NOTE: This originally ran in the Connecticut Post in November of 2008. My intent was to capture what it was like growing up in my family, so I did not even attempt to account for my wife's family (and their Jell-O addiction) but I would like to dedicate this to the memory of Kathy Cribbins and all the members of our family who are no longer with us at the table, but will always be in our hearts.
As much as I love over-eating and being with family, Thanksgiving was never that big of a deal for me. It felt more like a day off than an actual holiday – probably due to the lack of presents. It started when I was a kid, when a holiday wasn’t a holiday unless there were gifts involved. And I’m talking about real gifts…from a store. Not those so-called “gifts” of good health, loving family, and fresh food on the table – I wanted something in a box, or a basket, that I could put batteries in and play with. But year after year Thanksgiving guests would arrive bearing nothing more than smiles and pies, leaving me with nothing to open (unless you count all the walnuts I had to crack for my arthritic aunt.)
It’s not that I disliked the day, it’s just that everything Thanksgiving had to offer, some other holiday did better. Take decorating for example. My family needed the entire month leading up to Halloween, Christmas, and Easter to properly decorate the house for the big day. But Thanksgiving? With maybe an hour to go before the company started arriving, my brother and I would “decorate” by setting out a few pilgrim and Indian candles, filling the cornucopia (but only after we took turns wearing it as a hat), and creating place cards for our guests. For some reason we fought over who got to fill the relish tray with the assortment of sweet pickles and olives, so that became my dad’s job (which he didn’t seem to mind since it gave him the opportunity to steal a couple of olives for his martini before sneaking off to watch football until it was time to carve the turkey.)
My mom’s job was to cook the turkey – a task she approached with the delicate precision of a bomb squad, since she considered the turkey to be a time bomb that would kill us all if not cooked long enough - though she didn’t seem quite so concerned for our health the year she accidentally cooked the turkey with the plastic bag of giblets still stuffed inside – “It’ll be fine” she declared, peeling off the melted pieces of probably toxic plastic. "Just don't eat the middle."
Normally a late riser, she’d set her alarm for 6:00 a.m. Thanksgiving morning in order to put the turkey in the oven so it could cook long enough (a time determined by a complicated formula derived by scientists at NASA, but later made obsolete by Butterball’s pop-up timer.) She would then spend the rest of the day sticking to a strict basting schedule.
When we were really little, every time she opened the oven to check the turkey (which was quite often) she’d start shrieking and screaming, claiming that it was trying to escape My brother Joe and I would come running into the kitchen just as she was closing the oven door, wiping her brow with an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Not quite done yet,” she’d say before shooing us back into the living room to continue watching the Macy’s Umpteenth Annual Thanksgiving Day Parade – a six hour snooze fest that she somehow always convinced us to watch.
Which is another area that Thanksgiving was clearly lacking – good TV specials. Christmas had Frosty and Rudolph. Halloween had Charlie Brown. Thanksgiving had…balloons. An endless parade of big boring balloons, their tedious passing narrated by the likes of Lorne Greene, or some other washed-up celebrity, who would share “facts” about them as they floated by. We didn’t care that six people could swim in Snoopy’s supper dish or that Bullwinkle’s nose was so big you could park a Volkswagen in it. All we cared about was seeing Santa, who traditionally brought up the rear of the parade, ushering in the start of the real holiday season.
But the star of Thanksgiving was dinner, which somehow always managed to coincide with half-time. Now most normal families start their feast with a prayer – seeing as how the whole reason for gathering was to give thanks for the food and so forth, but not us. When my mom would ask, “Who wants to say grace?” We’d all yell “Hulford!” - the last name of our neighbor, and the only Grace we knew.
But what we lacked in prayer, we made up for in toasting. We toasted everyone. Those who were at the table with us, and those who were no longer with us. We toasted the turkey, the stuffing, and even the bread, quite literally one year when my cousin, trying to clink a glass across the table, accidentally tipped a lit candle into the napkin-lined basket of rolls, setting them on fire. After the flames were extinguished, someone (I like to think it was me) held up a burnt roll and said, “Well, you did say you wanted to make a toast!”
Yes, we had the traditional “kiddy table” but it was purely for logistical purposes. We never felt left out or unwanted, we knew that there was simply not enough room for everyone at the main table. And it didn’t really matter how old you were, if you were someone’s kid, you sat at the kiddy table. Therefore, graduating to the adult table didn’t have that rite of passage feel for us – if a seat opened up, it was only because someone had died (or even worse, was spending Thanksgiving with a girlfriend’s family!)
And while we could fill the seat of a departed loved one, we could never take their place. They brought something to the table that couldn’t be replaced. But we kept them alive by sharing stories and making toasts in their honor so that the new additions to the kiddy table will know what it was like to eat with Grampa, and George, Gramma Rose, Auntie, Uncle Paul, Bobby…
Now that I'm older, I've come to appreciate what a special holiday Thanksgiving really is. Looking back, as much as I liked getting them, I can’t recall a single Christmas gift any of my deceased relatives gave to me. But I do have countless memories of conversations and moments with them from Thanksgivings past – and I know now that it wasn't their gifts I was missing, it was their presence.