Thanksgiving Traditions — The Same and Different

The November sun is not quite up, but I am.  My grandmother would have been, too, sitting in her darkened kitchen, her thin legs wrapped around each other, a treble clef, smoking, thinking about the day ahead.  At her elbow would be a stenographer’s pad with notes and a timeline as she prepared for battle with the Thanksgiving feast. 

I say “battle,” but really it was more like maneuvers, the complicated logistics of who goes first, second, third, carrying what, all manner of equipment and provisions packed into the olive drab jeeps and canvas covered trucks in just the right order. 

Somewhere else in the quiet house, my brother and I would be sleeping.  Granny Opal was known for her quiet ways. Calm, reserved.  Easy, I think, is the word to describe her.  A soothing presence, a baby whisperer.  Reassuring.  She never woke us, even when we begged her to get us up in time to put the bird in the oven.  I don’t remember now why that was such a big deal, but it was. 

We were never too disappointed we missed it, and might have been secretly glad, because we slept under blankets in a pitch black room, and it was fine by us to stay there, in soft beds warmed by our small bodies.  

I have tried to get my nieces and nephews interested in learning the old recipes, some written in Granny Opal’s elaborate hand.  They are spattered, some of them, but they are also dated, with attribution and notes in the margins.  Her recipe books are full of the names I recognize as  her Sunday school group, names from an era when they gathered at someone’s home a couple of times of year.  Gatherings with butter mints and peanuts—cocktail nuts, to be exact, these tee-totaling Baptists.  

It was a time of ladies’ magazines, snack sets and sweater sets. And recipes that made the rounds. Recipes that took all afternoon to make, fancy sandwiches, mile-high cakes with freshly grated coconut. And always something passed along by Gwen Brown, or Mrs. Pruden, the best bakers at Buena Vista Baptist Church. 

The elaborate cranberry salad we slaved over, with all the ingredients ground in a cast iron food mill clipped to the formica table is particularly labor-intensive.  We helped with grinding and chopping, and I would have sworn it was a recipe brought with great-grandmother when she moved to town. 

I make it still even though no one eats it.  But tradition is tradition and not subject to practicality. Then my sister informs me that, no.  My mother didn’t grow up eating this.  They served cranberry sauce from a can.  Granny Opal started the tradition, sometime in the sixties.  I didn’t believe it.  But there it is, neatly typed in her recipe book. “Cranberry Salad”  from “Mrs. Sam Talley, 8-13-64.”

What am I to do with this information? 

I have the cranberries, the pecans, the celery, the orange and the grinder. I’ll make it, of course, using the old grinder,  as Mrs. Sam Talley instructs.

The generations are turning, and the nieces who had little interest in recreating my childhood Thanksgiving  Eve rituals now need sweet potato recipes.  They have decided they love the  cranberry salad, request instruction on creating the perfect pie crust. It seems to happen when they leave in that real way, creating families of their own.  The first one to need a recipe was my niece, Alex, a couple of years ago.  The first married, she wanted the Thanksgiving dressing recipe. 

I sent it, of course. But I also made her call me, because there are things Granny Opal and I needed her to know, things about proportions and execution that can not be written on a recipe card.  I wanted her to have the most important part of the tradition.  The showing, the telling, the heads bent over chopped onion and celery. 

My nieces and nephews, that great sleepover and soccer-playing busy generation, are only now catching their breath and casting around for something more sustaining.  We have new little ones among us although the cousins have yet to meet.  They are far-flung and still so new, but soon I hope to see them in a puppy pile, rolling around on some floor, the adults looking on admiringly. 

I hope, too, just once, on Thanksgiving morning, to have little ones asleep upstairs, snug and toasty, while I put the poor bird in the oven. 

Retreat To The Woods

I spent the weekend in the woods, or almost in the woods, and perhaps more accurately on the edge of the woods that cover the hill which seemed like a mountain that rose behind the cottage where I stayed at Hindman Settlement School.  

I know of those who spent the weekend lallygagging poolside in Florida,  but I had on my calendar a writing retreat at the settlement school, one I signed up for in the sweltering heat of July. I signed up because I was hot and November seemed refreshing. I signed up because several of my friends had signed up, too.  It was a bit like junior high.  

Our pal, Silas, was facilitating the workshop, and he sent a text telling us the spaces would go quick and we eagerly enrolled, like adolescents going on a field trip.  It was better than any field trip, with all those writers, and with the author, Ashley Blooms there, too, running her own sessions.  I came home with some new people to call friends, and I suspect, so did most of us. 

I liked my new pals immediately.  For one thing, writers, at least my favorite ones,  are just funny,  They tell the best stories.  So, we sat around the first night laughing our heads off, as we rearranged the furniture a piece at a time to accommodate newcomers to the circle. I suspect, we also gathered in a bit because our hearts were slowly warming to each other. 

The thing I like best about a good story told by a writer is the clever turns of phrase they use…so we laugh, but we also repeat the phrase quietly to ourselves, catch the eye of someone doing the same thing, and we laugh all over again.  It’s like chili or soup that is better the next day. 

We had to show vaccination cards upon arrival and we socially distanced during craft workshops, each of us with a big table to ourselves.  But the rest of the weekend was … just normal.  Taking our mugs to Marianne’s room for her good coffee each morning.  Lunch and supper in the great hall, where Vivian fed us well and with the best and kindest of humor, retrieving her polenta recipe so I could take a picture of it.  

Until Hindman, I have been dismissive of polenta, remembering only my grandmother’s cornmeal mush, which she served when she’d get on a kick.  Out came Vivian with an Ina Garden recipe and her own notations written in the margins, and I was the hero of our table, because we had all rhapsodized about that polenta throughout the meal. 

Some in the group stayed mostly in their rooms, writing.  Some of us stayed mostly outside our rooms, making too much noise.  It was a weekend designed for whatever we wanted.  Silas did several craft seminars, and we could attend them or not. If we wanted to work on our writing in solitude, we could do that.  If we wanted to just relax and rejuvenate, show up for meals, we could do that.  If we wanted to do any combination of activities, go right ahead. 

One group, hardy souls that they are, walked the steep hill behind the school.  I am told the view from the ridge is wonderful.  And I am sure it was Saturday afternoon, too.  The late November light was slanting golden and warm, the trees almost bare after laying down a carpet of russet and ruby leaves for the hikers.  The pictures they posted were stunning.  All of them smiling, backlit and shiny, leaning in toward each other like comfortable old lawn chairs. 

I couldn’t make that hike the first time I tried it, the trail shoots straight up in a lung-busting trajectory. I wasn’t tempted even a little bit to join them Saturday afternoon.  But I waited for them to return, all rosy-cheeked and bringing the crisp fall air in with them, the woods trapped in their jackets and wool caps. We toasted them as they toasted each other, and it was perfect, as perfect as a moment can be.  Simple, warm, loving.

We created a little community as best we could in this time of almost past Covid.  I noticed the way we instinctively spaced ourselves in the dinner line and when chatting around tables after meals were over, or before sessions began.  That three foot spacing for public life. But then we went home to our little cottage in the woods, and friends from other cottages stopped by. And there were hugs, and heads bent together for gossip, and a glimpse of normal, and it felt good.

Finally, Signs of Fall

I awoke yesterday morning to a text from a pal in Lexington.  He reported an overnight frost and that he was wearing his cashmere sweater.  Relax those eyebrows, it’s okay. He was in cashmere mid-week because he was going calling.  I had overslept, so a quick scan of the backyard showed no signs of frost here, but I’ll be glad when it does. 

Right now I have a few Gerber daisies still hanging on, colorful little starburst heads bobbing on worn-out stems.  I can’t bring myself to toss them on the compost pile, but neither can I quite stand to look at them.  A killing frost will put things right, and I can move on to collecting moonflower seeds. 

My house wasn’t particularly cold, and I am not cold-natured, but I turned my heat on anyway, just to smell the furnace.  You know, the way it smells after months of idleness, a warm, toasty, “is my house on fire” kind of aroma that scares and soothes us. I didn’t keep it on very long, just long enough to get that autumn longing out of my system.  

Halloween will kick off the holiday season, and it sounds like we might have some challenges this year.  Turn on the news and gaze upon the thousands of metal containers on ships off the coast of California, Georgia.  In those containers are the toys, and games, and very cool electronics that land on Christmas lists.  If you see it in the stores, you better buy it. 

In this way I am lucky.  My Christmas gifts fold neatly into envelopes or lie on a shelf in a closet, gathering dust as I have collected them all year long. 

But the same can’t be said for the Thanksgiving turkey. 

I tell you what I am about to tell you in a spasm of holiday solidarity.  I keep reading that turkeys may be in short supply this year. It isn’t the turkey so much that is elusive, but the personnel to process it.  I have already begun scouting the deep freeze bins in our local food emporiums.  I urge you to do the same, and if you see one, get it.  Just don’t get mine. 

I am so stressed about the turkey shortage that I dreamed just last night I was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner with people I do not know, and when I arrived there was no scent of roast turkey in the air.  I have no idea what they served.  I woke up from this nightmare in a cold sweat and had to get up and walk around a bit to shake it off. 

Before I thought my house was on fire because of my furnace, I thought it was on fire because so many neighbors have fireplaces and fire pits all aglow.  I have a fire pit, too, with tinder, kindling and fuel all laid out in perfect Girl Scout order, but I have yet to put a match to it.  The city has replaced the light in the alley, some LED horror that lights up my backyard like a prison yard.  Sitting just so, around the fire pit, it shines directly in your eyes and you could read the newspaper by it. 

They promise to come out and adjust the light, and I hope that happens soon.  It is one of my best skills, harnessing fire, and I miss getting to use it. 

I have sorted my books, the ones I’ve ordered and left in a pile, awaiting the fall,  and I am reading “Anxious People,” by Fredrik Backman, who gave us the wonderful “A Man Called Ove.”  And the second Thursday Murder Club mystery, “The Man Who Died Twice,” by Richard Osman. Here we have a group of sophisticated retirees, still vital, still irritating in the ways they have always been irritating, still talented in the ways they have always been talented, solving murders, old and new.  And these books are funny.  But not fluffy.  Well, light, maybe, engaging and affirming, because the characters are old, but they are not sweet. 

If I had a cashmere sweater I might put it on.  As it is, I’m digging out a sweatshirt, some socks, a fuzzy blanket for the couch, because the window it rests against faces west, and soon the wind will whistle and barge its way through the cracks. Now if those leaves will just turn.

Wandering Elmwood

On a good-natured challenge from a friend, I spent last week finding new places to walk.  We both find it hard sometimes to get ourselves up and out there, moving.   She won the challenge because she found a mountaintop apple orchard and rewarded herself with cider and fried cakes. 

But it is only the cider and cake that separate us.  I came in a close second because I took rambles through Elmwood Cemetery.  On two crisp fall afternoons I explored the cemetery that I have visited all my life, but only on Memorial Day, with sloshing buckets of peonies in the trunk, my mother a bit frazzled, herding her kids. 

When my father went along, we sauntered and he’d stop every now and then, remembering the person whose name was on a stone, and he would tell us a good story.  He should have been a teacher.  He was the master of pith and brevity.  He knew when to wrap it up.  Something I never learned in all my days in the classroom.

And he was always funny.   We learn better if we are laughing, did you know?  There are studies. 

On my wandering afternoons last week I parked the car at the top of the hill, where we always park, between the big trees.  My maternal grandfather had insisted on plots in town, in a perpetual care cemetery, because he was forward-thinking and practical.  He knew the vagaries of time would sooner or later take over the old country churchyard cemeteries, the tiny family plots.  

A modern cemetery would keep things neat and tidy, would insist on vaults, would create a sense of peace and serenity.  Also, I am told, his appetite for extra work on weekends was extremely limited, and the notion of someone else tending the graves suited him just fine. 

We aren’t a family to visits the cemetery often.  We did Memorial Day, almost too late in the weekend, and that was it.  We didn’t decorate for the seasons or birthdays or holidays.  My Oklahoma grandmother talked lovingly about Decoration Day, with picnicking and the whole family out there on a windswept plain.  I think she secretly longed to recreate such a spectacle at Elmwood, but she never pulled it off. 

These days, I try to bring flowers at Christmas, but honestly, I do it more out of a sense of “I should” than a feeling of “I’d like to.”  I don’t know if it is cultural, or specific to families, which is a kind of culture, too, but in my family, we don’t take comfort from visiting the grave.  I’ve tried to find some communion with my lost loved ones.  I might sit for a while, but for me, that is not where I find them.  

I’m as apt to have my Granny Opal return to me in her favorite grocery this time of year. Seeing turkeys piled up brings her to me in a way her headstone does not.  Thanksgiving was her thing, our thing, and the scent of fresh celery puts me in her late November kitchen and I am four, eight,  thirteen years old and reading recipes aloud as she gathers bowls and spices.  I still buy my celery for the Thanksgiving dressing in the exact same store.  Every year.  In small everyday places I find my people. 

But roaming Elmwood I found my Uncle Billy and Aunt Jean, buried as they are in a different part of the cemetery.  For some reason I didn’t know where to find them. Graveside services always disorient me, and nothing seems familiar. Now I see them all the time, conjure them each time I pass their stone.  And other family, too, distant relatives I never heard of.  I take photos of the names and dates and when I remember I send them to my cousin, Jan, because she is the family historian and she wants them.

Walking the winding pathways of Elmwood I see the parents of friends, can tell by the headstones which parent has died, can tell by a blank space under the birthdate, which parent is still with us.  I wander over to Potter’s Field, nothing more than a wide expanse of grass now.  The plaque tells us it is possible more than a thousand men, women and children are buried there. 

I’ve wandered cemeteries all my life, but never my own.  Far from sad or morbid, I find a peace and comfort there, a wistful connection to time, and people. The ones beneath fine monuments.  The ones beneath my feet in Potter’s Field.  A connection, less to be understood, and more to be felt, in a slowing of steps, a sigh perhaps.  The passing of day in the sun on my face, the order of stones, facing the same way, except for the ones that don’t.  Those there, facing east, while most face south. This one, knocked a bit sideways,.  This one, a corner buried, engraving worn and unreadable.  Granite and crumbling stone.  Ordered and disordered, the way we are in life. 

Here there are trees that will be green in winter. And oaks, beech. Elmwood drapes over the highest spot in town, festooned with pathways like so much ribbon on a party dress, around and around and around. Stones wink in the late day sun.  A place benevolent and quiet. The wind comes to such places, high as it is, but knows how to behave. Starlings murmurating in widening nets above the trees, but they, too, keep it down, leaving us with our thoughts.