A different kind of thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving column is the one I most look forward to writing each year, even though it is often a mashup of previous columns, which makes sense. My memories and expectations of the holiday—my favorite holiday—center on only a few themes, and each year I just wait to see which ones pop up, and I give them space on the page.

My family is still deciding, at this late date, just how Thanksgiving will look. The virus has taken much of the joy out of our normal preparations and anticipations. Which got me thinking of other Thanksgiving memories, ones that rarely see the light of day, crowded out as they are by the more typical memories of home and hearth.

For example, I have been thinking about things like turkeys drawn on construction paper, the size and shape of a child’s outlined hand. My hand. Your hand. Every hand in every classroom from kindergarten through, oh, I don’t know, what? Third grade? Each finger gets crayoned a different color, orange, brown, yellow. Thanksgiving colors, not actual turkey colors.

Add a red wattle, add some stick feet, and your poor mother will be challenged in a couple of hours to slap that supportive and appreciative expression on her face as she sticks it to the fridge like always. Some creative moms might suggest you put it in a drawer to keep it safe so you can present it to grandma when she shows up.

School Thanksgiving plays are some of the least memorable performances ever. Well, the costumes are memorable, but only in their capacity to disappoint. The construction paper pilgrim hats never looked right, didn’t look right even before they started coming undone around the brim, the buckles falling off. Speaking of, those cardboard and tin-foiled buckles fastened to shoes looked stupid, too.

Which is not to say I didn’t covet them.

The more artistic teachers attempted to pleat and fashion a ruff, that accessory so wildly popular in the 1600s, and sometimes they could make it work, and sometimes they could not. The most reliable piece of costuming was the brown construction paper band we wore around our heads with a cut out feather glued to it. But I am not sure this bit of handicraft is permissible these days.

Even so, let us stop and reflect on the hero in so many ways of those first Thanksgivings. But more than just that. He was economic advisor, extension agent, coastline navigator and local expert on just about everything, helping the Pilgrims survive their early years at Plymouth.

Say it with me.


We loved to hear about Squanto, his name alone being fun to say and enough to recommend him. We didn’t get the full story back in 1960, of course, about his abduction to Spain, and how he made his way to England before returning to his homeland. Or if we did, it was glossed over, but we knew he spoke English and was a diplomatic and helpful fellow, highly esteemed and respected, and we loved him those years ago at Longfellow Elementary.

Depending on how heavy a seasoning hand the school lunch ladies had, the annual Thanksgiving lunch was either wonderful or barely tolerable. I always liked the thin slabs of turkey swimming in a thin broth, and I adore dressing. It was always a cornbread-based dressing, which I like very much but have yet to make properly.

At the time I didn’t even know what sage was, but some years the dressing had just a hint of sage, subtle and mysterious. I liked it. Other years it was so overdone the dressing took on a Comet cleanser note, and it was so disappointing I wanted to cry.

But those yeast rolls. Those yeast rolls. I can still smell them, their aroma wafting up from the basement to fill the hallways with a grandmotherly essence, so different from the paste wax, sawdust and green bean smells of normal days. I would give anything to have that recipe. Seriously. If any of you have the Longfellow recipe for yeast rolls, contact me. Sister Schubert does her best, but still, she is no Longfellow lunch room lady.

Some of my best Thanksgivings have started out in unusual ways, away from home perhaps, or small in number, or with unfamiliar food. But regardless, Thanksgiving reminds us and focuses us in ways that other holidays do not. May yours be good this year, even as it is different.

thanksgiving prep — 2020

It’s coming. And here are some Thanksgiving tips that might help you as you prepare for those in your pod, or those you can have over but safely distance from, or just for yourself, as you contemplate cooking for one and eating off your knees in front of a football game.

My sister asked me at what temperature I cook my bird. I told her it depends on how clean my oven is. If it is clean, then I start it off at 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Not so clean, I drop that down to 450. So, my first tip for preparation is to clean your oven. I have mine doing its thing right this very minute.

Last year I had the easiest time with Thanksgiving preparations in all the years I have been cooking for my family. I can attribute it to one thing and one thing only. I really organized my kitchen. Cleared the surfaces of all extraneous spices, candles, and geegaws. In my tiny kitchen this is a must. You would think I might have thought of it before, but no. No, I did not.

I have never understood how so many people who love to cook have such tiny and mean-hearted kitchens, and those people who can’t boil water, or won’t, have such magnificent tricked out kitchens in which not to cook. It seems cruel, somehow.

This is the time to get out all your knives and sharpen them. As Julia Child said, or was it Dan Ackroyd playing her, “You can’t do nothing without a sharp knife.” It’s true. Right now all my knives are dull as dirt, but soon I will line them up like little pointy-headed soldiers all ready for battle with carrots, beets, onions and celery. Not to mention carving that bird.

If you are able to be with loved ones surely there are favorite dishes they look forward to. It is the same in my family. But sometimes the chefs just get so tired of making the same things year in, year out. May I venture a word of advice? It is just fine to change up the menu, and to try a new recipe. Your family won’t mind—just as long as the original is on the table, too.

I decided I wanted to make an oyster dressing one year, mostly for my father, because it was what his mother made when he was a child. And I did. But he and my brother, Kevin, who also likes oysters, basically had their own private stock of dressing that year. No way was I springing that on the rest of them without the old standby mounded up in big bowls like always.

My great aunt Georgie spent every Thanksgiving with us and she and my mother both loved creamed onions. Little pearl onions covered in a cream sauce, let’s say a béchamel, yes, that sounds better. For several years after Aunt Georgie died, we dutifully served those onions, and no one touched them. They went straight from the table to the disposal.

We didn’t care. They reminded us of her, all those drives to the country to get her when we were little, her big cat, Susie, her little store and the candy bars she gave us. We needed those onions on that table, right there with us.

When menu planning, then, take care of Aunt Georgie.

As I write this I am aware of all the ways in which this year will be different. How, like everything, it is hard to plan, there is fear and uncertainty in it for many of us. We have lost so much this year, and for some that loss is immeasurable, and we feel it especially at a Thanksgiving table.

Even now, with numbers on the rise what we plan for this time next week might be undone by new orders and our own sense of changing safety needs.

But I am going to have a clean oven, sharp knives, two kinds of dressing. I’ll make that blasted cranberry salad, because, just as I vowed never again because not one of those ingrates deigns to even try it, my niece, Hannah, decided last year it was simply delicious. Oh, yes, it’s perfect on the day and even better on Friday atop a turkey sandwich. So she will have it…even if I have to leave it in some Tupperware for her to snag from the porch.

Ukrainian Forest, with Cuckoo

It was decided we should go to the forest and grill meat. Our social work conference had come to an end earlier in the day and the afternoon was given over to dancing and celebrating and music, as these things do in small Ukrainian villages. “Mama” had a boyfriend who lived on the edge of the forest and she insisted we go. He would start the fire and wait for us.

We loaded the small van with onions, jars of pickles, thick bread and raw sausages, bottles of the local vintage, benches from the small community hall upon which we would sit for our thirty minute ride. First in the van was an electronic keyboard. I know, I didn’t get it, either.

We arrived just as the last vestiges of day fled the skies, the small clearing where Mama’s boyfriend’s cabin stood shrouded in mist and that other, eerie thing you can’t see exactly, but the hair on the back of your neck knows is there. The forest lay just beyond the clearing, deep greens and black, a small fire blazing orange and crackling in the dark, a blue haze around the cabin, Mama’s man standing outside the door and playing the trumpet, something mournful, to greet us.

What transpires next is a bit confused, but the electronic keyboard was set up close to the fire, spirits flowed, meat was grilled, the keyboard player cranked out endless refrains of “Černy Glahse” or something that translates roughly “black eyes.” This is what I was told, or worked out for myself.

We sat in a circle on fallen logs as bottles of spirits and plates of grilled sausages were passed in swift rotation.

It was dark, thank goodness, so I could pass the bottles of sliivoice and wine with barely a sip. More worrisome were the sausages, so I took small pieces of meat, nibbled around on the charred bit, tossing the rest over my shoulder and into the woods, and thus avoided the three-day bout of debilitating food poisoning that brought down my travel mates.

While my friends were busy honing their singing skills and incubating listeria, I closed my eyes and tried to isolate the night sounds that made their way through all the glad revelry. It was in these woods, during a lull, that I heard it. Thought I must have it wrong, listened harder. There it was again.

A cuckoo.
In the forest.
In Ukraine.
With sausages.

It turns out the cuckoo is a horrible creature, kicking eggs out of nests to lay their own, so some other, better mother might hatch them, never suspecting her own babies are somewhere down below, not to be.

Just then, though, I didn’t know this about the cuckoo, and the cuckoo’s call at evenfall was mysterious and mythical and somehow made sense of the events unfolding around me and explained my presence there, too. This bird in a tree helped me feel grounded and present–and amused and filled with love for the forest, that bird and my sweet companions.

It was earlier this summer when I was awakened, every morning at 4:30 a.m., by a cuckoo, or a bird sounding very much like one. This went on for weeks, disrupting my sleep and puzzling me. The voice was similar to the mourning dove, that odd, mechanical and hollow hoot of summer mornings. But it wasn’t a mourning dove.

A friend asked what the bird looked like, and it never occurred to me I might see it in a tree, attach the call to a particular bird. I did some research, and we do have cuckoos in North America, but their call is different from their European cousins. I studied the plumage, vowed to get up early the next morning and go outside, see this bird.

The next morning 4:30 came and went and no cuckoo’s call. Nor the next morning, nor the next.

A younger version of myself might haven been bothered by this, strident to prove to others and herself, she really did hear a cuckoo, bringing it up in conversations no one could possibly care about, just to prove herself right. That old insistence to be taken seriously.

I don’t care quite so much about that anymore. But I wonder. Was it a sign, a gift, a secret message for me to decode? So much to put on a thing so fleeting and flimsy as a bird’s call. Or maybe, it was just this. A memory of the forest, and faces lit up by fire and drink and friendship, all smiling, all singing, all together. And somewhere an electric keyboard, and somewhere, a cuckoo.

Winter, Clocks, and SAD

Perhaps I spoke too soon last week, lambasting the time change and so cranky about it. Not a day passed before I heard on the news that several members of Congress were floating the idea of making Daylight Saving Time permanent. For all of us, the whole country.

Hmmmmm, okay, maybe I can work with that.

Some of the persuasion for such a move centers on the current virus crisis and the mental health issues from all the uncertainty, loneliness and isolation. One editorial in September, written by Orrin Hatch, makes an impassioned plea for Congress to act and act swiftly. He tells us with the switching of our clocks to Standard Time, we will experience even shorter days than normal and this and the virus will only exacerbate the impact on mood, the stresses and upset of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Permit me to remind him that the hours of daylight are the same, regardless of what the clock says. A better argument is this. With Daylight Saving Time we are UP AND STIRRING a bit more in daylight. We are awake during more daylight hours. We don’t magically get more daylight.

Despite his lapse in logic, I am compelled and so let me revise my views. Standard Time. Daylight Saving Time. I don’t care. Just pick one. Make it permanent.

I don’t discount the impact of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Not at all. I suffer from it myself, a little. It creeps up on me just after the holidays. The grayness of a Kentucky winter, especially if we have no snow to cheer me, can grind on me in such a way I begin to believe balancing an open package of Oreos on my stomach while watching TV is a core strengthening exercise.

I mope. I molder.

Just yesterday a friend was talking about her dread of the approaching dark days. A real girl of summer, she confessed she even cried over the weekend in a kind of anticipatory grief for the waning sun of summer and the bright autumn days. She had found an article on how to weather SAD, yet so much of it was meant for a pre-COVID world, the suggestions of gathering with friends, or planning a vacation somewhere bright and warm for the worst part of winter. A good plan, of course, if we could even get there to that sunny isle, if we had the money, if the location we picked had low reproduction rates.

And if we could be with people.

There is, however, some evidence that Americans are back in the sporting goods stores, this time searching out winter sports equipment, like we snapped up all the bicycles last spring. In the northern climes snowmobiles and cross-country skis are flying off the shelves and out the doors. Hats and gloves and big puffy jackets are in high demand. Good footwear, too, poles for a little Nordic walking.

I have a couple of those poles around here. If some of you would get some, too, and start using them in what broad daylight we have this winter, I might get mine out and use them, as well. I just can’t bring myself to trend-set this activity. And this is a shame, because I first heard about Nordic walking when I was in Poland a couple of years back. And if the young women who told me about it are any indication, we will all be fit and blonde and beautiful if we would just give it a go.

I confess I like the longer nights, the early darkness when it comes. I like sweaters and blankies and cold-weather food, chilis and stews and potatoes. But I also need light—a candle or two when the coffee table is clear of combustibles, night lights, some small lamp burning in every room.

I’ve been thinking about those little white Christmas tree lights, or fairy lights, which is what I call them when they are draped across mantles or strung across a chest and puddling on the floor. When my European friends entertain, they have them all over the house, woven in and around the kitchen canisters, strings of them here and there, the lighting low everywhere else. It is cheerful and bright and dark all at the same time. I’m thinking of getting some, just to see how a thousand little lights might brighten my mood in this odd winter on its way.

We Need a Little Christmas…NOW!

Last year, on a crisp November day a week before Thanksgiving, I took a leisurely drive out to the country to buy my Christmas tree. I thought I was really something, so on top of things, so organized, so, well, perfect, and I enjoyed basking in my own glow all the way there.

Turns out, I wasn’t that early after all. The lot was a tad sparse but even so I found the perfect tree, they bundled it up for me, and it sat trussed up under my pergola like a petty thief in stocks, its feet in a bucket of ice water, until a week before Christmas.

I tell you all that to tell you this.

In the past four days I have heard of three different families who have already put up their Christmas trees. In their houses. With lights. You know, decorated.

One post on Facebook gave us a glimpse and the words, “The first of my trees is up.” It is an amazement to me that people have more than one tree. There is no judgment in that statement, I am just so disorganized or lazy or something that I think I am Mrs. Claus when I get just one set up, and even then, I don’t decorate the whole thing since it stands in a corner. So, multiple trees just buffaloes me.

But if ever there was a year, a time for early Christmas trees and sparkly lights and something to divert us, surely the year 2020 is it. I think about the scene in “Auntie Mame,” during the depression and she has just lost her temp job at Macy’s because her receipts book is such a mess.

She returns home, glum and worried, and convinces her little family they “need a little Christmas,” right now and she means right now. I think all those Christmas trees going up all over the place are testimony that we also need a little Christmas, right now, or at least something very much like it.

I don’t decorate much for the holidays, although last year I found some cool tin Christmas trees and angels at varying in height from one to three feet. They looked so great all nestled together in the shop, and the angels blowing their little horns, that I bought them all. And they look equally great on my hearth, and festive and happy and I spend about a total of three minutes setting it up.

That includes the trip to the basement, where they reside the rest of the year. Because I have a fresh tree and wait closer to Christmas to get it up, the tin trees are my nod to artificial. They hold me over until I drag the real tree in like a body rolled in a rug.

There are other things we can do as we prepare for the holidays and look for ways to stay calm and centered. I am not very good at ritual, and I don’t mean necessarily formal ritual, although I’m not very good at that, either. I am not even in the habit of returning the can opener to the same drawer after I use it.

In my line of work, though, I have participated in rituals on a fairly frequent basis. Workshops and self-awareness seminars often have an element of ritual to them. My Czech friends seem to be especially adept at ritual in the every day—the lighting of candles when they share even the simplest of meals, even gathering once a month for colleagues to celebrate the birthdays and a table laden with finger foods, and there, a pillar candle lit in the center.

I like ritual, admire it, am almost always moved by it, but self-conscious and insecure when it comes to creating rituals myself. But as the winter comes on, the virus continues, I find I’m drawn more and more to the notion of ritual. And what is the decorated Christmas tree, even in early November, but the physical embodiment of all sorts of ritual?

Therefore, gentle reader, I’m doing my bit. As soon as I finish up here with you, I am cleaning off my coffee table so I can light a candle without all that I own going up in flames. I just got off the phone with Zach, a very nice young man, who will deliver firewood on Thursday. I’m adding the fire pit to my winter ritual, too.

When I have a spare three minutes, I’ll bring my tin trees up from the basement.

Right now, and I mean right now.