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Thanksgiving

What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Most likely, it brings back memories of childhood, observing and celebrating the day with family, or visiting various relatives for a big dinner. I have always lived in Southern California, so there were no “over the river and through the woods, through the ice and drifted snow” memories. But Thanksgiving was a pleasant time, and of course it meant a four day weekend!

My mother would make a dinner, with of course a turkey, although occasionally game hens. (As I write this, I feel sorry for all the turkeys and game hens, but I don’t know what the alternative is to eating such things, unless one is a devoted vegan). Anyway, she also would make yorkshire pudding, which was delicious. Scooped out potatoes, some call them double scooped potatoes. Biscuits, not homemade, of course, who makes those? That was what I ate, while my mother, father. and brother also ate traditional things which I did not like, such as cranberry sauce, yams, and dressing. Then I would have picked up a pie for dessert.

Food is one of the nicest things about Thanksgiving. Everyone is scrambling to make or buy Thanksgiving dinner. There is a restaurant in Burbank which is somewhat famed for cooking turkey dinners and sandwiches. They actually sell hundreds of these a day, many more for Thanksgiving. A few years ago, I think it was during Covid, they apparently ran out of turkeys, and their entire pre-ordered turkey dinner special, including the trimmings. I heard about it afterwards, and read their rather incredible bulletins. First they said that they were running out of dinners (people had ordered and paid for them in advance); then that they only had white meat; then that they had no turkeys left, but you could still get some mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and dressing; then they sent out a message that all they had left was some celery. I don’t know why they were not besieged by infuriated customers, but apparently they got away with it. There is a moral in this story somewhere.

So I think of dinners with my family. A few times we went to my uncle’s and aunt’s house, with various cousins there.This seemed to be a lot of effort and driving, but it was nice enough to see them. There was never much to talk about with them, though. I mostly would watch a football game with one of my two uncles. Thanksgiving of course features football games. It seems to me that it was always the Lions and the Packers, but in the last few decades, it has turned into one game at Detroit, one at Dallas, and then another one. I am not much of a pro football fan, I much prefer college football, particularly when UCLA used to have a good program, but that is another story altogether.

Thanksgiving is also a time where where one is encouraged to give general thanks for things, which is certainly a touching concept, It is a secular holiday, at least as observed in America, so no one should feel left out. However, one does think about the people who do not have a nice Thanksgiving dinner, and I am glad that there are kind and thoughtful people who try to provide for them. Holidays are apt to bring loneliness to some people, which is the flip side of things.

I do remember something in a novel, maybe it was “Starting Over,” by Dan Wakefield, or “The Creep,” by Jeffrey Frank, where there was a depiction of people eating Thanksgiving dinner by themselves in a restaurant which advertised the meal. It is something that I have never forgotten, the melancholy came from the protagonist’s view of it, not necessarily the people eating the dinners.

But mostly, Thanksgiving is a nice holiday observance. Of course it anticipates the Christmas holidays, which I do find somewhat oppressive, for someone who is secular or just not Christian. I am not a fan of Christmas movies, but I do like “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” which if you have never seen, you really should try to find; it is an animated telling of the Dickens story, with great songs, and Jim Backus playing Mr. Magoo playing Scrooge. At the curtain call, the ghosts take a bow as well!

That is another holiday, though, albeit they sort of run together at this time of year. I hope that everyone here has at least a nice Thanksgiving ,if not even better than that. And there are some general things to be thankful for, more than there might have been expected to be.

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8 Responses

  1. Our Thanksgivings were always a bit, er, unusual. My mom was widowed at the age of 29, a few months before I was born. She was something of a character – I’ve described her as a mixture of the John Houseman character in The Paper Chase (she was an academic) and Auntie Mame.

    When I was twelve, she had just taken an Assistant Professorship in a new town, only to find out that an old friend and former housemate of hers (whom I will refer to only as “T” to protect the innocent and guilty alike) was a graduate student there. T had been in graduate school for a couple of decades at this point (this was his fifth or sixth PhD attempt). He was a genial New Orleans native who took “Laissez les bon temps rouler” to heart to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. T and his housemates dug a hole in their backyard and attempted (with some success) to slow roast/smoke a whole turkey in it with charcoal. It is a wonder we didn’t all die of food poisoning. My mom provided sides and dessert (something she was quite good at, being a Midwestern farm girl by background).

    During the leadup to the meal, T decided it would be amusing to ply me with screwdrivers. Very, very strong screwdrivers (remember, I was 12). I probably had four of them (it’s a little hazy). My mom realized something was amiss and when she figured out what it was she gave T the ass-chewing of his rather long and eventful life. He abandoned his PhD aspirations (at least at that university) at the end of the term and disappeared for parts unknown.y

    The next year we were somewhat more settled, so my mom began an annual tradition we referred to as “Orphan Thanksgiving”. She basically invited anyone in the department who didn’t have plans to come over and have Thanksgiving with us: faculty, staff, grad students, undergrads. Sometimes we’d have three or four, sometimes we’d have twenty. She continued this until she retired. It was a lot of fun, but it was always punctuated by what we referred to as the “Thanksgiving catastrophe”. This took the form of some sort of kitchen debacle, usually centering around gravy. For all her considerable culinary skill, my mother never mastered gravy. On a couple of occasions, she managed to set it on fire (really!). The one year it didn’t center around alleged gravy-making (I had invited a girlfriend who actually could make gravy and volunteered to do so in the interest of fire safety) we ended up with a trip to the ER, several stitches, and the surprising discovery that my mom was allergic to penicillin. Don’t ask. We reverted to prior practice in subsequent years and I got pretty good at extinguishing small kitchen blazes.

    The world has been a much less interesting place since she passed.

    • Propertius, I very much enjoyed reading your extensive recollections. Our Thanksgiving dinners were a lot smaller and less eventful than yours!

      I will recount one story, where we were gong to visit cousins, and my parents drove us down there. I had made a bet on a Thanksgiving Day game, I took Minnesota against Dallas, and bet $500, a not inconsiderable sum. So we are driving, and I asked my father if he could put the game on the radio; and he probably wondered why I wanted to hear it, but I didn’t say why.

      So Minnesota is winning easily and I am mentally counting my money,, but then Dallas starts rallying, and I am getting more nervous, and my father says, “Do you have a bet on this game?”, and I say, no. And so the game goes into overtime, just as we arrive. And while the relatives are talking, I have gone by myself into the living room, trying to watch the game. Finally, a running back for Minnesota breaks off a touchdown run to win the game, and I breathe a sigh of relief, and my father, who used to love going to the races, so he knew all about the ups and downs of gambling, smiled knowingly at me. A nice memory!

  2. I enjoyed your Thanksgiving memories, William and Propertius.

    My mother was also quite a character. She was beautiful and arty, not the domestic type at all. She was a horrible cook and rather proud of it. She would say, “I’m no one’s cook and bottle washer!” She lived true to that creed.

    My childhood Thanksgivings were spent with my maternal grandparents. My grandmother was an excellent cook and a fine baker of pies and other goodies. She and my mother never got along well, both being strong but very different personalities. “Don’t you ever bake?”, Grandmother would ask my mother (her second daughter), who would gleefully reply, “No!”. Politics and religion were topics to avoid, because my grandmother and my mother were of very different minds on those areas of life as well.

    My grandparents had a large and lovely home so Thanksgiving dinner was always a splendid, formal affair with extensive sets of English or French bone china, silverware and cut glass laid out on Irish linen tablecloths with matching napkins. Usually my aunts and their families were there. My cousins were all boys and older than I was so as children we didn’t have much in common. They mostly ignored me.

    My job from a young age was to make and set the place cards for the huge dining room table. I think I was given this task because my handwriting was excellent. Anyway, there was a very formal way of seating people. No one was to be seated next to someone from their immediate family, rather next to someone rarely seen so as to stimulate more interesting conversation. This did not always turn out well.

    For whatever reason (I think it was because I was his favorite), I was always seated next to my grandfather. He was at the head of the table. Grandmother was at the opposite end. The meal with its many courses would begin. Granddaddy would carve the turkey with a fine Sheffield carving set. Everything had to be done properly. One learned the right pieces of silverware to use, the right way to pass the food and what to say while doing all these things (lots of please and thank you and may I?).

    The food was sublime but what I remember most was my grandfather, who had a kindness my grandmother never had, sitting next to me, cutting my meat into tiny pieces when I was too young to do so and always making me feel safe, special and loved. He died when I was nine and Thanksgivings were never the same after that for any of us.

    • My grandmother did make homemade biscuits, but they were for ordinary breakfasts, not for Thanksgiving dinner. For Thanksgiving and other holiday dinners, my grandmother would bake Parker House rolls, served with butter placed on individual china butter pat plates.

      The Parker House rolls were my favorite. “I made these especially for Beata”, she would say. Grandmother never allowed the abomination known as margarine (she called it ‘oleo’) into her house. It appalled her that my mother used margarine at our house. She was certain that we would come to a bad end as a result. We might even become Democrats.

    • Beata, those were lovely and touching reminiscences! One’s childhood memories are so indelible and important.

    • Curiously enough, my grandmother was an atrocious cook. I never quite figured out where my mom learned, because her mother’s cooking was a health hazard

  3. I remember football being a part of Thanksgiving and Christmastime at my grandparents’ house, too. Usually after dinner, my grandfather and the other men in the family went into the big living room to sit by the fireplace and talk or watch football. Two of my grandfather’s brothers (my great-uncles) had gone to college on football scholarships (my grandfather had played basketball) and two of my uncles had played football at Purdue. So they were pretty knowledgeable about the game. But the strong Quaker tradition in my family meant there was no gambling going on, neither was there any alcohol (even cooking sherry) allowed in the house.

  4. ‘Furniture music’

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