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I can’t remember a bad Thanksgiving.
Correction: I don’t remember a bad Thanksgiving. There are many reasons this is possible. I drank to oblivion! Unlikely. I drove it from my mind to keep the illusion of perfect family gatherings intact! Also unlikely, as I remember a few kitchen arguments and last-minute tensions that darkened the mood for a while. That’s expected. Something always goes wrong. The potatoes do not assume the proper density. Someone didn’t butter the lefse. The popovers were insufficiently puffy. But no one cares, and no one remembers.
If you want Thanksgiving to be good, it will be good. If there’s a disaster, incorporate it into family lore. If there’s a side dish that gets forgotten, consider that the universe is telling you something about the local appetite for green beans. If the turkey is a bit dry, understand how the Lord works in mysterious ways but also through simple, obvious ways like gravy. If the gravy is lumpy, understand that all the gravies you will ever make, averaged out, will be smooth, aside from undetectable, infinitesimal lumps that can only be detected by electron microscope.
Around these parts we expect a White Christmas as payment for living through the long winters. Other parts of the country have no such promise, and have to live through all the seasonal imagery knowing that won’t be the look of their holiday. But up here we also hope Thanksgiving will be Brown. It fits the menu. It fits the mood: the world has been utterly scoured of green, but there’s no need to start the icy entombment quite yet. An idea Thanksgiving is brown, with some leaves on the lawn and the gutter, the trees bare. There is nothing of beauty in the world right now, and that’s exactly the point where you want to take stock and give thanks.
When I was growing up I literally went over the river – the Sheyenne – and through the woods to Grandmother’s house. The ancestral farm was ten miles north of town. It was the only time we ate at the big table in the dining room. Pie in the kitchen, with Grandpa Victor enjoying a Grain Belt and an Old Gold. We’d get in the car to go home and he’d stand at the window, waving goodbye. My earliest Thanksgiving memory. It’s indistinct yet firmly engraved.
At some point there was a shift, and Thanksgiving was at our house. Mom took over. There was always a classic North Dakota relish plate – pickles, celery, those crisp peppery radishes. I have a picture of my mom and my aunt cleaning up after the Thanksgiving meal; they’re wearing heels. If you got down on your hands and knees you could see, indented in the linoleum, a hundred little circles pressed into the floor along the sink and stove, signs of their presence and labor.
Then Grandpa died. Then Grandma died. I went off to college. Now Thanksgiving meant returning home, not being home and having Thanksgiving happen. Then there’s the Thanksgiving when you don’t go home, because you have a home of your own. Then the first Thanksgiving at home where Mom is relieved of duty, and the family goes to the Holiday Inn. They really do it well! You bring your young daughter, stay at the Holiday Inn, she enjoys playing in the pool with her cousins, and you watch it all thinking: this is different, completely so, but . . . family and turkey and the raw bleak November. It’s still Thanksgiving.
Since we moved to Jasperwood, most of the family Thanksgivings have been here. It’s been grand. I can stand in the empty room some days and see my Dad with his second wife, see my Dad alone after she passed, teaching Natalie card tricks; I can see the strays my sister-in-law has brought over the years, my Mother-in-law right there playing Password, my other sister-in-law just the year before, or was it two, or three. I see the chair where I always sit, and the spot on the rug where the three dogs of the house have sat in turn, waiting.
But that’s just my ration of bounty. There have been 105 Thanksgivings at this house. It’s a solid place. There will be a hundred more, as long as the walls and the foundation and the roof endure. This was a young country when the house was built. It is a young country still. May it never grow so old it forgets the humbling lessons of gratitude, and the happy joys of civic rituals.
Today we celebrate no creed, no official birthday, no war’s cessation. We look inward to family and outward to the polity that protects our freedom. All this and pie. God Bless America.Published in