Thursday, November 22, 2012

Turkey Day

Just a picture nabbed from the 'net, but a rather good idea of how the picnic table in the sunroom looked; Aunt Ruth delivers the flowers, in the processing getting a good first look at the turkey and the salad.  Speaking of which, can you spot the salad?

Thank you. Thank you. Simple words, so frequently tossed out, so little considered (except, inevitably, today). We say it to everyone, from God (if we have one; I seem to have misplaced mine along the way) to the nice man at the grocery store who carries your bags to the car (we're very spoiled in the Sandlands, as I might have mentioned once or twice). Sometimes we even mean it (speaking to either of the above, if the burden is particularly heavy, or indeed anyone else). As Americans, I've learned, we unconsciously judge others by its lack (some cultures don't require it) or its abundance (saying thank you in Egypt can take five minutes - thank you, a thousand thanks, bless you, bless your family, praise to your endless generosity and to the excellence of your forebears...).

It's a nice idea, Thanksgiving, a holiday devoted entirely to thank you, even though, of course, being thoughtless and foolish, we have diluted and benighted it, with sales and supersales, with routines that shade from traditional to onerous, with turkey-shaped candlesticks and the ominous shadow of Christmas just around the corner (Christmas creep has reached the Sandlands, by the bye - a tree towers over the escalator at our local supermarket, and the music switches neck-snappingly from Arab pop to what sounds suspiciously like one of those Firestone anthologies we used to get at the gas station, the records that jammed onto one piece of vinyl Brenda Lee and Mahalia Jackson, Tony Bennett and Julie Andrews. Boxes of stuffing sit on the specialty shelves next to Christmas crackers, for the holidays here are a curious Anglo-American amalgam, half Santa and Hot Wheels and half paper crowns and Christmas puddings).

Remembering Thanksgiving makes me nostalgic, but not sad (that's reserved, I suppose, for Christmas). As with so many aspects of life, Thanksgiving at our house was itself something of a neck-snapper, veering unpredictably between squabbling and unthinking generosity. Arguing about the menu, of course, never grew old, dinner conversations growing tenser as October moved into November: We never put chestnuts in our stuffing. I suppose she'll insist on bringing those creamed onions, won't she? Do we really have to have a ham as well? I'm sorry, there's just no question: that marshmallow-yam casserole is common as mud.

Meanwhile, preparations gathered pace: tablecloths ironed, napkins starched, all the silver (both the used and the just-for-show) relentlessly polished, the best water glasses checked for chips, and your great-great-grandmother's Haviland counted to make sure we didn't need to borrow any of your grandmother's Spode (Mother Muscato's wartime-wedding Lenox being deemed insufficiently grand for state occasions; it was the Tightum of dishes, only slightly less shameful than the aluminum rationware, trays and platters and cakestands, she also got as presents in lieu of sterling, banished to the basement but now I suppose fetching fortunes as Mid-Century Chic). Then the shopping and the pre-cooking (and more wrangling - turkey from the grocer, Mrs. Vetrone the grocer's wife expects us to buy from them, or from the farm, so much fresher and really, Helen, are you sure the Vetrones' place is all that clean?), the en-staling of the stuffing bread and the finding of the turkey platter (perpetually lost, and perpetually discovered at the back of the closet of the little room at the top of the stairs, where the photo albums and boxes of tattered Easter decorations lived).

And then the day.

The one question rarely asked, the one kind of bickering forgone: who should come? The answer, simply, was anyone, beyond just us, who needs to. Miss Brown the librarian, the year her mother at long last died and she was so very much alone; the random traveling salesmen or hapless businessman who turned up the previous night at the Club, not able to make the last flight out; even your Great Aunt Ruth from Youngstown, even though all she'll do is complain at having to come all this way and talk about the goddam Daughters of the American Revolution. One year a family, very quiet, a father and three weedy children, I had never seen even though they lived a block away, something Very Wrong only hinted at (be nice, not everyone's as lucky as you are); another, a whole family of cousins who neglected to let us know they were coming, all the way from Mamaroneck. It snowed, and they had to stay the night (and aren't you glad we have that ham, now?).

One memorable year we sat down, 26 of us, the picnic table brought in and fitted with difficulty into the sunroom, looking oddly tarted up but somehow rakish under its weight of damask and silver, card tables in the living room and the children out in the kitchen. Our ladies - Fanny who was ours and Alice who was one grandmother's and Mrs. Blake who worked for the other (Mr. Blake had worked for grandfather in the old days, and hence her honorific) came and spent the morning, but then were sent duly off by noon for their own celebrations, a pie and a bottle of something warming for each joining the turkey that had been delivered to their houses on the East Side last Monday.  And then we ate.

And ate. And ate. After an hour or so, it wasn't unusual for one or another of the not-us guests, shifting uncomfortably as another helping of mashed potato was delivered on its way past, to observe, timidly, goodness, but you Muscatos certainly do enjoy your dinner, don't you, and Grandfather Muscato would stare them down from under his memorable eyebrows, look around the table (Great Aunt Ruth starting as she was caught shamelessly eating from the cranberry dressing spoon) and growl, we certainly do.

Laughter and arguing - the substance of memory, and of childhood. Something to be grateful for.

Today will be quieter; we're dining with friends at their apartment, ridiculously high up in one of the ridiculous new towers that dot the sandy coastline here. I'm taking Grandmother Muscato's corn pudding and of course a little Champagne. I think we'll have a very nice time, and I know my friends will forgive me if, at times, I'm only half in that glass-walled room on the 62nd floor and half back at another table, in another time.


  1. Sweetie, so true, al of it. I'm deep into recreating my grandmothers' Thanksgivings for a gaggle of friends who have no common background with me for the carb festival I insist on.

    Have a lovely time.

  2. Ah....such a perfectly painted always.

  3. Being in the UK, this colonial stuff-yer-face fest in November is a mystery. The god-botherers have chuch services involving half-rotten fruit and tins for Harvest in September. The closest this country comes to such a national celebration are our irregular Royal occasions (such as the Jubilee), but street parties in the rain aside, these don't generally involve a family (extended or otherwise) gathering. And let's not even think about the horrors of being trapped together with Mother crying over burnt offerings at Xmas...

    Enjoy your day - and don't forget the Wind-Eze! Jx

  4. Thank you, Muscato. Lovely and touching.

  5. and i too will make a corn pudding,
    but it's jane brody's.

    grandma didn't cook.