By Cecil Hoge
In this dynamic, disconcerting, dyslexic, deluded, deficient, dysfunctional, dismal, delightful, decadent digital age, it is nice to think that there are still some normal family traditions that prevail. One of them is Thanksgiving.
My wife prepares for this annual event about 6 months before its actual occurrence. Much goes into her planning. Deciding on what size turkey, deciding on what relatives to invite, deciding if she is up to such an effort. Now in the case of this particular Thanksgiving, my wife let events overtake her.
She had proclaimed to me that this was to be our Thanksgiving, alone with just my son and herself. She came to this conclusion since she speculated that none of her sisters would attend. For this reason, she let her usual advance planning slide. Why, for example, order a turkey when there might only be three people to eat the turkey. I agreed with my wife’s logic, even if I was not convinced of the actual outcome. You might say that I had heard this kind of commentary before. Many is the family event that, not 15 minutes after the last family member left, that my wife said, never again.
As Thanksgiving drew close, my wife decided to invite 2 of our closest friends. That was one married couple, the Allens and they accepted. That meant we would be 5 for Thanksgiving. Since there are not many turkeys designed to be eaten by 5 people, my wife held off from ordering a turkey. My wife likes to buy things in advance. And when she does she tends to buy things in bulk, always proclaiming what a value the bulk purchase is. So in the case of this particular Thanksgiving, my wife, in a rare moment of indecision, did not prepare anything for Thanksgiving until about 6 weeks before.
Around that time, my wife began to get family remorse. Family remorse is kind of like buyer’s remorse, except it works in reverse. Instead of returning something, you take back something. So, in order not to make any long lost sisters feel left out she called each, knowing full well that they would say they could not make it because of other plans. So that is what my wife did. She called her two sisters and sure enough they both said there was no way that they could make it.
About this time, our two friends called to ask if they could bring along two of their daughters and a friend of the children. My wife immediately accepted knowing that we getting close to the required quantity for eating a turkey. So now the 5 were 8. And then one of her sisters called to say she and her husband could make it after all. That made 9.
Seeing the trend, we invited my brother John and his girlfriend, Figen. Voila, we were now 11. I could see a good-sized turkey coming down the pike. Then my wife’s sister called and asked if her son and girlfriend could tag along. That made 13. Then my wife, throwing caution to the wind, decided to invite her niece, her niece’s husband and her grand-niece. Now, we were up to 16. Suddenly, we were in traditional turkey fest territory.
That meant a flurry of ordering stuff from hin and yon. Since we no longer go to our local supermarket, that meant going online and ordering a vast array of different foods, condiments and drinks from the local food delivery service. The turkey itself was to be ordered from some special turkey farm and my wife, always in fear of coming up short when it comes to food, ordered a 24 lb. turkey.
Events were moving fast, duties were being divided up. My wife would handle the turkey, the string beans, stuffing, gravy, salad and some of the deserts etc., while my wife’s friend, Donna, would handle the mashed potatoes, turnips a different kind of stuffing, and most importantly, the sweet potatoes garnished with melted marshmallows, and more of the deserts. I was getting hungry just thinking about all these wonderful preparations.
During this period of preparation, I was left free to attend to work and paddling on the water when it was warm enough. To be sure, I was warned that there would major duties coming up. I was assigned buying the wine and picking up various needed supplies. If you think I got off scot-free, think again because there were other unwritten duties to be accomplished. These included pulling out various cooking utensils and cooking devices from dark, rarely explored areas of our basement. It also meant gathering chairs of various descriptions, sweeping the porches of recently fallen leaves, removing garden utensils from the garden and placing them in other dark places in the basement.
That was not the half of it. The summer furniture had to be covered or removed to the basement…that included the 2 rocking chairs and table chairs for the outside table. The pool implements that had been left on the back porch had to be removed and again placed in the nether regions of the basement. The long-lost electric pump had to be found and then placed on the pool cover and excess water had to be drained away. In short, the Honey Do duties never seemed to end.
Four weeks before Thanksgiving, my wife and her friend kicked to high gear, ordering pies galore, cookies, cakes…and other foods with high caloric values. In between, I was being sent off for various jobs…clearing the porches, sweeping the porches, gathering firewood, filling the bird feeder with seed, bringing up long-lost coolers from the basement to augment the space for chilled food that would not fit in the two quite large refrigerators that were always on duty.
I know you may minimize my duties and say that the real work was done by my wife and most probably she would agree, but to me, in between going to an office each day of the week, trying to get a reasonable amount of exercise on a regular basis, this all seemed like quite a lot.
But as things will, time passed and we came closer and closer to the actual event. I successfully completed most of my assigned tasks and was able to secure the wine on the evening before Thanksgiving.
The morning of the day itself, I knew any attempt to veer off into some other preferred activity, like scanning e-mails or going for a freezing paddle, would be hopeless, so I resigned myself to the duties before me. And I also wisely asked my wife periodically what else I might do, knowing full well that I would probably be presented more new duties.
And so it was that I found myself peeling mushrooms. To tell you the truth, I never heard of anyone peeling mushrooms and I had apparently successfully navigated 75 years of life without ever peeling a mushroom or even hearing about anyone else peeling a mushroom or, perhaps, I just conveniently forgot that people peeled mushrooms. Whatever. My wife explained that you have to peel mushrooms, especially on Thanksgiving, and so I was obliged to learn the art. By the way, the mushrooms were to be used in the gravy and in the stuffing, which was all news to me.
Peeling mushrooms is not as difficult as one would think. It was a two-step process. First, you have to remove the inner stem. Then you have to peel from the inside of the inner circle where the stem was. You can do it with your thumb and forefinger or you can do it with a knife. Either way, you grab a flap of the outer mushroom and peel away. It is kind of like peeling an onion without tears or the smell. You pull off one layer and underneath is another layer without any of the scum and dirt that was on the outer layer.
If I say so myself, after a few minutes of practice, I got pretty proficient. I was plucking out stems, peeling layers of the mushroom like real pro in about 30 minutes, which was just about the time it took to get through the allotted batch of mushrooms that my wife had designated for Thanksgiving.
After that task proved so easy, I foolishly volunteered for the next task at hand. This turned out to be slicing string beans. Now I cannot claim I never heard of slicing string beans. It seems to me I have actually done that from time to time. So I sat down with my wife and we both sliced string beans for the next 20 to 30 minutes. My wife explained that we would not have to do this if the string beans were fresh out of a garden. No, in that case, all you would have to do would be wash the string beans and snap off the ends. But in this case, the string beans did not come from the garden – they came in a nice hermetically sealed plastic bags.
The bag said they were pre-washed, but my wife, always a stickler for cleanliness, insisted on washing them again and then slicing them. It was important to slice off the ends of the string beans at an angle. I am not sure why, but my wife assured me it was important and like an obedient husband, I followed my wife’s instructions to the T. Within 30 minutes we had sliced all the string beans and my wife pronounced our task completed.
That completed extra-curricular duties on Thanksgiving. My wife said I could now go back to the more manly tasks of setting out chairs in the living room and setting up the drink table just outside the door the dining room to the porch.
All these domestic duties reminded me of my Uncle Hamilton referred to as “the division of duties between a man and a woman”. A couple of things have to be understood about my uncle Ham. He came from a time when the division of duties between men and women were regarded somewhat differently. In my uncle’s mind, the man’s duty consisted of providing an income and housing for his wife and family while the wife’s duty consisted of taking care of kids and the home and being sure that all domestic tasks were done.
Of course, that is not quite the way it worked out within his own family. In fact, his wife was more generally bringing in the majority of income, although there were times in his career that he did bring in a good income for his family. Later in life, however, it turned out that his wife had a real gift for business management and she ended up being the social director of the Museum of Modern Art, which meant that sometimes I got invited to these bigwig celeb parties and almost always my uncle got to come, sip scotch whiskey, smoke Camel cigarettes and talk about his prowess on the tennis court at those same parties.
My uncle Hamilton was not a man from this presently politically correct period. He liked to talk about what he referred to as “the new crop”.
“There is a new crop that comes along every…it is the way of world and it is wonderful.”
What he was referring to was beautiful young ladies coming of age. Hamilton was a great admirer of beautiful ladies. He was also a true gentlemen. He did not walk into rooms that ladies present in his bathrobe or without his bathrobe. Nor did he have a button installed in some room that locked a door and prevented young ladies from escaping his attentions. No, Hamilton was gentleman of the old school. Yes, he would ogle beautiful young ladies, smile at them, chat them up, while standing in a handsome Tweed jacket and Lilly Pulitzer pants, sipping his scotch and pulling on a Camel cigarette.
It seems that I have strayed from the subject at hand.
Returning to my own situation this Thanksgiving, it was understood that I was there to help out with gathering materials and goods for the gathering, but generally I was left out of physical preparations of vegetables and turkey and stuffing. This for a good reason…because I was not very good at cooking things and moreover I lacked the management skills to do such things on any kind of schedule.
So peeling mushrooms and slicing string beans were generally out of my wheelhouse. That said, I thought that I did a magnificent job and I am pretty sure my wife was happy to get some real, down in the trenches help with the cooking preparations. Perhaps more importantly, just the physical acts of peeling mushrooms and slicing string beans gave me a true sense of being useful and helping with getting the Thanksgiving bounty on the table. Best of all, in a little under an hour, I had completed these duties and could return to more manly duties, such as crumpling newspapers and putting sticks and logs in the fireplace.
By 11 a.m. our friends the Allens had arrived complete with their set of supplies. This included sweet potatoes glazed with marshmallows, turnips, cookies and more pies. I put their pies next to the several other pies we had along with several banana bread offerings my wife had made.
That of course was interrupted by various impromptu duties which seemed to arise every few minutes to move tables, carry sodas outside to the drink table, set up chairs and put soda, seltzer, white wine in the two over large coolers used to augment our two completely loaded refrigerators. We did get some time to sit and chit-chat and eventually we even received permission to bring out some cheese and other crudities.
By 11 o’clock the first guests began to arrive. Strangely enough this was well before the predicted arrival of guests. My wife, who likes to start things early predicted her family members would arrive between 2 and 3. But she was wrong. First to come after the Allens was my wife’s nephew, Sam, and his girlfriend, Jennifer. Shortly, thereafter my wife’s sister along with her husband, Steve. Then came the two daughters of the Allens, Deloris and Jasmine, and their friend. All of this brought more new duties…hanging up coats, lighting the fire, getting drinks, bringing out cheese plates, crackers, veggies plates and other crudities. And of course, it gave me and Chuck a chance to dig into some of these early eats, which, I am proud to say, we did with relish.
As time went on, more guests began to arrive…Bernadette, Sam’s sister, her husband, Stephen, and Stefanie, their 16-year-old daughter. Dutifully, I would hang up coats, take drink orders, pass around the crudities plate. By and by, my brother, John, and Figen, his girlfriend arrived. Again, I hung up coats and took drink orders.
Around 3:00, we all sat down and began to eat.
Before doing so, I had to attempt to carve the turkey. That is another activity that is out of my wheelhouse, but I tried my best. My wife’s father was an excellent carver of turkey and other meats. Me not so much. Since my wife’s father had passed on and was not present, I had to do my best to fill his illustrious shoes. Understandably, my carving was not good enough and was either too thick or too thin slices. I will never claim to be a good carver. Alas, it was my duty to provide and provide I did, even if 90% of the slices were not perfect.
So we had two tables set for the guests to sit down at and a long table where the food was laid out and a drink table just outside the dining room door. This large food table included a large list of traditional foods. Turkey, of course, stuffing, of course, mashed potatoes, of course, sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows, string beans, mushrooms, salad, gravy by the gallons, cranberries, cranberry sauce, biscuits, banana bread, butter, plates and utensils for all of the above and so on.
When everybody had gotten together all of the food they could possibly heap on their plates, we all sat down. I gave a little speech saying that this had not been the easiest year, citing my wife’s and my son, Joshua’s operations, repeated doctor visits and other difficulties. In spite of all, I said we managed to get through and were very grateful. In summary, I said we had much to be thankful about and I was grateful we had this opportunity to gather as family and friends. And so I gave thanks to the Lord for letting all this happen and then I sat down and we all dug in.
Well, as in Arlo Guthrie’s song, Alice’s Restaurant, we had everything we ever wanted, excepting Alice of course. Everyone ate too much and then everyone came back for seconds. After the big dinner, the 6 pies (my wife claims that I have been exaggerating the true number)and cookies were brought out (I had lost count) and all imbibed in more high calorie dishes. After dinner and dessert was finally finished, we all sat in the living room, told tales, reminisced about the last year and this year, laughed and cried, chatted and yelled and generally had a fine old-time.
When the time came for the guests to leave, they all did so respectfully and lovingly, hugging each other, vowing to see each other more often during the next year. In short, we all had a truly fine Thanksgiving.
Eventually, after loading and unloading the dishwasher about 7 times, gathering plates, putting away plates, gathering glasses and putting away glasses, filling several garbage cans with the leftover residue, everyone left and my wife, I and our son were left in the peace and quiet of our home.
Of course, any Thanksgiving dinner is an undertaking and this was no different. And no doubt, my wife was responsible for about 90% of the work and planning. Nevertheless, I felt a warm feeling, thinking that in my limited way, I had contributed and that the evening had gone, just as should, happily and merrily, enjoyed by all.
All of this got me to thinking that family gatherings and Thanksgiving in particular are very underrated. So this is a story in praise of Thanksgiving.