My Father and the Bird

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My Father and the Bird.

And I don’t mean Charlie Parker, the reknown jazzman. No, the bird in this case was the annual Thanksgiving Turkey.

My father grew up thinking very little of birds. He and his brothers (one of whom became a hunting guide in Nova Scotia) shot rabbits occasionally. Not in their Pittsburgh neighborhood of Mount Lebanon, heaven forbid! That was a relatively upscale and thoroughly civilized neighborhood. No guns. His father, the minister and lawyer for the Italian people, the tribal leader, never would have countenanced shot guns stacked beside the door. Maybe in the garage, but never in the sanctuary of the home.

But there are photos of my father and one of his younger brothers at their prep school, Gettysburg Academy, with rabbits strewn at their feet and shot guns upended as staffs of honor. Then when he visited my mother’s North Dakota family for Thanksgiving, he shot rabbits and draped them over the front of a mean-looking sedan. Snow on the ground, lace-up boots on his feet, and a smirk on his face. Mighty Hunter!

In fact, he was finicky beyond belief. I can laugh now, but his precautions and admonitions about cleanliness and right behavior used to send my mother, sister and me into spasms of frustration. When it came time to bring home the turkey, the grocery store was the source and my mother the conveyor. She upended the bird in the sink, made sure all the pin feathers had been removed, cleaned out the cavity, put the gibblets to boil on the stove,and set the carcass in the roaster ready for the oven. “Maxine, are you sure you’ve thoroughly washed that bird?” my father would caution, as if it hadn’t already passed through several stages of denaturing, as if it still carried barnyard dirt between its toes.

When we leafed through Ideals Magazine during summer visits to Papa Max in North Dakota, images of Thanksgiving always showed Father at the head of a snow-white table studded with family and relatives, while Mother lowered the bird in front of him. At our family Thanksgivings in Charleston, South Carolina, our Midwestern mother acted this role to perfection, her arms reaching around my father with the platter and the beautifully browned bird. At that point, however, he did not take up the carving tools and ask us to pass our plates. In fact, she stepped to one side of him and commenced to loosen the drumsticks, slice open the breast, and excavate stuffing to mound in a bowl. “Your father has no sense of anatomy,” she would explain later with a touch of self-satisfied superiority. “He can never find the joints.”

Then, after this ritual they’d silently worked out (unlike many other alterations of expected male/female roles which invoked loud protests on my father’s part), she took her place at the foot of the table, and my father did indeed ask us to pass our plates. Often we were entertaining Citadel cadets or faculty members, stranded without family for the holiday. My father’s joviality increased. He was truly thankful for bounty that could be shared, for evidence that many of the flock had gathered, and for what, as he would say, “the Lord has provided.” Then we would bow our heads, and afterwards raise a glass in Thanksgiving.

I can see him now, light from the candles glinting on his glasses, his wide Italian mouth open in a grin, while we all follow his direction and lifted our tumblers of milk or water or wine, saluting with appreciation the flame around which we congregate. At the other end of the table, my mother is smiling her soft, girlish smile, reserved for moments like these, when all her work is done, when she can retreat into shy reserve, and enjoy the gregarious, slightly deranged bird she has married.

Whatever other configuration my own Thanksgivings take, this is the model against which they all are measured.

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