For childhood memories of Thanksgiving

On the 24th day, I’m grateful for childhood memories of Thanksgiving.

Until the age of 12 or so, we spent every Thanksgiving at my uncle’s house in Memphis.

He was my Dad’s half-brother, from my grandmother’s first marriage, and he was 23 years older than older than Dad. After her first husband’s death, she had refused to remarry until her son was out of the house, as she thought it would be unfair to him, and from concerns that any new father would treat his step-son differently from his natural children. She had had a wicked step-mother herself, and knew the risks.

My uncle was a good man, tall and handsome, with shocking red hair and long deft fingers. He was a butcher, and had worked as a union meat cutter until he opened a barbeque restaurant, and was solidly middle-class. His wife was a short woman with a lot of improbable blonde hair that was always tortured into shape and held against its will by a generous application of some sort of shellac. Their grown daughter had married a musician, and while they all said the word “musician”, you got the sense from the way it was said they really meant to say degenerate.

Their house was a large brick colonial on a cul-de-sac, with a yard meant for looking at and not playing in. There was a room designated as the parlor, which children were not allowed to be in, and in which it seemed no one ever laughed. My aunt was a woman to whom propriety mattered, and who firmly believed children should be seen and not heard. Appearances were important to her.

I can only imagine how we wrecked her world when the folks from the country showed up, with their loud children and the huge station wagon, loaded down with the family from Mississippi. Every time I see the scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when the family arrives, I imagine it must have been a lot like that at my uncle’s house on Thanksgiving.

They had a dining room that one got the sense that nobody ate at the rest of the year, and it had a huge table, with place settings and food set out in bowls and trays, served family style. People who hadn’t prayed out loud in 364 days pronounced a blessing over the food, and we ate food that had attachments and memories: Aunt Louise’s cranberry sauce, Mom’s fudge pies, Jamie’s turkey.

After the meal, my uncle and the musician would watch football and Dad would sit in there with them, but he had no interest in the game. I would play with the other children that were there, upstairs, out of the way, while the women all talked in the kitchen and tried to put order to things, before we would all pack up and head back to the country, to our small rectangular home on 33 acres, where the plates did not match and we had no rooms one did not use and that had whole fields where one could run and romp.

When my Dad’s aunt died when I was 12, we quit going to my uncle’s for Thanksgiving. I’m not sure why, other than she was the one who sort of held the family together, and the bridge between the very urbane middle-class life my dad’s half-brother had, and the hand to mouth existence we had in rural Mississippi. My uncle died in 1993, 11 years or so after the last of those meals, and I haven’t seen any of his family since the funeral. I don’t know how any of them are doing, how they made out, anything.

Despite my having had at least 37 Thanksgivings since the last time I was at their house for Thanksgiving, those meals still represent the Platonic ideal of Thanksgiving for me, and what I picture in my head when I hear that you are having Thanksgiving at your house. They also sum up for me the best part of this holiday, whatever its trash colonial origins: Unlikely, complicated people coming together to celebrate each other and our common memories, all the while building better ones.

I hope you have a good time tomorrow, however and with whomever you are celebrating. And if you are the one hosting, go easy on yourself. Something will go wrong. And in 10 years, nobody will care at all, and all they will remember is that on that day, they were loved.

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