Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Memories

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday, mostly because it is so dang simple: get together with family and friends and enjoy a big meal.  I have had a lot of memorable Thanksgivings over the years, including the one last year where my wife and I spent three days preparing a meal so scrumptious that we and her family finished it off in about ten ravenous minutes, the Thanksgivings where I hosted my parents in East Texas where we had a delicious smoked turkey from one of the local down home food places, and the Thanksgiving I spent in London visiting the ringmaster of the WCFC blog, where we brought Thanksgiving to Europeans ignorant of its glories.

Holidays are really about memory, when you get down to it.  (This is one of the arguments I make in my now discarded book manuscript based on my dissertation.)  We like to replicate the same rituals year after year because they give us comfort and remind us of the past.  The turkey and stuffing are less about their worth as foods, and more about our need to recreate the comforting visions of times and people long gone.  Nothing conjures memory like smells and tastes, hence Proust's madeleine and the ecstasy I feel when I take a bite of canned cranberry sauce.  The homemade stuff might be better in theory, but it doesn't have magic properties.

When we repeat the rituals so many times, memories of specific Thanksgivings begin to blur into each other.  For that reason, I have a hard time recalling specific Thanksgivings from my childhood, even if the memories are quite intense.   Through most of my childhood and youth, Thanksgiving meant driving eighty miles west to my uncle D and aunt P's house in a railroad and meatpacking town of about 8,000 people where Nebraska fades from the Midwest into the West.  My family usually left home at about 10:30 in our 1984 Chevy conversion van, driving across Nebraska's beautifully barren post-harvest landscape.  Stubbled fields, shelterbelts of trees, and prairie grasses in subtle hues of brown stretched from horizon to horizon.  Many times snow lay on the ground, since winter often comes early on the plains.

My uncle Du was and is a Lutheran pastor, which meant access to the bumper pool table in the church rec room, and, on those Thanksgivings when the weather was nicer, the outdoor basketball court.  My cousin M, who is now a pastor himself, was close to me both in age and interests, so we usually had a lot of fun together.  I had two sisters, and he had four, so it made our bonding that much more natural.  When it was too cold outside to shoot hoops, we would play games on his parent's Tandy computer, including a simple yet engrossing program called Sopwith which M never could understand why I liked so much.  Being an antisocial child I was happy to have a refuge from the crowd.

The parsonage itself was an old two-floor house without a basement (a rarity in Nebraska).  It strained to hold my mother's family, since she had four brothers and sisters, they all had kids, and we all lived within driving distance of each other.  When it was time to eat, the adults sat at the long dining room table, while we kids sat at card tables in the TV room.  Once I reached my later teens and was allowed to sit at the adult table, I felt like I had finally grown up.

The big meal was usually served around noon, consisting of a turkey, a ham (which I preferred), mashed potatoes, and innumerable dishes called "casseroles" in the local dialectic.  For those who don't know, a Midwestern casserole is typically a dish of unnatural color and mysterious origins whose ingredients cannot always be discerned by sight and smell.  Putting these on one's plate was an act of gastronomical Russian roulette, but over the years I learned which ones were safe, and which weren't.  On the latter count, there was one dish made by my aunt K that her daughter swore contained baby food.  Like most Nebraska foods, the flavors do not come from spices, but from fat, cheese, and sugar.

This big meal was merely a prelude, however, to the real meal: dessert.  Before she lost her eyesight a few years ago, my grandmother was a fantastic baker, specializing in pies.  She often brought three different kids of pie (cherry, pumpkin, and pecan) made with her own homemade crust.  I always tried to save room for at least two pieces.  My mother, who relies on prepared food so much that she doesn't own a cutting board, was also a baking enthusiast, and she always brought a deliciously decadent dessert that my family still doesn't have a name for.  It consists of peanut butter sandwiched by ritz crackers covered in almond bark with sprinkles on top.  These treats alone were probably responsible for my childhood cavities.

Of course, like all family gatherings, Thanksgiving had its share of pitfalls.  My uncle is a very conservative Luther minister, and my father a devout Catholic who spent years in the seminary studying to be a priest before eventually dropping out.  The Reformation was alive and well in my family, and it was fought out in the living room.  Uncle De, my favorite, was the lone Democrat in the family, and was never afraid of pushing other people's buttons.  He's also a gambler, and so would spend a lot of time discussing the betting lines on the day's football games, something my dad and uncle D didn't exactly approve of.  My uncle Da, who I never liked (not least for his atrocious racism), got married to my aunt C, who has been fighting a low-grade war of passive aggression with my mother for almost three decades now.  I have spent hours with Da and C in the last thirty years, but have maybe had about twenty minutes of actual conversation with them in that time.

Luckily, I didn't need to.  Since uncle De had a lot of money riding on his football bets, I could always watch the day's games with him on the television.  If I wasn't shooting hoops, playing bumper pool, or another game of Sopwith, I'd join some of my family members in card games.  My grandfather loved hearts the best, but most everyone else preferred pitch.  Like a lot of card games, it's pretty regional, and probably most similar to euchre or spades.  It's a four-handed game with two teams of two, and we took it pretty damn seriously.  The only time my gentle grandmother ever acted mean to me in my whole life was when I was her pitch partner, and I overbid on a hand, causing us to lose.  It seems like a lot of the buried resentments and jealousies inherent to any family got sublimated into our cut-throat card games.

The day's festivities usually went on until about six, when the leftovers from the big feast would be reheated.  Often I tried to refuse, on account of snacking all afternoon on my mom's treats, but eventually gave in after my aunts lamented that food would be wasted.  Once the leftovers had been consumed and everything cleaned up, we all started trickling out the door.  My family usually left about 9, like clockwork every year.  We drove back in the cold dark night of Nebraska in the early winter, the semi trucks passing us on I-80 with a faded whine like ghosts in the darkness.  So many times I fell asleep before we got back, exhausted from a long day, my body in recovery mode after a sugar and carb bombardment.  There was nothing quite like that moment when my dad would shake me awake, the cold night air hitting me in the face through the open door, seeing our house and knowing a warm bed awaited me.  That short moment was full of contentment and security of the kind that I doubt I will ever feel again, and which I can only hope to conjure up again in the yearly repetition of the familiar Thanksgiving rituals.

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