Thursday, November 26, 2020

Memories of Thanksgivings Past

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I don’t suppose that’s always been true; as a child, Christmas was probably my favorite. Or maybe Easter. But in my adulthood, Christmas’s commercialism finally got to me. And for the past several years, I’ve celebrated Easter quietly, usually with viewing the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean with my beloved little Henry-Dog. Thanksgiving though, that one has always been about family – whatever that family may look like.

My earliest recollection of a Thanksgiving is at my Wallis grandparents’ home in Arcadia. I don’t particularly recall any of the food; what I remember best is the great spectacle my grandfather – “Grandy,” we called him – made of honing his knife prior to carving the turkey. He made that blade sing!

As for the rest of the meal, I’m sure it was pretty fabulous. My “Meemaw” was a great cook … and she believed in making sure everyone was WELL fed. Surely her biscuits were on the table, and maybe my mother’s dressing. I’m betting that dessert was split between Meemaw’s absolutely divine chocolate cake, which I always referred to as her “black cake,” and my mother’s amazing pecan pie. I couldn’t have been very old, maybe eight at the most, because my grandfather died before my ninth Thanksgiving.

And so Thanksgiving changed, somewhat. For a few years, my mother was in charge of Thanksgiving. And man, did she do it up! Appetizers like celery stuffed with cream cheese and olive, and you had to be sure not to get too stuffed on the stuffed celery, mainly because the turkey – a slow-roasted masterpiece that took HOURS and meticulous basting – awaited, as did her beautiful dressing, mashed potatoes and dreamy giblet gravy, green beans, other fresh vegetables … whatever she dreamed up. Plus that amazing pecan pie.

But then Thanksgiving changed again, when we started to get together with local farm families, first, under the shelter of a vegetable stand operated by one of my mother’s friends, later, further away from town in someone’s pasture off of Hog Bay Road. These were no quiet pass-the-plate affairs; they were huge potlucks reminiscent of a church supper, with one large flat-bed trailer holding all manner of scrumptious side dishes and a slightly smaller trailer laden with decadent desserts.

Oh. And a HUGE cauldron of swamp cabbage. Always a prime feature for me: swamp cabbage sure ain’t much to look at, but it is dee-licious. You may know it as “heart of palm” from the menus of fine restaurants or maybe you’ve seen a can on the shelf of a grocery store. But we know and love it as the vegetable that helped many a rural Floridian survive during the hard days of the Great Depression.

Swamp cabbage isn’t the only thing that set those pasture Thanksgivings apart, though! There was no turkey served at these affairs, just an appetizer of pork ribs and the main course of fresh, local Florida beef. On one particularly memorable Thanksgiving, I saw the most magnificent Tom turkey I’d ever seen before or since, parading around the gathering as if he knew that, among these cattlemen and their families, he would never be the hapless guest of honor.

As fun as those times were, they came to an end. I’m not really sure why – whether it was just our family’s participation that ended, or whether some of the key organizers were finding the gatherings more difficult to manage. At any rate, Thanksgiving changed again, and in this next phase I was in charge. I managed the turkey well, selected really wonderful appetizers and side dishes, including making my mother’s dressing for the very first time … but had to use gravy out of the Franco-American bottle, because I have never mastered gravy. And I still depended on my mother for that amazing pecan pie. Sometimes the gathering would be at my house, sometimes at my best friend’s house; and although Thanksgiving had by this time become a sort of blended-families affair, it just seemed right and natural.

As my parents grew older, large gatherings with heaps of food and turkey leftovers that lasted for days and days were no longer attractive to them. And so Thanksgiving changed yet again; once we ordered a complete meal from Publix, and once while visiting in North Carolina we actually had our Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant. After my parents moved away from Florida, Greg and I sometimes had dinner at his sister’s house and once at his niece’s house – and I was introduced to turnip and potato mash and pierogi.

In 2015 Greg passed away and as Thanksgiving approached I realized how very much I loved the holiday and yet how very much I dreaded that day without him. I invited myself to a close friend’s house, and she and I went for Thanksgiving dinner to the Dillard House in the north Georgia mountains. We enjoyed the experience so much that we did it again the following year!

And then Thanksgiving changed again, and I actually spent the day all by myself. I was supposed to have gone to the Thanksgiving Bluegrass Festival at Sertoma Youth Ranch. Had my dish – my mother’s dressing, of course – all picked out and everything. But as much as I love bluegrass music, and as much as I love Sertoma Youth Ranch, at that time I did not expect to see anyone I knew very well … and I realized that I needed to be with family, or with friends who are like family.

Isn’t that what Thanksgiving is really all about? Evidently, it always was for me, even though I did not always truly recognize that fact. The past couple of Thanksgivings have been extremely quiet ones, spent with two very, very dear friends/neighbors, their dog and mine vigilantly waiting for a morsel to hit the floor, hilariously jockeying and maneuvering positions as they sized up which of us might be the messiest eater.

And here we are. Thanksgiving 2020. Where any of the above-described gatherings would not be particularly safe. I’ve been “sheltering” with cousins in North Carolina since the end of March, and so our small gathering, with the Maine Coon, Gwen, yowling for more servings of turkey and the Henry-Dog strategically parked underneath the table, was as safe as can be reasonably expected. The food was prepared by a couple of friends from our small circle, to be distributed among about a dozen of the circle. We all had our own Thanksgivings, enjoying artfully-prepared food in the safety of our respective homes.

If I’m honest, I missed the gathering, the assembly of family and friends who are like family. But this is not the first hard or unusual Thanksgiving of my life, and realistically speaking, it will not be my last. It … changed … is all, and I’m so proud of the friend who came up with the concept of a shared Thanksgiving that – for what is, hopefully, the one and only time – we did not share in each others’ company.

For me, personally, Thanksgiving will change again in 2021. But more on that in a future post …