be thankful for, and that’s what the last Thursday in November is all about.