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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Enjoying the quiet while it lasts

The grandchildren will be here any time, and I am taking the opportunity to sit and relax for a bit before they arrive. It won’t be this quiet for a while.It has been a busy day for all of us. My son arrived last night from Georgia just before dark and then got up at daybreak to drive halfway across Kansas to pick up his kids, who have also been riding in the car all day, having left Colorado Springs early this morning with their mother. My husband left about 3:00 to go call a dance in Rolla, Missouri tonight (he claims he will be back eventually).

I have been trying to remember how to cook for children and have been to the farmers market and the grocery store to stock up on cereal and goldfish crackers and bananas. It’s been a long time since I had to cook for picky eaters, and the list of foods that the youngest grandchild will eat, according to his mother, seems rather limited. Fortunately, I found a website by a mom who has four children and who kindly publishes her kid-tested weekly menus and grocery lists. So I picked a set of menus for the next two weeks, and we’re just going to go with those. I don’t want to argue about food or spend all my time filling special orders, as though this were some sort of restaurant. I’d rather spend our time having fun together. I don’t mind changing my cooking habits while they are here (I’m not going to make them eat navy beans with chard, for example, or anything with tofu), but I can’t guarantee that what I cook will taste exactly like what they’re used to. When my children were young, my main rule at dinner time was, “If you don’t want to eat what’s on your plate, fine. Don’t talk about it. Don’t say Ew Yuck. Just ignore it. But this is what’s for dinner tonight.”

I have also been making a list of things we could do while the children are here, but the heatwave this past week (up to 107 on Thursday) has kind of thrown me for a loop. Of course, the heat makes water activities a lot more appealing, but it might dampen the enthusiasm for walking around the zoo or farm. We are fortunate to live in a college town, where there is a lot to do. Some of the activities going on in and around  town the next two weeks include:

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a brief adaptation by two professional actors from Hamstead Stage Company, put on at the public library.
  • Fun-Tastic Classics with the Missouri Symphony, also at the public library.
  • This Land is Your Land” Family Concert at the Missouri Symphony
  • Kids Series, “World of Art: Found Objects” at the Museum of Art and Archeology
  • Fourth of July “Fire in the Sky” and Children’s Activities
  • Family Summer Camp at Bass Pro
  • Outdoor movies and concerts
  • Numerous parks, including a couple with splash parks

Only a short drive away, there are many farms we could visit, including Warm Springs Ranch, where 16 baby Clydesdale horses were born this year.

In Hannibal, Missouri, they will be celebrating the 57th Annual Tom Sawyer Days, complete with fence-painting contests, frog-jumping contests, a “Mighty Miss” raft face, concerts, and more.

And there is always bowling, fishing, swimming, picnicking, going to movies, going to the river, camping out, biking, hiking, caving, and so on, depending on how adventurous we feel.

On days when we want to stay home, my grandaughter has asked if I would teach her to sew, and we can come up with lots of other games and crafts and stories to fill the time.

We are also only two hours from either St. Louis or Kansas City, so we could take any number of day trips while the children are here to visit the zoo, Lego Land, the Steamboat Arabia Museum, Six Flags, the Botanical Garden, the Science Center, Grant’s Farm, or take a ride on the light rail train.

With all these things to do, I bet the grandchildren will hardly notice we don’t have a television or video games. What do you think? (I’ll let you know how that theory works out. Did I mention the children are 14, 12, and 8 years old?)

Reinventing our living space

When we first moved into our house many years ago, my sons were 9 and 2 years old, and the downstairs made a perfect den for two growing boys–finished enough to look civilized but not so fussy that I worried about damage. We put down a heavy-duty industrial carpet that refused to show dirt. The holes in the wall behind the dart board could be patched easily enough. The furniture could be reupholstered. The downstairs was the kids’ zone. Over the years the den has been transformed many times to suit their changing needs. At one time the room featured a pingpong table and mini trampoline. There was plenty of room to set up race tracks or electric trains or make tents with sheets and light-weight blankets over the furniture. Later, the entertainment center took over, as the kids gathered their friends around to watch movies or play video games.

Likewise, the bedrooms in the house changed over the years to meet the changing needs of the family. At first my older son liked the room tucked away in the back downstairs, away from meddling little brother and parents. But before too long, he felt lonely and wanted to move upstairs with the rest of the family. We gave the boys the 11 x 22 foot master bedroom, with their bunk bed set down the middle to delineate Matt’s side from Isaac’s side of the room, and we parents took the smaller room next door, which at least had the advantage of windows facing the woods, so we woke to morning sun and birdsong.

Eventually, though, little brother was 7 years old and big brother was 13 and very much needing his privacy, so we decided to put up walls in the den and build him a room of his own.  However, before we could finish building his room,  his 13-year-old cousin Melissa came to live with us. The boys still shared the big room upstairs, and technically, we had a spare bedroom downstairs that we could have put Melissa in, but we wanted her to feel welcome, so the adults moved bedrooms again–this time downstairs to the room in the basement that Matt had started out in. (We doubted very seriously that we would feel “lonely” down there but were certainly willing to take our chances.)

Years later, the kids have moved on and built lives for themselves. Matthew is 32 and a captain in the Army, with one son and two stepchildren. Isaac is 26, married, and finishing up his PhD in molecular biology. Melissa is 32, a registered nurse, with a 3-year-old and a new baby on the way. I have remarried, and it’s time to transform the house again to fit our new lives. Although it feels like moving backwards in some ways (and I feel somewhat bad about losing a space that was so important at the time), we have taken the walls back out to open up the space again. We took up the carpet and painted the floor, boxed in the duct work and the support poles, replaced the ceiling tiles, put in additional lights, and added a 3-way switch at the bottom of the stairs (and by “we,” I mean the contractors who actually know how to do these things, as opposed to the earlier remodeling project that we did ourselves and which took months, if not years, to finish).

We have in mind a place we can have people over to play music and dance, but we still have extra bedrooms for family to spend the night.

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My Three “Only” Children

I can’t believe I haven’t written about my children yet. They are without a doubt my favorite topic of conversation and my main claim to fame. I have never been particularly ambitious and still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I always knew I wanted to have children. And I definitely got some good ones. They are extremely intelligent, funny, compassionate individuals. They are also hard-working, independent, moral beings, who hold high standards and care about the common good. Even if they weren’t related to me, I would like and admire these people. Together they have taught me many of the important things I know.

My older son, Matthew, is a captain in the Army and the most serious of the three, but he has a wicked sense of humor and a way of looking at the world that shines a bright light on absurdity and hypocrisy. He enjoys collecting photos of signs that are just “wrong” and sharing them on Facebook. Recently, he asked me, “Am I the only one that sees these things?” The fact that he has maintained any sense of humor at all is rather miraculous, after three deployments to war zones in the past ten years (twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan). He was in college in New York when the Trade Center towers came down, and he enlisted immediately under a deferred enlistment plan, determined to do something in response. He reported for duty the day after he graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology. Over the years he has taught me much about perseverance and indomitable spirit.

Melissa is a nurse and the mother of a three-year-old son Ian. Technically, Melissa is not my child, but she lived with us for several months when she and Matthew were both thirteen, so I claim her anyway. For years she has called me Aunt Mom (and now her son calls me Aunt Grandma). Her husband thinks that makes us all sound like a bunch of hicks, but I love it. These days, she is doing an amazing job balancing her work as a nurse with raising an energetic three-year-old and maintaining a house. This week she posted on Facebook that the plumber was coming “to save her basement from the poop fountain.” Melissa has taught me that even when life really sucks, you can still maintain your positive outlook and sense of humor. She is one of the most open, generous, and kindhearted people I know.

Isaac, the youngest, is a PhD student in molecular biology, currently spending his second season in Antarctica doing research, but he has never let hard work get in the way of a good time. He makes friends everywhere he goes and has never run short of ideas for fun things to do. Many of the photos I have seen from McMurdo Station in blogs and on Facebook show him playing guitar or dressed up in a fish costume at the Halloween party or standing out in the snow for an Occupy Antarctica photo shoot. Isaac enjoys life and has always just assumed things would go his way. More often than not, they do. When he was in middle school, he once asked if he could have money for a field trip. When I asked how much money and where they were going, he said nonchalantly, “$1000. France.” His wife is meeting him in Sydney, Australia, in December, when he comes off the Ice. From him I have learned that friends are important, and it “never hurts to ask for what you want.”

I am so thankful that these wonderful young people are part of my life. The world is a better place because they are in it.

Time to Make Plans for the Holidays

I’m thinking about the holidays again and wondering what we should do for Christmas this year (where to go and what to buy for my family). It might be simpler if we had at least some well-established traditions, but it seems that every year we do something different. Some years we stay home and just take off work Christmas day and New Year’s day, saving our vacation days for later. Some years we travel to visit family out of state. Some years we go to Christmas dinner at a friend’s house in town. Some years we dance all week at Christmas Country Dance School in Berea, Kentucky. Depending on what we decide to do each year, we might put up a tree and lights, or we might not.

My family is so spread out that we have a difficult time getting everyone together—me in Missouri, mom in Kentucky, dad in South Carolina, brother in Florida, niece in Pennsylvania, grandchildren in Colorado, one son in Georgia, and another son in Antarctica (until he returns home to Oregon). The last time we all managed to coordinate our schedules and meet at my mother’s house for Christmas was 2008. Even then, two of the grandchildren couldn’t make it because they were with their father. We have never all made it to my father’s place at the same time.

Time to put our heads together and come up with some plans for Christmas.

We also lack solid traditions concerning gift giving. Our family enjoys exchanging gifts, but we don’t like to shop, and we worry about the commercialism and waste that are rampant this time of year. We tend to be fiscally conservative, and we don’t need a lot of stuff to make us happy. Consequently, the gift exchange can be rather random. You never know what you might get (or what you might end up giving). But you can make some reasonable guesses. Books are a favorite, as are calendars, and hand-made journals. Consumable items (fancy teas or fair-trade coffees or other food items) are common. Anything recyclable or environmentally friendly. Often we give donations to favorite charities in each other’s names. We sometimes make things for each other or re-gift family heirlooms or valued objects. We buy from local authors and get them to sign personalized copies for each other. We purchase hand-crafted jewelry or pottery or fiber from local artisans.

You will almost certainly never get trendy new appliances or electronics from any of us. Our family’s gifts will never make the “top ten” list of hot new items. If you want a Kindle or a Wii or an iGrill or an iPad or an Angry Bird, you’ll have to buy it yourself, not necessarily because we disapprove of such gifts but because we prefer to give surprises. Of course, not everyone enjoys receiving surprises. They prefer to know exactly what they are getting. I’m thinking of my older son, who once asked why we spend money on things that others might not even like. Why not skip the whole gift-giving thing, or just give everyone permission to buy ourselves what we really want? Interesting point. We do occasionally give gift cards, especially to grandchildren, or in years when we are completely overwhelmed and incapable of coming up with a more thoughtful gift.

My ideal presents are based on memories of Christmas as a child. We did not have a lot of money, but we had more than some people, and my parents did what they could to make Christmas special. The best gifts were both beautiful and useful. I don’t remember getting a lot of toys, although I probably did. I do remember getting a new doll every year and some kind of game or toy that I had never seen before, that was a surprise to me, one I hadn’t asked for but was delighted to have. I also remember getting gifts such as pajamas or house shoes or a new outfit that, despite their practical nature, were special in some way, if only because they were not hand-me-downs or home-made, like many of our everyday clothes. Then after the excitement of opening presents and stockings had passed, the gifts that I returned to, the ones that lasted, were the books or the paint-by-number sets or the craft items.

The year I got a Chatty Cathy doll and my brother got a Caspar doll for Christmas

In 2008, the year we all decided to meet at mom’s (the first Christmas after her stroke), we did actually skip the traditional gift-giving portion of the Christmas celebration. Since most of us had to spend quite a lot on travel, and since it had been a stressful year in other ways, we decided to “cancel Christmas,” as mom put it, and just focus on being together as a family. Although it felt strange at first, it did take a lot of pressure off, during a hectic time of year. However, since we couldn’t completely let go of the idea of buying presents for each other, we compromised by drawing names and setting a limit of $20 on each gift. (Of course, some people are more fun to buy for than others.)

We also did a white elephant gift exchange, which confused some people but turned out to be a lot of fun. The hot item was a roll of aluminum foil, which my younger son’s girlfriend (now wife) quickly and miraculously formed into a crown, a sceptor, and a sword, impressing us all with her creativity and spirit of fun. My mom said, “Good thing Sandra got the aluminum foil and not me. I would have just cooked with it.”

All I want for Christmas is a roll of aluminum foil.

Don’t worry, Ma, your room is almost ready!

Of course, I’ve turned this into a bigger project than necessary, as usual. To prepare for my mom’s upcoming visit during Thanksgiving week, I could have just changed the sheets and vacuumed the rug in the spare bedroom, put away the mailing supplies for the care packages I’ve been sending to soldiers in Afghanistan, filed the papers that have piled up near the computer desk (or not), and called it good. She would have been perfectly happy with the accommodations. But no. For some reason, I had to make this into the kind of project where I pull all the books off the shelves, empty all the drawers, and drag all the boxes from under the bed and out of the closet in order to “sort things out.”

It started with a small bookshelf just inside the door. I was simply going to remove the books, dust, pull the shelf away from the wall so I could vacuum behind it, and then put the books back where they had been. But as I took a closer look, I noticed that the shelf held few actual books. Mostly, it was loaded with back issues of magazines, old catalogs, manuals for computer programs that probably don’t even work on Windows XP, ring binders of handouts from various workshops I’ve taken over the years (e.g., water quality monitoring, tree keepers), and a notebook of brochures I had picked up when we remodeled our kitchen three years ago. So naturally, I decided I should clear out the clutter this week before my mom arrives.

Well, one thing led to another, and by the time I finished with the bookshelf, I had filled two boxes and one large bag with recycled paper. I filled another box with empty ring binders, and I relocated a collection of books about traditional American dance music to the newly emptied bookshelf. In the process, I went through all the boxes and shelves in the closet.

While digging through the closet, I ran across a box of my old piano music books, which I decided I simply must have out where I can see them—I suppose in case someone stops by the house sometime and asks me to play my old recital pieces again. Not that I have time to play piano, mind you, because I also rediscovered two large bags of wool that I have been meaning to spin into yarn, a table-top loom, and twelve knitted squares that I was planning to sew together into an afghan.  I have a little over a week before mom arrives. I still need to change the sheets on the bed and vacuum the carpet and file those papers that have piled up near the computer.

At least, I didn’t do as my mammaw was known to do when company was coming and decide this would be an absolutely great time to repaint the walls and perhaps replace the carpet, as well (although I must say, the thought did cross my mind). Mom still tells about the year we arrived at mammaw’s house for Christmas to find paint buckets in the guest room and plastic draped over the furniture. Apparently, mammaw had big plans but then abandoned the painting project halfway through, realizing, I suppose, that it was high time to start making pies before company showed up at her doorstep. The remodeling project would have to wait.

I remember that as the year my younger cousin drank turpentine and there was a big discussion about whether to take him to the clinic an hour and a half away or just give him some raw egg. No one actually saw him drink turpentine, but we smelled it on his shirt when he came in to tell someone “that don’t taste good.” But he seemed all right, so no one got too upset. When he later said that the raw egg “don’t taste good, either” and refused to take it, the consensus was that he must not have had that much turpentine, after all, and he would probably be fine. There’s nothing quite like spending time with family for the holidays.