In the Norman Rockwell version, a huge bronzed turkey lies on its side under carving knife and fork wielded by the family patriarch, while up and down a long table wait the solemn yet rosy faces of three generations. Way too sedate and poised. Let’s imagine wild arrivals, shaking off snow or rain, snack table plundered by two boys under five, household pots and pans reassigned as head gear, discussion of whether The Wizard of Oz is too scary for this fledgling generation, the pork roast in milk (Italian-style) refusing to boil off sufficiently, two cooks jockeying for place at the stove, a milk spill, a first 2-year-old attempt at the potty, more arrivals, coats piled on banisters and newel posts, etc. etc. By the time we all sit down–all ten of us (some arranged on a card table nearly in the living room), what with a little spat between oldest and middle generations about whether to light the ceiling fixture–oldest insists on low romantic light– finally finally the dishes are handed round–and what I taste is indecipherable.
That is, until the pecan pie. Not until that crunchy, silky sweet enters my mouth am I sure I have eaten.
My parents rarely entertained large family groups. We were removed, all the way south in Carolina, while their relatives stayed up north, the closest in Washington, D.C. So, they invited in stray Citadel cadets or friends without their own local ties. Now that I’m edging into their age, when I can appreciate their situation other than a backdrop for my own struggles and triumphs, I see that acquiring a suitable crowd around the Thanksgiving table created anxiety and hope. They were very glad when one of their daughters came home for the holiday.
We’re such a huge country. Going west or north, east or southwest sends relatives far away. I remember leafing through an old magazine called Ideals, which had found its way into Papa Max’s home in Hankinson, North Dakota. In an autumnal scene of falling leaves, with cornucopia spilling fruits and nuts, corn stalks studding fields like a pliant army, and cattle lowing before a barn, yes a turkey too with its tail feathers spread in colorful fan and its wattles jiggling like loose skin on an old lady’s neck–in this image, a wagon carried a family toward the farmstead house. The company, aunt and uncle with cousins, had spent hours on the road, but they arrived just in time for a late afternoon dinner, the patriarch poised over the turkey bronzed and eatable, with shining faces turned toward him.
That’s the ideal we strive for. Abundance of kin as much as weight of foodstuffs on the table. Under the hail-fellow-well-met of the American character, under the recent revival of cantankerous political argument, under our celebration of abundance lies the hope of surviving in a foreign land. The first Thanksgiving gave thanks for learning how to plant and harvest corn and possibly other Native American foodstuffs like squash, for a successful hunt of deer and turkey, for friendship among strangers. I raise a glass in recognition of those who were not with us this Thanksgiving, the sister, brother, and cousins on various coasts, the many friends spread over the continent. Those who draw up to the table a solitary companion whose warmth and concern lights candles in their hearts. I hope they know that I, far away in the northland, hold them dear.