I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving. Of the cold weather holidays, it has always been my favorite. I mean no slight to the magic of Christmas or the hope of the New Year. Thanksgiving was just always my favorite.
Historically, it began as days of giving thanks through prayer rather than days of feasting. It was not until 1863 that President Lincoln established a standard national date for the country’s Thanksgiving.
My earliest recollection was as a very young boy living with my mom and great-grandmother in this two room, basement apartment. My mother’s boyfriend took me to see a high school football game. I remember how I shivered under a blanket as I saw big guys who seemed to not feel the cold. I wanted to be one of them.
Later that day, people crowded into that basement apartment, and my mom served up dinner for family mixed with those who had nowhere else to go. It was always warm because the heat was not under our control and there was the oven and all the people. My mom would open the windows and that breeze was sweet and warm.
It was difficult to move around because the space was so cramped. People claimed portions of the makeshift table that filled the room as their own. My Aunt Dottie’s spot was always crumbless and immaculate. My mom saved the fanciest glass in her cupboard for my great aunt. That one day, I remember challenging some customer at the diner where my mom waitressed to an eating contest. I devoured my first entire turkey leg, and stuffing and potatoes and gravy. I got sick. I had never eaten that much before and the guy who bested me said that next time I would know better.
I spent a lot of time in basements in those years. One Thanksgiving when my mom had to work, my Aunt Dottie had dinner in the hallway outside of her basement apartment and any of the people who lived in the building, where she and my Uncle John were superintendents, were invited. I remember Mr. McCrary the best. He had a tube in his throat and could not eat in front of other people. I watched him smile and talk and feel warm because he had somewhere to go that day. Even Mrs. Conroy and her war damaged son, who had undergone electroshock therapy and never spoke to anyone, were there. The tradition of extending yourself to someone that needed a touch of familial warmth seemed to go on forever. It became the essence of Thanksgiving.
I brought many guests to the table. My mom brought more. She was dedicated to the holiday and had to go out and drive the streets and looking for women with shopping carts and giving them warm clothes and inviting them home. I went on many of those trips and I cannot say that I was the most enthusiastic participant.
My mom was a true believer and a church goer and so there were many ministers and ministers’ wives and children invited to our thanksgiving table. One of them was with the now disgraced Millard Fuller who founded Habitat for Humanity, and we engaged in a lively debate about faith, politics and justice. My stepfather lacked good conversational skills and my mother always insisted that I carry that ball. These were lively and sometimes tense dinners and I remember the conversations with The American Leprosy Foundation Directors and the man who collected movie star’s autographs and served at a funeral home as a pall bearer.
As the meal was concluding, and the apple, mince and pumpkin pies covered the table, along with whipped cream, fruit and nuts, my mom would ask the people there to say something for which they were thankful. She would go first and you could tell that she had been thinking carefully about her response. The people who were more private usually said that they were thankful for the meal and the company. This was acceptable but one had to be thankful for something at my mother’s table
For a while, I attended multiple Thanksgiving meals. We lived communally, and after we had the obligatory family dinners, we gathered in kind of a tribal celebration. The people at the table had intense and intimate relationships in a variety of ways. Some were sexual and some artistic and some were combinations of emotion, desire and a new kind of what I thought was devotion. As a friend of mine once wrote to me, “these were our salad days.” The participants would begin the meal by saying that they could not possibly eat any more, but we would. Conviviality breeds that.
They were glorious celebrations although I’m not sure that we knew it at the time. They started around midnight. There were burning fireplaces and wonderful music and sinks stacked absurdly high with dishes. Windows opened and gave warmth to the cold night in exchange for that sweet breeze. There was wine.
Coaching football made Thanksgiving a work day. My mom started dinner later than she would have liked, but that was not a problem because I had to work. People who had to work on Thanksgiving always deserved accommodation.
After the game, we coaches would collect equipment and say goodbye to the players. A sports season brings you together daily for hours at a time. We gave thanks for that time and thanks that that time was at an end. I always marveled at the resilience of those athletes that I would see the next day when they reported for the first day of basketball or wrestling season. The football coaches would be there, cleaning up the leftovers and they would smile and wave as they walked passed, eager for a new beginning.
The warmth and the aromas of the home, after the morning of work or hard play or shivering as a spectator made the air vibrate. I smiled so wide then and gave thanks for the warmth and the rest. That was thanksgiving.
As a teacher, Thanksgiving break was the end of the first quarter. A teacher who is paying attention and has some kind of a vision for the academic year, reflects on the students’ progress, concerns and hopes and then looks at the opportunities that the upcoming curriculum provides. For me, this was always a task that captured my attention and spoke to my spirit. “Where do we need to go from here? And why are we going there?” Those were my guiding principles during Thanksgiving vacation assessment.
Sometimes, we had Italian-American Thanksgiving feasts at the family gatherings. These began with an antipasto. It was filled with finely sliced and rolled meats like Capicola and Sopressata and Salami. Soft and hard cheeses were mixed with tangy olives. Anchovies and mackerel from oil based tins along with sardines served on beds of lettuce created appetite as it was consumed. That was followed by the pasta course. The pasta was always rich and creamy and the sauce was soothing. It was only then, two hours into the feast, when you were full and warm, that the turkey was served. It was usually a bit dry. But the broiled potatoes in garlic and olive oil, the ones garnished with parsley, were fine.
Even when my mom submitted to these adjustments to the meal, she was sure to make her stuffing a star. It was crusted and moist and the celery had just a feint firmness, and she made sure that she placed the gizzards on a separate plate for anyone who might be interested. The taste of Thanksgiving is turnip and creamed onions along with that stuffing. But I was always seduced by the antipasto and the pasta. Isn’t it strange how food can reflect values? Thanksgiving is about food with a history.
I love the taste of good apple cider, but only on Thanksgiving. Somehow it seems to lighten the heavy fare. Perhaps it is the acidic base but I can swill the stuff that day, like I can no other beverage. I had no wish for it to be alcoholic because I want to be able to drink glass after glass.
It is chilling to be most tenderly embraced by ghosts on Thanksgiving, but I am struggling to feel that warm breeze in the cold night. I don’t know where I will be this year, but I do know that my memories will come along and from time to time they will nudge me. And I will seek that sweet breeze in the cold night.