We saw a commercial the other evening, inviting us to spend Thanksgiving dining at our local Golden Corral restaurant. Could a holiday possibly be any sadder than that? If I still prayed, I would pray for anyone who chose to pass Turkey Day in that processed-meat, pathetic way. A local soup kitchen would serve better fare and the diners there would surely offer more scintillating conversation. For the first sixteen years of my life, each Thanksgiving was spent around my maternal grandparents’ dining table. Grampa might have sat at its head, but when food was involved, Gramma reigned supreme. There were never less than twelve and never more than eighteen of us each year and never a kids’ table. When everyone showed up, we’d sit elbow-to-elbow, but we were all together at the table for our traditional V-8 Juice toast. Often your dinner plate didn’t match the person’s next to you, but she made sure even kiddies had a big plate to fill with incredible food.
In her kitchen on a four-burner Kenmore stove with two ovens, Gramma would produce singlehandedly: a twenty-pound-plus turkey, a duck, (for Grampa-he hated turkey) mashed potatoes, giblet gravy, candied yams, bread stuffing and a Slovenian specialty ‘cracker stuffing’, tossed salad, green beans, peas and carrots, Brussels sprouts, hot sweet beets and cold beet salad, cranberry jelly, apple strudel and a holiday raisin nut bread that she was famous for. Mom and my Auntie brought dinner rolls, pumpkin pies and other desserts. Oh, and Gramma made jello with fruit cocktail for us kids. The only thing not from scratch was the Ocean Spray Cranberry Jelly and the Jello concoction. I would kill for one more sit-down at that table today.
Especially as a youngster, I spent a great deal of time with my grandparents because my mom didn’t drive. My father chauffeured her when she taught Adult Ed night school. Tuesdays and Fridays her classes were in ‘the old neighborhood’ on the east side of Cleveland where Gramma and Grampa still lived. We’d drop her off and wait at their house. Dad would sit with his father-in-law in the kitchen drinking beer and trading stories. I followed Gramma around while she sewed or knitted or crocheted, listening for hours about her life in the old country as a little girl.
It was the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving. I ran into Gramma’s kitchen with a picture I’d just made in Miss Pete’s kindergarten class. We’d spent the morning learning all about turkeys. We even sang a new song. My picture was the ubiquitous traced hand turned into turkey crayon on construction paper kind. I’d made two. One already hung on the back of our kitchen door at home, near the calendar. I drew a second version because I knew Gramma would love it even more. While she searched for a thumb tack, she told me to follow Grampa downstairs to the cellar where he had a surprise for me. I hated going down there. It had an uneven cement floor and low ceiling with only a single naked light bulb hanging from one of the dark wooden beams. Even though it was impeccably clean and extremely orderly, it always scared me just the same.
Grampa switched on the bulb and there it was. A huge turkey, nearly the same height as me was madly beating its wings, frightened by the sudden illumination of his cellar world and the appearance of little me. I stood frozen in wonderment mixed with fear. My grandfather laughed at the two of us, probably trying to figure out which was more afraid. “Where did you get him?”, I asked without moving an inch, as my curiosity battled with my fright.
Gramma descended the stairs slowly, her heavy shoes clumping, sending the bird flapping all the more. As she neared the corner where the makeshift chicken wire fence cordoned off the poor fowl, she reached into her apron pocket, (she wasn’t fully dressed until she’d tied an impeccably clean apron on each day) pulling out a handful of coarse grains. “Here”, she said and motioned me to open my hands. “Geeve him this to eat.”
“What’s his name?” I asked as she filled my sweaty nervous hands with the meal.
She paused awhile. “Tom”, she nodded as she looked at the bird. “Tom Tour-key.”
I was too afraid to get my fingers anywhere near his beak. Miss Pete told us it was sharp and very strong so they could break up food because they didn’t have teeth and couldn’t chew like we did. Grampa said I should throw it onto the newspaper on the floor in front of him. As quickly as I sprinkled the feed, Tom would gobble it up. I still couldn’t believe that my grandparents would ever get such a neat pet.
They had a pair of Chihuahuas named Poochie and Cheechie that I did not like, even though I’ve always been an animal lover. When we came to visit every Sunday, the dogs barked like crazy the entire time. Actually, they yipped then snarled, viciously showing their teeny sharp teeth. They’d spend most of our visit behind Gramma’s living room sofa growling and pooping. While they were alive, that room smelled of Airwick and the lingering aroma of doggie turd.
Tom was way better than those yucky dogs and I spent nearly the whole evening downstairs with him. They’d left me there by myself, and now I wasn’t scared at all. After feeding and talking softly to him for a while, he got used to me. I remember being eye-to-eye with him, watching him watch me. Only his ugly waddle wiggled as we studied one another. Wait till I tell Miss Pete, I remember thinking. I ran upstairs and got him fresh water from the kitchen sink. “You like da tour-key?” Grampa asked as I passed him to run back downstairs. I assured him Tom was the neatest pet in the world. I couldn’t wait to come back on Thursday and spend the whole day in the cellar playing with him. When I left that night, I hoped he would remember me next time.
Of course there is no way to cleverly twist this story to change the obvious ending, which was far from obvious to kindergarten me. Miss Pete may have taught us all about turkeys, but the portion of the lesson she failed to impart was the most important-that they are called turkeys, just like the delicious meat we enjoy on our Thanksgiving plates because we KILL THEM AND EAT THEM!
I ran into Gramma’s kitchen Thanksgiving morning. It smelled warm and delicious. Still in my coat and hat I bee-lined for the basement. Running to the corner where Tom lived, I saw the chicken wire mesh laying on the floor, some feathers on the newspaper, but no bird. At first I thought he’d escaped, so I checked each dark, scary corner thinking he was hiding. No sign of Tom.
I charged back up the steps. There was Gramma smiling strangely at me. “What happened to your turkey?” I asked, not having even an inkling of what was to come. On cue, she opened the big oven and pulled out a pan with what looked like a golden-brown, gigunda roasted chicken. “He’s gonna’ be a guud dinner for you!” I’ve always been a quick learner. Suddenly, the life lesson sunk in, and my stomach began to hurt.
I would eat everything, but no turkey. I knew how good white meat tasted, but not this time-not my friend Tom. My mother had other plans for me. She fixed a plate with a little of everything. I had to finish whatever was on it. How could I eat this turkey? I’d looked him in the eyes only two days before. Miraculously, the slice of meat with gravy laying there on my plate suddenly had nothing to do with the memory of my short-lived friendship with Tom. But I still didn’t like Poochie or Cheechie, the both of them growling from behind the sofa in the living room as we enjoyed our Thanksgiving dinner. They would not get even a scrap of turkey, if I had anything to say about it.
I hadn’t spent the holidays with the family for many years. When I first moved to The City, I’d stay and contribute to a pot luck kind of Thanksgiving with college cronies and collected NYC friends. Now I was living in Massachusetts with Alejandro and knew it was time to share an old-fashioned family Thanksgiving like my memories of years ago-only it would prove to be nothing like that anymore. Grampa had died more than a decade before. Cousins were married with kids of their own. Our parents were the grandparents now which was foreign to me, having skipped that particular phase of growing up and older. Gramma had since sold her house / moved to an apartment still in the old neighborhood / moved to assisted living in a safer section of Cleveland / fell and broke her pelvis / was placed in a nursing home. Her days of glory in her kitchen had long passed.
The dinner would be in West Buttfok in my parents’ basement, because we now numbered around two dozen. The food that Gramma had turned out seemingly without effort, yet with the greatest love and care became a complicated process of volunteered and assigned duties. As the familiar faces of loved ones slightly tinged by the passing years arrived with their contributions, they placed them on the counter, or the stove or in the fridge along with comments and complaints.
“Do you know how much they wanted for tomatoes this week?”
“This is the last year we drive on Thanksgiving. If you people don’t want to meet out our way, we’ll each do our own Thanksgivings.”
“I hope the pumpkin pies are okay. Work was so insane I ended up buying them at Krogers.”
“Fussing with all this damn food is for the birds. We’re gonna’ meet at a restaurant next year and let somebody else do the work and serve us…whatever the hell it costs!”
Someone brought Gramma from the nursing home and settled her in a recliner downstairs. She looked tinier then when I’d seen her earlier in the year, sitting there now in her oversized vinyl throne. I was feeling totally out-of-place in somebody else’s family and as I approached, her face mirrored exactly how I felt. She knew everybody, but was just a tiny bit out of it. She lit up when I brought her a ginger ale and sat down next to her. We began to chat and she kept asking who made the turkey. She told me she was hungry, because all they fed her at the nursing home was coffee and jello “everyday a different color but da same taste.”
I took her worn but familiar hand in mine and told her how many wonderful meals she had prepared for all of us and how much we appreciated what it took to put it on the table. She beamed like crazy, then used a favorite expression she’d adopted years ago “Oh yeah. Big deal!”, waving my compliment off with her other hand. “You know wat dey did to me?”, she asked softly. “Dey sold my house and made me stay in thet place. Can I go home wit you?”
“No Gramma, I’m at work all day and you need the doctors to take care of you.” Thankfully, she looked at me as though she’d already forgotten her question. Part of me wanted to spirit her away in my car and drive her back to Massachusetts, after we’d stopped at MacDonald’s for cheeseburgers and fries. But we stayed and ate dinner with the rest of the crew.
There was a kid’s table now. It ended up being what I was most thankful for that day. Were we that awful at their age? I suppose it was because there were so many more of them than in my day. We ate on paper plates which made my skin crawl. The food was tasty, and I noted the topics of conversation were much the same as they’d always been. I kept waiting for a Hallmark afternoon of memories to kick in. After only a few hours back among them, it was evident that water really does always seek its own level. We made it through the meal relatively unscathed.
I went up to the kitchen, drawn by the smell of the coffee perking upstairs, heralding the arrival of desserts. When I saw my Auntie begin stacking the styrofoam cups near the coffee urn, it was the final straw. I opened the cupboard where my mother kept her mugs and announced “I’m sorry, I’ve gotta’ use a real cup.”
“Oh no, buster”, my Auntie chided me as though I were five again, “we’re not washing any more dishes than we have to!”
“That’s fine, I’ll wash my own then. I hate the feel of styrofoam on my lips.”
“Well pardon me. Not all of us lived in New York City.”
I stared at her as the childish comment fell out of her mouth. What was that all about? I saw my mother circling towards us, sensing the tension brewing around the percolator. Too late, Mom, I thought, preparing to launch a retaliatory volley.
“Look, it was bad enough we had to eat hot food and gravy off of paper plates.”
“But they were Chinet.”, my mother innocently added in an attempt to smooth ruffled feathers.
I lectured, deciding to forgo shaking a finger at either of them: “It took everybody a lot of effort to get here, and tons of work to put together a meal to celebrate. If washing dishes is the only reason we didn’t eat off real plates, than shame on you both. This is probably the last time we’ll all be together.”
For the first time in our history, the two strongest women in the family now were rendered mute. Even their husbands had never accomplished that.
“So let me drink my coffee in a goddamn cup, which I will wash and dry myself.” I headed back downstairs, triumphant mug in fist, to sit with Gramma some more, before they took her back to ‘thet place’.