• Otter Views: Thanksgiving Back When

    by Tom Stevens

    Our grandmother “Tutu” used to drive out for Thanksgiving in her green Buick. She’d beep the horn, and my brothers and I would run out to see if she’d made rice pudding that year or tapioca. My middle brother hated rice pudding because of the raisins, so some years she brought both.

    Tutu was very spry in those days and could easily handle whatever she had brought – the one or two puddings, a wicker basket of ceremonial tablecloths and napkins, and a ceremonial bottle of Johnny Walker.

    We formed a procession from the Buick to the kitchen. There, our mom was conducting a symphony of fragrances with her spoon: wild rice, candied yams, peas simmering with water chestnuts, gravy for the mashed potatoes. The little window in the oven door yielded a peek at a browning turkey, but the holiday prohibition against useless boys underfoot was soon enforced, and we saw no more.

    My brothers and I weren’t strictly useless at Thanksgiving – unfocused might be a better word. We had already done some work, albeit languidly. We had raked and mowed the yard, strung leis for the guests and polished the black tarnish off the silver tureens used only at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

    We liked to grumble about the tureens. “Why do we need these? We never use these any other time. This black stuff won’t kill anybody.”

    We figured that when our time came to host Thanksgiving, we’d rule that no kids would have to polish anything and could play street football until dark. The street in our neighborhood was good for football, because it was straight, wide, and sparsely traveled. Our “field” was the asphalt in front of Alan Short’s house, the neighborhood’s geographical 50-yard line. On Thanksgiving, kids from the north end of the street would play the “South.”

    The plays were simple, because each team only had two or three kids who could throw, catch, or run worth a nickel. The rest of us served mainly to fatten the huddle and collide with the other team’s huddle fatteners.

    “Johnny, you go long,” the quarterback would whisper, tracing the route on the tarmac with his finger. “Rocky, go out five yards and cut toward the Wilders’ house. Everyone else, block.”

    After a couple of hours of blocking, either the North or the South would win, and we’d all go home to rake the yard or polish tureens. Not long after that, grandmothers would start pulling up in Buicks and DeSotos, the cooks would start their gravies, and Thanksgiving Dinner would officially begin.

    With the table set, the candles lit, and everyone standing politely behind their chairs, some kind of prayer was called for. Since our dad had provided the turkey and would have to carve it, since our mom had cooked it and worried over it, and since Tutu and her elderly sisters were our guests, the prayer usually fell to one of us boys.

    “Dear Lord, we, uh, we thank you for bringing us all together here today.” Pause. “This Thanksgiving day.” Pause. “We thank you for this turkey and cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and even the oyster stuffing. Thank you for keeping us alive from last year. And for letting the North win today.” Long pause.

    “America,” another brother would hiss.

    “And thank you Lord, for America, where the Pilgrims landed so long ago and first ate turkey and cranberry sauce in your name, amen.”

    With that, we would pull out the chairs for the ladies. Then we would sit, our father would carve, and we would all pass dishes of food around the table until everybody had everything. Then we would eat. Pause for breath. And resume eating.

    During pauses, Tutu and the other ladies would say: “Why, I couldn’t possibly” before accepting some more of whatever it was they couldn’t possibly. Afterward, we brothers went into the kitchen to do the dishes and see what pies had come with the great aunts. Pumpkin was mandatory, but apple and mince pie often showed up, too.

    While we did the dishes and discussed the merits of pie, the grownups idled at the dinner table with Johnny Walker, telling stories and laughing over old times. When the great aunts recalled riding to Kauai on the interisland steam ship, that was mom’s cue each year to start the coffee.

    Those Thanksgivings and their celebrants have come and gone now. But as this Thanksgiving lingers, it seems worthwhile to remember what the holiday is and what it’s not. It’s not oyster stuffing, street football, water chestnuts or mince pies; not turkey or candles or Tutu’s rice pudding. It’s not even the prayer.

    It’s the people. We miss the ones who aren’t here, and treasure the ones who are.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 27, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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