Ah! On Thanksgiving day….
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before.
What moistens the lips and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich pumpkin pie?
~John Greenleaf Whittier
It’s Thanksgiving today and we’re not celebrating. Well, that isn’t completely true and in admitting to a small distortion don’t take me for either a politician or a lawyer. While I’ll admit to some occasional inaccuracies and a few tactical fibs and who among is guiltless in that regard, I try with some success, not to be an unapologetic prevaricator.
To set the record straight, our family feast is done on the day following Thanksgiving. That’s the day better known as Black Friday, that loathsome day when Americans engage in a feeding frenzy of profligate shopping that includes traffic jams, road rage, parking lot rage and in store rage, all over game consoles, televisions, computers and other assorted gadgets that one wouldn’t be otherwise interested in but for being marked down 10%. Black Friday is the chief representative of all that’s wrong with the holiday season. It’s business and corporate greed hiding in the Trojan horse of holiday generosity.
Legend has us believing that the term was conceived to describe the first day of retailers operating in the black (at profit) after being in the red (below profit) all year. The term was actually coined in the 1950’s by the Philadelphia Police Department to describe the mayhem created by shoppers flooding the city. For the cops it was a mandatory day of long shifts, traffic jams, shoplifters and pickpockets.
Our family has been doing the Black Friday Thanksgiving for a few years. It started with an accommodation for my daughter who, on that first year after the divorce didn’t have her kids on the actual day of Thanksgiving. It only took that first time to decide that we actually like the arrangement. It allows more time for buying groceries and for the cooks to cook and the football fans to watch football. It also throws the family’s Black Friday shoppers into the quandary of choosing between family fellowship or shopping. If you want to join the angry and stressed multitudes then by all means have at it if that’s your poison. There will likely be one or two in our group who’ll opt for both and of course they’re welcome to dinner and will be deserving of a pre-dinner cocktail, or three; whatever’s needed to take the edge off and stem the adrenalin rush of combat. I suppose that they deserve some credit for scoring a holiday hat trick in a matter of a few hours; drinking in excess, eating in excess and shopping in excess, the holy trinity of the holiday season.
To the best of my recollection I’ve never missed a family Thanksgiving. I can’t be absolutely certain about the first few but being a small child at the time I don’t think I had anything else going on. There were two or three Thanksgivings when I had two dinners. You see there was always an unwritten family decree that holiday dinners were to be spent at home with the family. To sway from that was a high crime, on par with wearing a Los Angeles Dodger cap and casting a Republican vote in our Democratic San Francisco Giants household.
Those dual dinner Thanksgivings started with my own family dinner, after which I would go to my girlfriend Denise’s family dinner. I was young then and able to man up to the task of four or five helpings of turkey, trimmings and dessert. Once you’re past a certain age though, having back to back Thanksgiving dinners is not a recommended activity.
I broke the holiday dinner rule once and only once and that was one time too many. It was the time that I had Easter dinner with my girlfriend’s family in Sacramento instead of at home. My guess is that dad was cool with it. Sandy was definitely hot and dad, he was definitely pragmatic. If I knew dad he asked himself the rhetorical question, would I spend the day with a beautiful girl or with mom, dad and grandma? Make no mistake though, there was enough vitriol from mom that I never again let the thought of violating the holiday dinner rule enter my head.
The first time Cora and I had Thanksgiving together we weren’t yet married. I was living in Berkeley and she came to visit from Los Angeles where she was living at the time. Thanksgiving at my parents’ house in San Mateo was when Cora first met my parents. Only now as I write this over 40 years later can I imagine the jitters she must have felt meeting her boyfriend’s parents on the biggest feast day of the American year.
Mom and Cora represent two generations of immigrant women, one from Europe and one from Asia. Add my grandmother, Nonna Maria, who followed mom to America and three generations of immigrant women came to America to become my family’s pilgrims.
Like the original pilgrims they had to learn the ways of their new world; different history, different society and a different culture. A big part of the latter is the Thanksgiving celebration and the expectation of presenting the family with a Rockwellian harvest feast. No stress, right?
Mom came to America in 1946 as a war bride. Either from cookbooks or from my dad’s family she learned how to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Cora was only a few years from her home country the Philippines when she learned how to cook Thanksgiving dinner from mom. For six years Cora and I celebrated Thanksgiving at the family home in San Mateo and then mom passed and Thanksgiving fell on us.
Cora and I have relinquished hosting Thanksgiving and it was something of a shock that first year. For more than 25 years Cora and I had hosted Thanksgiving. The first year that the holiday was moved, my daughter Jessica and her husband took on Thanksgiving. For me it created something of a personal crisis. I still remember that day, just a few days before Thanksgiving, when I stepped into our dining room and noticed that, like every year before, Cora had set the big dining table with the Thanksgiving tablecloth. Pausing for a moment I realized sadly that the table would sit idle and alone in a darkened house.
At first I took the moving of Thanksgiving as an affront. Young people. They just don’t care about tradition, I thought. I was pouty and ready to boycott Thanksgiving. It’s only now at this writing that I’ve realized the irony of my being indignant over the passing of Thanksgiving to the young people when 40 years previous I couldn’t understand the sting that my mom felt when I missed the family Easter dinner. Cora and I didn’t boycott of course and in the end we enjoyed an exquisite dinner and I realized that passing Thanksgiving on to the next generation comes with some extra gravy; less work and no stress.
I have to admit that passing the Thanksgiving torch has obliterated one of my most prized traditions – leftovers. We no longer have leftovers. No more raiding the refrigerator early the morning after to pick bits of meat from a bone. No more repeat turkey dinners, no open faced turkey sandwiches drowning in gravy, no more turkey and cranberry sauce sandwiches on white bread (yes it MUST be white bread) and no more turkey a-la-king.
Thanksgiving has been described as “a jewel, to set in the hearts of honest men.” The shopping bedlam notwithstanding I believe that Thanksgiving is the most cherished holiday in the hearts of Americans. Of the two supreme American holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, Thanksgiving is the more noble. It exists for the sole purpose of family and fellowship while Christmas has been tinged with less than altruistic traits.
“There is one day that is ours. There is one day when all we Americans who are not self-made go back to the old home to eat saleratus biscuits and marvel how much nearer to the porch the old pump looks than it used to. Thanksgiving Day is the one day that is purely American.”
– O. Henry, Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen
All of the other holidays are formulaic; Independence Day is always barbecues, fireworks, patriotic bombast, idiots firing guns in the air and a quirky hotdog eating contest. Christmas is evergreens, twinkling lights, a prime rib, a brief nod to goodwill and an even briefer nod to Christ. But Thanksgiving? Each one has its own unique personality while managing to retain the essential traditions; something remarkable in itself, made more so by the pressures of business, commercialism and ever encroaching technology.
Whether it’s the food, the guests, the conversation or the inevitable incident du jour each Thanksgiving seems to have it’s own special personality. Our gatherings have been as small as the four of us; Cora and I and the kids sitting quietly at the dining table to about 25 doing a buffet style with family and friends spread throughout the house. There were the years when Cora would invite coworkers, orphans she called them, who had no place else to go.
There was the year that Jessica couldn’t make it home from college in San Diego. We set a place for her anyway, empty and untouched, and during the evening she called us and we exchanged teary greetings. There was one Thanksgiving when a guest had a bit too much Scotch with his appetizers. At meal’s end he lost the Scotch, the appetizers, the turkey, the stuffing, the rest of the trimmings, the bold Zinfandel along with its hints of blackberry and plum and the pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream. Well, they were never really lost. We easily found it all in a pile of goo on our carpet. Two years ago the guest list included 5 dogs all milling around the table. My nephew’s dog was the most vocal of the canine contingent prompting Jessica to announce, “Your dog’s an asshole.” Well, in my mind you can insult a man’s politics, you can insult a man’s intellect and you can even insult a man’s parentage but you can never, ever insult a man’s dog. Oh god, I thought as I ducked my head waiting for the blowback, this is not going to go well. But my nephew is an easygoing guy and he let it all slide.
Thanksgiving is the commencement of the 6 weeks or so when the food banks swell with donations. It isn’t enough for those of us who have much to be thankful for to treat only ourselves. It’s a brief time of year when we think of those who are cold, destitute and hungry and with little recourse. And while it is noble and charitable we should ask ourselves why we don’t practice Thanksgiving’s benevolence the year round. Hunger doesn’t commence in mid-November and cease with the New Year.
Sadly over the past few years a shadow has darkened the bountiful spirit of Thanksgiving; a political shadow. Families have been torn apart by dueling ideologies. Under some roofs the feast table has become a battleground and some families have become estranged. Maybe we should stop and ask ourselves if Nancy Pelosi or Donald Trump are really worth the sundering of relationships. Those of us with family should cherish the relationships we have and not allow the parasite of politics to suck away the lifeblood of our kinship.
And so tomorrow, Black Friday, our extended family and friends will gather together. We’ll laugh, play games, shoo the dogs from the table and feast on an autumn soup, turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, breads, pies and cakes. We’ll drink toasts with wine and beer and cider and at meal’s end we will each of us describe what we are thankful for in 2019 and set aside all that’s been disagreeable.
Above left, grandson Jackson, top right daughter Jessica and granddaughter Lucy, bottom right Lucy. Thanksgiving 2012
Thanksgiving’s unique essence was evident during my dad’s last few years. Dad was already showing signs of dementia when my mom’s sudden and unexpected passing plunged him into the blankness of Alzheimer’s. He moved in with us, confused, angry, frustrated and moody. But as Thanksgiving approached and he noticed the preparations for the feast his anger, his frustration and his combativeness withdrew in favor of the anticipation of a special event. There was a light in his eye and a sparkle in his spirit. Maybe he didn’t realize the what and the why. The bustle of the kitchen, the smells from the oven and some proffered appetizers during the day fed his expectancy. Throughout most of his life dad was an introvert, but during those last Thanksgiving days he awaited the prospect of food and drink and guests. He became the gregarious man he’d rarely been. He spent a little extra time preparing himself for dinner and then came to the table wearing an old felt hat that had become his favorite. With a few days’ growth he looked like a grizzled old cowboy; grizzled but happy in the company of friends and family.
The story of Thanksgiving has gone through something of a historical wash cycle. Clearly the legendary Thanksgiving is just that, legend. It’s gone through the wringer of criticism and corrections over the timeline, the food served and the treatment of the Native Americans. And truth be told Thanksgiving is not a uniquely American tradition. The first Thanksgiving was a three day gathering of the Plymouth colonists to celebrate a successful harvest. It was a harvest festival, something that had a history among European and indigenous cultures for centuries before the Pilgrims. The first official Thanksgiving was in 1863 to celebrate Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg.
And while it’s essential to know that the lore of Thanksgiving is just lore and Americans should have a better grasp of the day’s true history that isn’t to say that we should use the day to make political hay. Maybe we should just be grateful that we are able to set aside a day of thanks, to count and cherish our blessings, to enjoy the community of friends and family and to bestow goodwill on those among us who are not so fortunate.
“It took me three weeks to stuff the turkey. I stuffed it through the beak.”
– Phyllis Diller
This piece is a casserole of new stories and some previously published