I remember a time when a few days after Halloween my elementary school classmates and I would make a seamless switch from drawing Halloween pictures to constructing dioramas of turkeys and pilgrims, Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower. All across the country students put on plays telling the story of the first Thanksgiving. Pilgrim boys wearing black poster board hats adorned with big yellow buckles solemnly marched onstage where they were welcomed by classmates wearing headdresses thick with multi-colored construction paper feathers and offering dried corn cobs. A pantomime of friendly conversation followed, until a group of girls in white pinafores and oversized white paper collars entered carrying papier-mâché turkeys and pies. These were carefully arranged on a table (borrowed from the lunchroom) and as a finale all would sit down, amid enthusiastic applause, to the feast.
A day or two later, school would be over for a whole week! Back then, the Powers-That-Were scheduled Teacher Conferences—what would be called Continuing Education or In-Service days today—for the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving.
At home, my mother would keep me busy gathering brightly-colored leaves to arrange between two sheets of waxed paper. Mom would use a warm iron to melt the wax so the two sheets stuck together, making a placemat. We needed lots of these to take to Grandma’s house, where my family and all my aunts, uncles, and cousins would eat Thanksgiving dinner.
When Thursday came, we got up early, dressed and went to church. Afterwards, Mom busied herself in the kitchen making side-dishes for the feast to come. Dad watched football and I would read or play checkers with my brother. A few hours later it was time to go. Back in our Sunday best, we piled into the car and drove the fifteen minutes back into town, to Grandma’s house. There usually wasn’t snow, but none-the-less my brother and I sang Over the River and Through the Wood and Jingle Bells all the way there. In retrospect, I realize my parents had the patience of saints.
When we arrived, just after dusk, Grandma and Grandpa’s little two-story frame house was outlined against the darkening sky, with light pouring out of each wood-framed window. We stepped from the car into crispy-cold air and tromped up the steps to the screened front porch, past the porch swing sitting lonely in the cold, and into the enveloping warmth of the house. Oh, the scents that filled the air! Instead of pulling off my coat and gloves, I always stood for a moment, just breathing them in. Cloves, apples, cinnamon, and of course the rich scent of turkey and gravy.
In the kitchen, final preparations were underway. My mother joined her sisters there while the men made quick work of adding all the leaves to the dining room table, extending it to the fullest, then joined Grandpa in the cramped living room to watch television. The aunts pulled the good china from behind the cupboard doors in Grandma’s walnut sideboard and spread her white linin tablecloth over the table. My cousin Trudy and I arranged dishes and silverware on the placemats we’d made, and then the feast would be spread atop Grandma’s walnut sideboard.
The grownups filled their plates and chivvied the littlest cousins through the line. Then, at last, it was our turn. First would be the gelatin salads—two kinds, at least—followed by cranberry gel and pickles and olives—the green ones stuffed with red pimento. Then, in the center of the sideboard, the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and green beans cooked with onion and bacon. Plates overflowing, we’d grab a crescent roll or two and head for the kitchen to talk and eat.
Eventually, when plates were looking empty and we were getting tired of sitting, the aunts would begin bringing some of the serving dishes into the kitchen. Pickles and olives and cranberry gel would get moved to the center of the dining room table. The mashed potatoes and turkey would be placed on the drainboard of grandmas big cast iron sink, and the pies would move from atop the unlit burners of the big gas stove to pride of place on the sideboard. This time we kids got served first. One of the aunts would dole out slices of pie…”Pumpkin or apple?”…while another would top each slice with whipped cream. At the table, other grownups relaxed and talked, seemingly in no hurry to get to the best part of the meal. I can still feel the texture of those flaky crusts. No one ate only the filling!
When the aunts began clearing away the rest of the meal, they shooed us from the kitchen until it was time to dry silverware. No one minded being called back—the kitchen was where the action was! The aunts would talk, and laugh, and if we asked they would sing. This was when we learned songs written to boost people’s spirits during the war years—Three Little Fishies (1939), Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (1942), You Are My Sunshine (1940), and the unanimous favorite of all the kids, Mairzy Doats (1943). If you don’t recognize the names, check Youtube. They’re all there.
The final event of the evening was drawing names for Christmas gifts. And it was not until then, after Thanksgiving dishes were done and the kitchen and dining room put back to rights…until Thanksgiving had been fully and richly celebrated… that the focus shifted to Christmas, and the prelude to the next holiday season began.
May your Thanksgiving be celebrated with joy and significance.
Until next time…