A traditional American Thanksgiving festival

How did we arrive at Thanksgiving so soon? Granted, it’s early this year, coming on the twenty-second of the month, but still. It’s hard to believe it’s even November, let alone Thanksgiving. Naturally, I’ve been thinking of Thanksgivings past and trying to figure out what traditions, if any, have carried over into the present, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a single image that represents Thanksgiving.

My maternal grandparents usually went out for Chinese food on Thanksgiving. They both taught college and didn’t want to spend their time off cooking a big meal and then cleaning up after. Besides, they probably had papers to grade over the long weekend.

My paternal grandparents ran grocery stores and restaurants, so fixing big meals was no big deal for them. Mammaw made six to eight pies every morning before breakfast to take down to the restaurant to sell. I’m guessing they prepared their own turkey dinner “with all the fixin’s” at the grocery store, along with the other Thanksgiving dinners they catered.

What is tradition, anyway? If it means doing the same thing in the same way year after year, we certainly don’t have that. Most of my images of big family gatherings and tables laden with food–turkey with dressing, pumpkin pies, mashed potatoes and gravy–seem to be from movies, such as Home for the Holidays, about families that were even more dysfunctional than ours. But a few years do stand out from the rest.

There was the year my first husband and I hopped in our 1967 VW bug with our large dog (part collie and part shepherd) and drove 600 miles to South Carolina to spend Thanksgiving with my dad. The thing we didn’t realize was that dad and his wife Wanda were both on “the night shift.” The day we arrived he stayed up all night cooking the turkey, and when Wanda got off work at 7:00 a.m., she made the side dishes and pies. We ate about 11:00 and Immediately after we finished eating, they both got up from the table and went straight to bed.We didn’t see them again until 10:00 that night. In the meantime, Wanda’s son came in and ate all of the leftover turkey. After several days, we were ready to get home, but the engine threw a rod about an hour down the road and we were forced to return to dad’s trailer until we could make arrangements to get home.

Or the year we got caught in a terrible snowstorm on our way to visit friends in Holland, Michigan. We were driving a rambler at the time, which had some sort of vacuum-operated windshield wipers that worked perfectly fine when you were sitting in a snowbank but not at all when you were driving at any speed down the highway. However, I do have fond memories of a beautiful walk in the snowy woods with our friends and their four children after we finally arrived.

After we moved to Missouri, we usually drove back home to Kentucky for Thanksgiving, but sometimes we stayed at home, depending I suppose on the weather and how busy things were at school. I remember my mom and stepfather Ralph and my aunt and uncle coming to our house one time. I also remember a time or two when my first son Matthew was little, and I was in graduate school and teaching four sections of composition, we decided to go out for turkey dinner. Matthew was impressed with the white table cloths, the crystal goblets for his coke, and the enormous sparkling Christmas tree. I was just thinking my grandparents had had the right idea.

My in-laws Bill and Ann were big on tradition, and we spent several Thanksgivings at their place. They were big noisy affairs, with all of us crowded into a relatively small house, the kids wearing Indian headdresses made out of construction paper, the football game running in the background, and everyone talking at once. And lots and lots of food. Apparently Granny felt obligated to make extra dishes to cater to everyone’s tastes. She made two kinds of salads, one with and one without nuts. She made stewed oysters for her husband, which no one else would eat. She made several kinds of pie. But we all just lied to Uncle Tommy and told him the squash casserole was made with sweet potatoes (because he claimed he didn’t like squash).

Thanksgivings at my mother’s house were quieter affairs, with only the number of people who could fit around their dining room table easily and have a good dinner conversation. We would usually have turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, dinner rolls made from my aunt Grace’s recipe, broccoli, corn pudding, cranberry salad, and pie. We might take a second helping of our favorites, but we tried not to stuff ourselves. The day after Thanksgiving, we would go visit friends (former students of mom’s and Ralph’s) who lived way out in the country in a cabin they had built themselves, and we would take long walks and tell stories.

Then there was the year my younger son Isaac and I met mom in Rome, Italy, for Thanksgiving. Isaac and I had been joking for months about going to Italy for a good cup of cappuccino, so one day I thought I would check online and see how much that would actually cost. Turns out Expedia had a special for $850 each, which included the flight and four nights in a hotel, so we just decided to do it. Mom was in England that year on sabbatical, so I asked her, only half joking, if she wanted to meet us in Rome. And she did! It was awesome.

Another year Isaac and I spent Thanksgiving visiting friends who were on sabbatical in Tampere, Finland. That was also awesome. Our friends wanted to share a traditional American Thanksgiving with some of the Finns they had met that year, but they were not quite prepared for the challenges of finding all the ingredients they would need (canned pumpkin proved to be an especial challenge) or for the discomfort of carrying a frozen turkey in a backpack on the long walk home in the dark.

One year we went to Rochester, New York, and my son Matthew and his college roommates cooked Thanksgiving dinner. They exhausted themselves with the effort, and the rest of the visit is somewhat of a blur, although I do remember we got to meet his friends, including one he called “the troll who lives under the stairs.”

Another year we invited some international students to our house for what they called a “traditional American Thanksgiving festival.” They were very interested in all the food and how it was prepared, but they were troubled by the arrangement of our tables. We had pushed a rectangular table up against our oval table, so we could all sit together, but that meant there was no clear “head of the table.” At one point during dinner, the Chinese student said, “Do you mind if I ask how all of you are related?” We all paused and looked at each other, and laughed because we certainly were not your traditional American family. Jim and I were not yet married; around our Thanksgiving table that day we had my mother, my niece, my younger son, Jim’s sister, her boyfriend, a young woman from China, and another woman from Korea. And as my son so astutely observed, “None of us have the same last name!” No wonder the students were confused.

This year we are all spread out again but thankful for memories and family and friends.

My dad and Wanda are still in South Carolina. They are only having six people at dinner, dad says. Wanda’s son (who ate the whole leftover turkey that time) can’t come this year because of some industrial accident at his plant.

My niece and her two children drove from Pennsylvania to Kentucky to spend the weekend with mom.

My brother is probably having a big loud get-together with his wife’s children and grandchildren in Florida.

My son Isaac and his wife Sandra are in Oregon; they are having one couple over for dinner.

My son Matthew is in Georgia “hanging out with peoples.”

We are making a pumpkin pie and taking it to Hank and Marie’s, who always host a potluck dinner and Irish music session at their house for anyone who needs a home to go to.

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The happiest and the saddest day…

Every year on my birthday, for years and years, my mammaw would call to tell me she was thinking about me. She would always start off by saying, “This was the happiest and the saddest day of my life.” And then she would tell me about how my pappaw woke up the morning I turned six and said to her, “Today is our girl’s birthday.” And I could see in my mind’s eye the “life-size” doll that he had planned to give me, a “fashion doll” in a frilly formal gown, leaning against the wall in the corner of their upstairs apartment in Salyersville, Kentucky. At six years old, I preferred baby dolls but was fascinated that this doll, dressed in someone’s idea of a glamorous gown, could stand shoulder to shoulder with me.

I was the first grandchild and the only girl in the family for a long time. Eventually there would be eighteen of us cousins, but on that happiest and saddest day, the day my pappaw died, my sixth birthday, there were only four of us–me, my brother, and our cousins Randy and Timmy. What I know about that day is that my father was on his way back to Norfolk, where he was stationed in the Navy. I also know that dad and pappaw had parted on bad terms (they had recently fought, with dad refusing to get out of the Navy and take over the family grocery store). On the morning I turned six, pappaw suffered chest pains so severe that the family decided to drive to the nearest clinic, about an hour and a half over winding mountain roads.

These days doctors can save many people in my pappaw’s situation by putting in a stent or replacing a valve or performing a bypass or any number of other procedures that are so common we take them for granted. But back then, there was nothing to be done. My pappaw, who was only 49 at the time, died later that day. I don’t know if he died there at the clinic and the family had to bring him home somehow, or if he came home first with some sort of medication and then died later. I should ask my father about that. There was also at the time no email, no cellphones, no text messaging, no way to contact my dad and tell him he needed to turn around and come back for his father’s funeral, other than to send a Red Cross message, which he found on the pillow of his bunk when he returned to base. He thought it would be good news telling him his younger sister had had her baby, and he was shocked and saddened to read the contents of the brief message.

In my imagination, dad arrived by plane, in his dress white uniform, and I was thrilled to see him coming back to me so soon after he had left. But I couldn’t understand why he was crying. It was the first time I remember seeing him cry. The next thing I remember was my pappaw lying in a box in a formal living room for the visitation and all my aunts and uncles and great grandparents and second and third cousins, and cousins twice removed, and other people I didn’t know standing around in dark suits and Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, telling stories and occasionally laughing. At one point mammaw took me in to kiss pappaw goodbye, which seemed like the most natural thing to do and did not freak me out at all, although my mother, when she found out, was beside herself with worry over how it might damage me psychologically.

It has been nearly nine years since mammaw died. Although she remarried a widower who had twelve children of his own and remained married to him until he died, mammaw is now buried beside pappaw in the family plot, along with my baby cousin Connie, who died when she was only three days old. After all these years, I miss hearing mammaw tell me about her happiest and saddest day. Although everyone in the family obviously knew the facts of the matter–that pappaw died on my birthday–no one else ever brought it up. They did their best to let me have my special day and not mess it up with sad stories. But this year, when my dad called to wish me a happy birthday, it was as though he were channeling his mother, when he said, “You know this is a happy and sad day for me.”

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Thinking of my son on Veterans Day

On this day, my heart goes out to all the veterans and their families, especially those who have fought the longest wars in American history and continue to fight their own personal battles as they struggle to fit back in to a civilian world. I ache for the ones who can’t find jobs in this bad economy; who have trouble relating to the trivial concerns of civilian life; who have no response to the accusation from a spouse who says, “you’re not the person I married”; who seem to overreact when their kids fight over the video game controller; who withdraw into themselves; who feel inexplicably angry when someone thanks them for their service; who drink to try to take the edge off; who can’t sleep; who suffer from nightmares; who can’t sit through a movie in a darkened theater. I marvel at the discipline it takes to push through physical and mental pain as they learn to live with missing limbs and traumatic brain injuries. I feel incredibly guilty for all those times I felt too overwhelmed to think about the ongoing wars but had the luxury to be able to turn them off for a while–something none of the active duty service members or veterans could ever do.

When my son joined the Army just after 9-11, under a deferred enlistment program, I was heartbroken and at the same time immensely proud of him. I admired his courage, his desire to do something in response to the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, his willingness to sacrifice his own personal safety and comfort in the service of something larger than himself. If he had been a passenger on one of those doomed planes that day, he very well might have tackled the hijackers himself. He was a senior at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York at the time, majoring in criminal justice, and many of his friends and classmates knew someone personally who worked in the Towers or lived nearby or were in other ways directly affected by the attacks. Like many others of my son’s generation, they felt they had to take action; they couldn’t just sit around and do nothing after we had been attacked. I can only imagine the reactions in the residence halls and dining halls and classrooms that day in September in New York, when news of the attack first reached them. We were all so naive at the time and had no idea where things would lead.

Now, ten years and three deployments later, I still struggle to make sense of what has happened and what it means to us as a family, to our country, and to the world at large, but every day my admiration for my son grows stronger. He has lately begun to make the most incredible works of art. He creates mosaics using photos of the 6600+ servicemen and -women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. He arranges the faces of the dead to form large images of people and places he saw while deployed. I think his art is all the more powerful because for so many years he preferred the “practical arts” over other more expressive arts, and he tends to keep his feelings to himself. But now that he has opened this window into his experiences, I am blown away by their power. I will probably never know everything he has witnessed or hear all the stories he tells himself–he still tries to protect his mom that way–but I wish with all my heart that I could do something to lighten his load and let him and all the other veterans know how very sorry I am for what we put them through.

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Glorious weekend!

Don’t get me wrong. Even though this week was busier than I like–with something to do every evening after work–I had a great week. I had interesting things to do at the office, I learned something new every day, I played a lot of music, I got together with friends, I heard some good stories, I walked in the sunshine. I am just really glad it is Saturday, and I have the whole day ahead of me to catch up some things around the house and garden that I have let go for lack of time. Since the weather is predicted to be warm and sunny today, I need to make sure I spend plenty of time outside before the temperature drops tomorrow, even though the house is a complete wreck.

For weeks it seems, we have been running into the house after work, dropping things on the nearest flat surface, and running back out. It looks like crazy people live here. (I don’t even have children to blame for the mess.) There are two keyboards, two stands, a bench, a banjo, and a large canvas bag of dance cards and dance shoes in the middle of the living room floor. What is that about? We literally have no space on the dining room table to put our plates down when it’s time to eat. And the kitchen counter? Forget about it! It looks like the bottom of a hamster cage. Now that the political ads and the brochures from the cable companies have slowed down, the Christmas catalogs have started to arrive in force.

Jim and I switch off kitchen duties week by week. Lucky for me, last week was Jim’s turn to plan the menus, make the grocery list, cook, and clean up. Starting tomorrow it’s my week. On busy weeks like we’ve had recently, whoever is in the kitchen often ends up cooking one big meal and then reheating leftovers the rest of the week. Last week Jim made a delicious squash casserole and a three-bean casserole (both from Moosewood recipes), which got us through the whole week. The week before I made a roast in the crock pot, and we ate from it all week. Sometimes we try to disguise the leftovers (e.g., shred the beef and add sauteed onions and green peppers and roll it all in a tortilla; add extra carrots and potatoes and turn the roast into a stew). But the last two weeks, we just shamelessly heated the same dishes over and over until we had finished them off.

We are both pretty happy with the way we share kitchen duties and have been doing it this way for several years. It kind of sucks the week you’re doing everything, but then you get a whole week off where you don’t have to think about what to eat or make any motions toward cooking or feel guilty about not cleaning up after a meal. We do usually try to go to the grocery together, but the person who is in charge that week pushes the cart. We also do a good job sharing laundry, although we are not as organized about who does what when. One of us will wash and dry everything, but we each fold our own clothes. But in the fourteen years we have been together we have never worked out a system for taking care of other household chores, which could explain a lot about why the house is in the shape it’s in!

I used to think I had to dust and vacuum and mop and clean the bathrooms every Saturday, but I’ve since learned that is a complete myth. Possibly I was trying to impress my children at the time or trying to live up to some idealized view of how a good wife and mother should act (never mind that I held full-time jobs the whole time I was raising children). But lately I haven’t cared about dust and dirt as much as clutter, so I have started (again) to try to get rid of stuff I don’t need. My goal at some point is to have only things that are both useful and beautiful, but I am a very long way from meeting that goal. Still, one thing I have learned is that as long as I am making steady movement toward a goal, I will eventually get there. Even if I only knit one row a day (or one row a week), that is one row closer to finishing the project. It took me a year to make the last sweater. So far I have been working for two and a half years on an afghan for my son and his wife. But I’m getting there.

So…today. What to do? How to spend my precious allotment of time? Sitting here in my favorite chair, drinking my morning tea, I can already feel myself being torn in many different directions, making mental to-do lists that would be impossible to accomplish in a week (let alone a day). Lately when I feel overwhelmed and indecisive, I set a timer for 25 or 30 minutes and just start doing whatever first catches my attention. When the timer goes off, I am always surprised at how much I can accomplish in such a short time. I am also usually re-energized, ready to set the timer again.

Sometimes I work room by room (25 minutes in the living room, then 25 minutes in the den). Sometimes I work project by project (25 minutes straightening the linen closet or organizing my sewing supplies, followed by 25 minutes of raking leaves). This strategy (based on the Pomodoro system) works well when I have a whole lot of different kinds of things I want to do, but any one of them could take all day. It also works well for reminding me to take regular breaks and to tackle projects in smaller chunks. Rather than jump in and try to declutter the entire house in one weekend (which is impossible; I know because I’ve tried!), I focus on one drawer or one shelf or one task at a time. And then I remind myself that it’s like knitting. I might not have an immaculate, clutter-free, and well-decorated house by the end of the day, but I’ll be that much closer to my goals.

Wish me luck!

Oh the horror!

The Ragtag CinemaCafe has started another series of films from the Pre-Code era–The Creature from Forbidden Hollywood. For the next four Wednesdays, they will be showing a short series of horror films from the late 1920s and early 1930s, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Island of Lost Souls, The Unknown starring Lon Chaney, and King Kong. Many of the people attending this series are film buffs who have already seen these and more films of the era, but not perhaps on the big screen as they were intended to be seen. But for people like me, who are seeing some of these classics for the first time, we are very fortunate to have Lokke Heiss to set the context and guide us through discussions after the viewing.

The Hays Code technically went into effect in 1930, but it was not strictly enforced until 1934. The films that were banned or censored under the Hays code were not necessarily banned for their explicit sexual content, although there was plenty of that back in the day. Many of the films included sexual innuendo, promiscuity, prostitution, abortion, infidelity, but they also portrayed illegal drug use, organized crime, gangsters, violence, homosexuality, domestic violence, and other social and psychological issues. Films showed people breaking common standards of morality and getting away with it. Women were often powerful. The bad guys and the wanton women did not necessarily get punished. Sometimes crime did pay. Sometimes the gangsters were more heroic than villainous. Communities feared that such films would send the wrong message and encourage bad behavior.

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Even by today’s standards, some of these films are shocking. But I find them especially shocking when I think about how my grandparents would have viewed them, if given the opportunity. No wonder the Baptists were opposed to movies! All four of my grandparents were young adults during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, living in small towns in Kentucky. I have no idea if any of them ever watched movies, but I am fairly certain that their parents would have disapproved if they had.

My maternal grandparents graduated from college in 1920. For several years they taught in rural high schools and private academies. Later, they taught college: Grandmother taught sociology, marriage and the family, and her favorite, courtship and marriage. Grandaddy taught business and economics. My paternal grandmother was a teenager in the nineteen-twenties, growing up in the mountains, and heavily involved in local and state politics. Pappaw, a merchant, was a few years older than Mammaw and ran grocery stores throughout his life. I suspect all of them would have been horrified at the content of the films of the day.

The first film of the Forbidden Hollywood series was Dr. Jekyll (pronounced Jee-kil) and Mr. Hyde (1931) starring Fredrik March, which raises all kinds of disturbing questions about the dual nature of humans, about evil, about man’s relationship to God, about domestic violence, and more.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the basic plot, here is Bugs Bunny’s interpretation in Hyde and Hare.

I really should get a hobby

My mother and I have lately taken to texting or emailing each other to set up an appointment to talk, because we are both so busy we can no longer just pick up the phone and expect the other one to be available. But this week was particularly nutsy. For someone who enjoys spending evenings at home reading or knitting or puttering around the house, I have managed to fill up every night with at least one activity. Part of the busyness is because I am playing in a band for the English Country Dance on Friday, so we scheduled extra rehearsals this week. But that was no reason to fill up the rest of the evenings, sometimes with more than one activity. Here’s how my week looks (so far):

Monday–Band rehearsal
Tuesday–Book club to discuss the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, followed by a callers’ party (where dance callers try out new dances on willing volunteers)
Wednesday–Meet with the interior designers about turning our den into a space for dance and music; and then go watch a silent movie of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Ragtag CinemaCafe
Thursday–Band rehearsal
Friday–English Country Dance
Saturday–Square Dance
Sunday–Family Dance at Lee Elementary School

Mom’s schedule was just about as full, with lunches and birthday parties for her best friend and a trip to the car dealer to see about that “check engine” light, on top of all her regular activities. She and two of her friends have written a novel together and have been doing book signings and readings, as well as working on their next book. We’ve decided that instead of one long phone call like we prefer, we will try to catch up through a series of shorter calls during my breaks at work.

Why I won’t be moving anytime soon

Before we bought the house I am now in, I had moved twenty-five times in about as many years. For the first eight years of my life, my dad was in the Navy, so of course we moved every time he was transferred to a new duty station: to Nova Scotia, then Florida, then California, then Tennessee, criss-crossing the country. When he had shore duty, my mother and brother and I moved with him; when he was at sea, we returned to my grandparents’ house in Kentucky while we waited for his ship to return. At the early age of two, I learned to hold tight to my favorite doll on moving day and not lay her down even for a moment, lest she get packed into a box and disappear for a year or more.

Even after dad got out of the Navy, we continued to move every eighteen months, as though he were still receiving orders to ship out. Those were unhappy years for my parents, but I didn’t know that at the time. Usually we just moved from one rental house to another, so I didn’t have to change schools that often. But I must surely hold some kind of record for having lived in the most houses that have since been torn down and turned into parking lots. (When we used to go back to my hometown and I would point out the places where I used to live, my children thought I had actually lived in the parking lots.) There was the two-story house my grandparents owned on Jackson Street, the three-story mansion on Hamilton Street, the small frame house on Clayton Avenue that we rented from the college, the large farmhouse across the tracks, the two-story bungalow on Willis Avenue, and the one-story bungalow on Walnut Street. Possibly there were others that I am not aware of.

Now I find it almost impossible to believe that I have been in the same house since 1989. And it’s not because it was my dream house or anything. There are plenty of things not to like about this house. In fact, if I had known I would end up staying here so long, I would have bought a different house, one with more character, more yard, less suburbia. One with an actual garage that was attached to the driveway and not bizarrely located down the steps. I do like the wooded back lot, however. You’d think, though, that having moved so often in the past, I would have plunked my furniture down here and refused to move another thing. But instead, over the years I have completely rearranged the house numerous times. I’m not talking about moving the couch from one wall to the other. I’m talking about completely repurposing rooms over and over again. Maybe, like my dad, I’m still searching for something I can’t find, only within a smaller frame of reference.

Now that the children have grown, and it’s just the two of us most of the time, our latest plan is to turn the downstairs den into a space where we can hold old-time music jams and square-dance parties. But obviously, we won’t be dancing and playing music all the time, so I’d also like it to be a multi-purpose room, where we can sit by the wood stove and read or knit or work on projects. We need an open space for dancing, but we also need decent storage and work space for our projects. We need plenty of straight-backed chairs for musicians, but we also need comfy chairs for reading. We need a smooth surface for dancing, but we also need rugs for the coziness factor.

Last spring we hired a contractor to take out a wall (one we had actually put in ourselves years ago to make a bedroom for my older son when he was a teenager and needed to get away from his little brother). Before the contractor came, we had to move everything out of what had been a fairly traditional bedroom and a den (in the bedroom a queen-size bed, a dresser, a wardrobe, and large shelves full of boxes of things left behind by the boys when they moved out; in the living room a love seat, a rocking chair, a coffee table, a television and stand, shelves and shelves of books, a NordicTrack; and in the “hall” between the two a chest freezer and a four-drawer file cabinet). Now that the space has been cleared out, we are trying to be very thoughtful about what we move back in.

I have decided this challenge definitely requires a professional, so I have made an appointment with a designer this week. I have great hopes that he will be able to come up with an awesome plan. The same designer picked out a fabric for a wing chair I had reupholstered last summer, and I am loving it. It was exactly the right fabric, but I didn’t know it until I saw the chair next to my stone fireplace.

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