Somehow the great idea of a “day to give thanks” has been lost these days to the commercial hype for Christmas that starts around Halloween and does not let up until the 25th of December. I find Thanksgiving to be the perfect holiday, situated a month before Christmas and in, at least here in the Northeast, cold enough weather that cooking a great meal radiates throughout the house and hits visitors like a warm fragrant kiss as they walk through the door.
Unfortunately, although there is a great parade here in New York City, and people do gather around tables and enjoy meals together, Christmas still seems to be lurking at every turn. I turn on the radio and Christmas songs are being broadcast on seemingly every station. The decorations have been up in the stores for weeks already, and even individual houses and apartments have strung up lights and stuck up trees well in advance of the first day of December. This omnipresence of Christmas in November is annoying and, if you are a parent, also disturbing because it only stokes the kids’ excitement and desire for the toys and games that are sought after as presents for under the tree.
Alas, it was not always this way. Speaking to my father, whose memories about seventy years ago are stronger than mine about yesterday, I get grounded in a different reality. He speaks vividly about many things from the past – a man ninety years plus who is sharp as a razor – but he can also tell me who won the competition on Dancing with the Stars or who sacked Mark Sanchez in the last Jets game.
Dad’s memory of the Great Depression always gives me chills because the images are so stark, the reality so bleak, that I wonder how anyone today can compare the two times and think people had it better back then. Yes, you could get a whole pizza for a quarter and see movies for a nickel, but the average person (if he was lucky enough to be working) made less than $3,000 a year. As he always says, it is about “perspective” and he is able to give me that.
He recalls Thanksgivings past living here in Queens as being “out in the country.” His father and brothers “built our house in the 1920s,” and it stood on a block (off what is now called Springfield Boulevard) where other houses were slowly rising, and kids were moving in and they became his friends. My father and his brother had a wonderland of streams, woods, and ponds behind their house that seems impossible in the urban reality of Queens in 2010.
One Thanksgiving, 1933, stands out in his mind particularly. The Depression was in full force, and my grandfather was a NYC policeman. Dad’s friends told him he was lucky his father had a job because most of the other boys’ fathers had lost theirs. Dad remembers Pop coming home about once a week with some meat (mostly chicken), courtesy of Krauss the butcher whose shop was on the beat where he worked. Pop wasn’t always that lucky though, and the Thanksgiving of 1933 looked like it would be one without any meat.
My grandmother had flour and some vegetables and planned to make a big vat of soup and homemade bread, but Dad and his brother wanted more than that. As they walked around the woods they went up along a ridge and saw Miller’s farm, where a chicken coop stood under a starkly gray sky. My Dad had a plan to steal a chicken, but my uncle was older and wiser, telling him they couldn’t do that. They went down to a stream and picked some berries; at least they figured their Mom could use those to make a pie.
At this point they saw a turkey running through the woods. Dad said he had never seen one before, and it looked like it was lost or something. My uncle picked up a big rock and tiptoed over, hoping to crush its head and bring home the prize, but Dad said the “turkey was faster than Jesse Owens” and shot off into the brush.
The next day after school, my uncle and father took their father’s shotgun from the closet and some shells and went off into the woods on a hunt. They went to the place where they had seen the turkey, waiting for hours in the cold until it was getting dark. Having no luck, they started home and saw the bird crouching behind some flaming red bushes. My uncle raised the shotgun, pulled the trigger, and the force of the shot sent him onto his back. Both boys looked to see the bird running off merrily into the woods.
When they got home, Pop was waiting on the porch smoking a cigar. They looked at each other, thinking “we were going to get the belt.” Pop asked them why they had taken the gun, and the boys explained that they had seen a turkey and wanted to surprise him for Thanksgiving. Pop said, “There have been no turkeys around here for many years.” He seemed to understand them though and took the gun and rubbed both their heads affectionately. “It won’t be so bad, boys, Krauss gave me some chopped meat. Your mom is making meatloaf for tomorrow.”
Dad said he went to bed that night and dreamt that he woke up and saw his mother cooking the turkey from the woods in a big pan. He got up in the morning and the house was filled with aromas, and he rushed to the kitchen and saw his mother basting a big bird in the oven. He screamed, “Mom, where’d you get that turkey?”
She smiled as she closed the oven door and put two steaming pies on the windowsill. “Why don’t you ask your father? He’s out in the garage.”
My father went outside in the cold air and raced into the garage. He saw some big sheets of the butcher paper Pop got from Krauss spread all over the workbench covered with blood. Next to the bench was a bucket of bloody parts, and Pop was cleaning his shotgun. “Pop,” he asked, “where did you get that bird?”
Pop said, “You and your brother got me thinking that there was a turkey out there, so this morning at dawn I went out to where you said he was, and I saw him running around. He had a broken wing; that’s why he was stuck out there.”
“You shot him?” Dad asked. He kind of liked the idea of eating turkey for Thanksgiving, but the killing part didn’t seem real until that moment.
Dad and his brother and parents sat down at the table, held hands, and gave thanks for their blessings. Pop said something about them being lucky, and Dad remembered looking around the table, smelling all the good food, and feeling that this had to be not only the best dinner in Queens that day, but in the entire USA. They ate well that year, and Dad never forgot that, even though the times were hard, life was good in his family.
Looking back on it now, he said it really makes him think about what has happened to Thanksgiving. “It’s not the same anymore,” he says. Well, that’s true about a lot of things, but I wonder if he is right since Christmas seems to have encroached on this day and made it just like the opening door to the “holidays” instead of being an important holiday in and of itself.
Today I will sit down with my own family. My mother is gone now, and this is our fifth year without her. Dad’s parents are gone even longer, but I remember them and he says that he thinks of them everyday. As we light candles and enjoy our feast, I will think of how easily we came by it. We went to the store where frozen and fresh turkeys filled an aisle, bought vegetables and fruits and desserts with no effort except to put them in the shopping cart, and drove home in the warmth of a car to a house surrounded by other houses, with the only streams and woods far off on Long Island.
As we eat I will look at my children and give thanks that they eat well and live well, but the memory of Thanksgiving 1933 will be in my thoughts too. It puts things in perspective and, even though times may seem rough now, we have an abundance that is overwhelming. I’ll ignore the Christmas songs on the radio, the decorations in stores and on houses, and I will give thanks for what I have and for what my Dad once had as well, because this is the true reason why we celebrate Thanksgiving.