From Grief to Gratitude- Thanksgiving 2020

Like most everyone, our Thanksgiving plans have dwindled from a cast of thousands to two people and a sandwich. I can’t say that no tears were shed as we drifted towards this reality. But it was the right thing to do for the safety of all, and so I dipped into a bottle of Grief & Loss, put my big girl pants on and let everyone know that a family Thanksgiving gathering here was a no go.

Then I decided that instead of having a pity party of me, Jim and some cranberry relish, I would remember all the Thanksgivings memories I have and be grateful. Cue the Gratitude Essence.

When I was a kid, my three grandparents spent Thanksgiving at our home in Connecticut. My paternal grandfather, a lanky gentleman with a wonderfully bald head, travelled from Philadelphia the day before Thanksgiving. He never left Philly early enough to beat the traffic. Half a century before cell phones, we would get many calls from rest stops along the highway to report his glacial progress. “I’m backed up at the George Washington bridge.” was an annual call. He also drove the most enormous car which always seemed to arrive with a few more dents!

When my mother’s dinner was dried to a crisp, he would blow in with the biggest basket of fruit the earth could provide, a beribboned tower at least three feet high. This offering would not absolve him from my mother’s wrath, but us kids were happy to see him at any hour. He was a human jungle gym there for the climbing, and he had an impeccable sense of what kids found fun.

My other grandfather was the big deal grandfather with the stratospheric career (The patriarch with a capital P). He always carved the turkey. One year, he invested in an electric carving knife. Sadly he assembled it wrong, and it shredded the meat. As the slices fell away in clumps of gnarly gummy wads, he kept declaring what a fabulous improvement this was on the standard carving knife. He thought anything called progress was good, so he insisted on sawing the bird to pieces before acknowledging defeat. As he was big into teasing us, we were all delighted he had served up something we could tease him about forever.

One year we broke tradition and went to my grandparents in Massachusetts (Yes I know, only a New Englander could call it a “break from tradition” to go to a neighboring state). This was the infamous holiday when my grandmother served consomme madrilene, and all her grandchild thought their beloved grandma had gone wild and was serving us JELLO instead of the usual fancy fare. How she laughed when we choked on the salty stuff.

Then there was the Thanksgiving when the oven broke but no one noticed until dinner time. In an era when no stores were open on Thanksgiving, some sort of meat was dragged from the freezer, the hibachi was lit and we enjoyed a grilled meat of sorts. Nothing says Thanksgiving like stuffing with “steak”. This reminds me of another time when I was first married to Jim. His father tried to use his grill to cook the bird on some kind of jury rigged rotisserie. I well remember the flopping parts as the rotisserie turned as well as the eventual presentation at table of raw poultry.

Once I took over the reins of Thanksgiving, I especially enjoyed asking lots of people to dinner, sometimes strangers. One year a vague acquaintance came from Santa Fe. We had epic sledding that Thanksgiving and we spent the day yelling our heads off as we whizzed down our hill. Catherine endeared herself to us forever with her sledding antics. She and her husband, Michael, would come to Thanksgiving for the next couple of decades.

I actually met Michael at the next Thanksgiving. When I asked him what his family ate for Thanksgiving when he was a child, he said, “whatever I shot.” Thus I learned Michael was a Mohawk from the Hudson River valley of New York.

After 911 we invited a crowd of people who’s lives had been through the wringer. As we had just built our office building but hadn’t moved in, we decorated the space like a restaurant. It looked so beautiful with twinkling lights and a long, long table. My brother in law, Stephen, got seated next to a New York City native who somehow knew way too many plot spoilers for the Sopranos. He is still irritated about that.

Michael isn’t the only guest I’ve grilled about their childhood Thanksgiving menu. I think this is about the most interesting conversation one can have with anyone. People ALWAYS say, “the usual” then describe a menu that has unexpected twists and turns. It’s always a wonderful reminder that America is a melting pot.

Other than my grandmother’s “Jello”, the menu of my childhood was rather spartan. There was never any gravy and no more than two pies. Sides were bland things like peas and rice and the stuffing charmless. So when I got to be in charge I first rebelled with outside the box menus like paella. The paella year was a year when the house was packed with visitors, and my brother Sam decided to put his sneakers in the dryer at 2 am, waking everyone up. Ahh good times!

As the family grew and annual attendees revealed their talents, we returned to a more traditional menu with new exciting sides. Perennial guest Michael was a gravy master, so that became a fixture. His wife Catherine brought her Lebanese roots to the table with hummus, kibbeh, baklava and a rainbow of olives. Emily’s husband’s family comes from the mushroom territory of Kennett Square, PA, so Charlie got us going on sides with mushrooms.

When half the clan went vegan we found a way to navigate it all with a sense of humor. It could have been the Hatfields versus the McCoys, but we managed to make it more McHatCoyfields. Analog meats sat cheek by jowl with roast turkey and a heck of a lot of side dishes were earmarked “yes dairy” and “no dairy”.

And now we get to Thanksgiving 2020. In preparation, many moons ago, I purchased a potato ricer. I kept reading what a difference it made to the texture of mashed potatoes, but somehow I didn’t envision ricing potatoes for two. However, I am fortunate to have a new ricer and potatoes from the gardens and people I can connect to by facetime to show off my well riced mashed potatoes.

In considering my Thanksgiving memories, I notice they are mostly about funny things that happened. Thank goodness that in a few years, 2020 will be just a memory. For me, perhaps one with a funny story about a ricer and for all of us, I hope, a story of a safe holiday, different but safe.