Sunday, November 21, 2004

I Have Never Watched the Macy's Parade. Does That Mean I'm Not a Man for All Seasons?

I like Thanksgiving. It is a holiday you can handle on your default setting, by which I mean you don't have to think about it, or more to the point, there is no aspect of it you have to avoid thinking about. At least, that's how it works for me. I have a collection of memories all of which are more or less pleasant. They are varied. Got some family memories from childhood, got some travel memories because we haven't always stayed home for Thanksgiving. Got some anniversary memories since every seven years or so -- leap year makes a difference though I've never bothered to figure it out -- our wedding anniversary falls on Thanksgiving, so we have some mildly comic memories of trying to find a place to celebrate. About 15 years ago we gave up, throttled back our sentimental attachment to a particular page on a particular calendar and "seized the date," as it were, celebrating our wedding day at a time of our own choosing. The anniversary police have utterly ignored us.

We have had Thanksgivings at the homes of friends, and we have entertained friends as well. There's never been a pattern, but Thanksgiving is not so urgent, so definitive a holiday, that we feel any particularly need to do it one way. Its origins are murky, even questionable. It's more an excuse to have a holiday than an actual holiday, if that makes sense. You don't need to spend more than 30 seconds thinking about it. Give thanks? Why not? In fact, sure. I've never had a late November so grim it seemed inappropriate or evasive to "give thanks."

I am a lucky man, so thank you blind chance.

This year we are having a "big table" -- six friends, which means not just turkey but ham, an elaboration for which I am happy to have an excuse. Eight ferocious Bush haters will be together, three of whom interestingly enough are from The South, that part of the country whose residents are supposedly so misunderstood by outsiders. We know your secrets, my dears, and some of them aren't very nice. We were you, but now we aren't.


Some years ago my wife and I went through a period when we spent Thanksgivings at the big table of a couple we knew and liked, but then the friendship started to ebb. It wasn't like a souffle that collapsed -- poof! It just sort of slowly deflated, and the evidence of the change could be seen at Thanksgiving. When first we were invited, we were high up the table, near the host and hostess. But then we started to slide lower and lower in the seating arrangement until we weren't even in the same room -- though we were at the same table. It was a phenomenal table, capable of remarkable, even unnatural elasticity, like the Bush vote count in Florida and Ohio.

Finally, we were demoted to the pie squad, those folk who came in late, just for dessert, like lepers invited in for the crusts and lesser crumbs. Continents have drifted apart faster than that friendship came to an end, and it's convenient to have this set of markers. Still it's as pleasant a Thanksgiving memory as any other. Good food, good talk, then the forgetting and the letting go.

Thanksgiving is not a holiday with that intense a level of expectation -- with one exception. I do expect that if you cook, either for yourself or for friends, there must be turkey and there must be turkey leftovers. This particular association was established for me when my family lived on Rugby Boulevard in Roanoke, Virginia, for the first ten years of my life. We lived next door to my mother's parents. A concrete sidewalk ran directly from my backdoor to my grandparents' backdoor. My grandfather had it poured when my parents built their little white house, more or less at my grandfather's direction. At night I would run up that sidewalk to my grandparents, run in my barefeet and pajamas not because I was afraid of that particular dark in that particular backyard but because I did not want to step on slugs. Running meant bigger steps and a mathematically diminished chance of landing on a slug, and I had also decided that the sudden flattening of a slug with a quick nasty splat was preferable to the relatively more prolonged crushing that went with walking. The sensation was different, I promise you it was. Bedroom slippers and a flashlight were not options, though I cannot imagine why I decided they were not. I apparently liked the risk of the thing. Strange but so, as with so much of childhood.

The point is that, naturally and inevitably, we had Thanksgiving, and many other meals, with my grandparents. Everything about the Thanksgiving meal was immense: the scale of the table, the number of guests, the amount of food. For days and days afterward we ate sandwiches of leftover turkey on white bread with mayonnaise. It was as if the passage of time, the ever-growing gap between preparation and consumption, concentrated the excellence of the turkey. Thanksgiving itself was a kind of sensory overload, too hectic to absorb. But those turkey sandwiches were the essence of the holiday, the distillation. An old lady in a long dress and an big apron put my sandwich on a plate as big as a manhole cover and set it in front of me together with a 6-ounce Coca-Cola in that squat beautiful bottle.

It was the best moment and is the best memory. Today the Thanksgiving meal itself with our friends will be the pleasure. But the sandwich the next day will the moment when I remember all those people around that table more than 50 years ago. All in all, they were sad people, my Southern family. Thanks I did not grow up to be them. Thanks that at the time I thought they, like me with my sandwich and my coke, were utterly simple and content.

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