The Night Before Thanksgiving
Growing up, the holidays were always a big deal. My parents threw everything they had into these special days and our home was jammed with celebrants. Sometimes we would visit my relatives in Indianapolis but those were rare occasions. When we did venture up, we would inevitably stay at my Aunt Laura's, which I always thought was fun because they had a basement divided into rooms that we would sleep in. It was like having a house under a house. Or I would stay on the front porch they had enclosed on a couch with lots of quilts. Their house was right on West Washington Street, also known as Highway 40, and traffic could be heard all through the night. Furthermore, a fire station was across the street and the engines would wake me up in the middle of the night as they raced to rescue some poor soul.
My aunt and uncle had four children, most much older then me and one had already had children of her own. When we arrived it was like a small army camping in the house and the place was never quiet. Aunt Laura had the longest dining room table I had ever seen with a breakfast bar that ran the length of an entire wall. Food covered it all on this most special of days.
One Thanksgiving trip, however, stands out with teary memories. It was the year my grandfather passed away. There’s not much that I remember of that year and I’m sure what I do recall isn’t exactly accurate. I’m terrible at remembering things from my younger years. Laurie, however, is great at that and could probably write out our entire family history. I was only ten at the time and not very observant. When you're a child you don't think, "I need to etch this person, this moment, into my brain so I don't forget." When you're young, you just go and do. People are always there next year. No one dies.
I believe Grandpa Cox was the first death I had experienced. At least, it's the first one I remember, and I didn’t really experience it as my mom shielded us from it pretty well. I just knew something had happened, and it happened the night before Thanksgiving. Grandpa was on oxygen and I always picture him in a dark green chair drinking coffee from a brown mug, sitting there watching us play around the house. I don't remember words or hugs, although I know they were there. I remember dark hair and a strong face. I wish I recalled more but all I know are the memories of others.
We were at his house when things went bad, quickly bad. It was night and Laurie and I were out in the yard catching snowflakes with our tongues. Grandpa was laughing at our antics and just enjoying his grandkids. Then, he just wasn't feeling well and an ambulance had to be called. The memory of an ambulance with our grandfather in it wasn’t one Mom wanted us to have so they took us to the married cousin's home for the night. We had Thanksgiving at my aunt's but I don't remember seeing my parents there. The whole day was turned spinning. My dad had lost his dad; my sister and I our grandfather. Yet, everyone else was enjoying their day. My world was not their world and holidays always go on.
And holidays should go on. We need times of pure celebration to exclaim the goodness of life and the people who brighten our existence. We need to make the most of every gathering and squeak every moment out of every day, Thanksgiving especially.
Thanksgiving preparation always began on Wednesday night. Dinner would be quick and simple and the kitchen would soon be stacked with dishes and platters as the big meal was prepared. Mom would have us cutting celery and filling it with cream cheese or peanut butter, radishes were chopped and relish trays filled. Pie crusts were made and filled with the traditional delights by hands covered in flour. Some faces and hair were sprinkled with the fine powder as well as the urge to douse an unsuspecting person never grew old and was always surrendered to. Everything that could be done ahead of time was.
And it was done with no hurry and lots of laughter.
One year, my parents had made a pitcher of Screwdrivers and the adults would sip and then gulp as the food was prepared. Uncle Ronnie was never really a drinking man, but on these occasions he was more than willing to indulge. Or, perhaps he thought it was merely orange juice. Now, that would have made it funnier. Our kitchen was small so Ronnie set his chair by the back door to be out of the way. The night went on; platters were filled and put in the fridge while pies were baked and set out to cool. The pitcher of Screwdrivers slowly evaporated into more laughter. Ronnie kept leaning back in his chair. Teachers around the world would have been hitting his desk with a ruler by then. The combination of it all only had one ending in sight and soon my laughing uncle tipped back and back and the door popped open and he kept going - right out the back door onto the carport.
The laughing only got louder.
The big meal may be Thursday, but the fun always started Wednesday night. Modern conveniences have robbed us of rituals while speeding up the preparation time. There may be less time required in the kitchen because of a microwave and prepackaged dishes but think of everything that's lost. It was during those times of everyone gathered around the kitchen, flour on cheeks and noses, and the aroma of freshly sliced vegetables filling the air, that all of those stories were shared. Those were the nights that I learned of the power going out and Ronnie trying to strike the wrong end of the match. I heard the story of Uncle Von thinking he had come across a dead body only to discover it was a fallen log. Family history through hilarious stories all happened around a busy table. Microwaved mashed potatoes and frozen pies don't give you enough time to share stories.
Perhaps that's why kids don't know where they came from. We've lost the bonding that happens with the preparation of food. Don't let it happen without a fight! Resist the urge to go with the quick and easy and build a tradition that your children will remember with nostalgic tears. They won't recall the drudgery of cooking, but rather the uncle falling out a back door and the laughter that echoed forward into time.