Good Times on The Year’s Best Holiday

a turkey knows when it's doneBack in the day, we used to get a free local turkey from my husband’s work for Thanksgiving and for some reason the thing was always huge, more like a pterodactyl than a domesticated fowl, so huge that one year we had to tie the oven door shut and brace a chair up against it to hold the beast inside. I remember too the year when, taking some bit of turkey-roasting advice I saw in the paper, I cooked our bird breast side down for the whole time, only to extract, at the end of six hours, a roasting pan containing something that resembled a skeletal sunken ship, a sort of scaffolding of bones perched over a world of turkey fat and what could just barely be described as meat. If memory serves, that was also the year the whole roasting pan shot out of the oven and onto the floor.

Ah, but does memory serve us very well, or are you, dear reader, not yet at the age where you tell a story about something that happened to you only to be wryly advised by a family member that no, actually that whole thing happened to her? Anyway, isn’t it better sometimes if we look ahead rather than looking back?

Who is to say?

I know my sister and I still love looking back at the Thanksgivings of early childhood in our household of five grownups, four of whom were female and all of whom could be seen laboring away in the kitchen for a whole week leading up to the big day. Our grandfather meanwhile, as the sole male among those aunts and great aunties and our mom and our pretty Aunt Grace, sat in his easy chair smoking a cigar and reading biographies of the great men of American history. Though come to think of it I do remember hearing about that one Thanksgiving eve, when he did what he had said he would try to do and actually brought home the turkey  –  still attired in its longjohns as you might put it, in the form of hundreds of soft under-feathers that took forever to pluck out.  “How did you ever manage?” my sister and I squeaked in delighted horror as young adults which we were when we first heard the tale. “Ha!” she replied. “Well, the first thing we did was pour a few stiff drinks!”)

That ease-taking grandfather is gone now, as are the ancient great aunties. Gone too is our merry Aunt Grace, and also our funny and irreverent mom. I have my own children now and they have children themselves and I write this from a house that at 10am bears no scent at all of the cooking of a turkey. We are to eat at the home of one of our daughters, and our duty is light duty: We’re bringing the beer and the wine and I am to make a salad (which is funny all by itself since really who eats salad on Thanksgiving? I mean, besides me and my strikingly slim, pure-foods-only sister-in-law?) Oh but wait I am almost forgetting! I am also to do the gravy because our daughter confesses herself shy about pulling off a good gravy and for sure I feel ready for that task. We’re going over to her house at 1:00 but I have already set out my full-length chef’s apron, as well as the special lump-defying  flour and the steel spatula for prying up the pan drippings. I have a pocketful of chicken bouillon cubes too in case we need to make gallons of the velvety stuff,  so I’m pretty sure I can do the task justice. Really all I need do is close my eyes and I can see – see  as if they were standing before me – the literal gravy-making movements of all those hard-working women in whose kitchen I spent one happy childhood.

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Life With Young Children

the calm before the boy child

The fact that today is the birthday of my third and youngest child  who was not yet in the world until his sisters were five and seven, has me remembering back to the fun we had in the years raising our kids, and the sense of peace I still feel when I am among them… For In a family, you are known. You don’t have to pretend or explain. They take you as they find you – even if they do take frequent joy in mocking you

On certain nights, around the supper table, one of our kids would suddenly say, “OK, let’s switch roles. You be Mom, you be Dad,” etc.  Then a fast improv would follow.

Once, I drew the then-13-year-old; swung my hair over one eye and said, “I need money, need a ride, I need money, I need a ride…”

This youngest, the then-five-year-old whose birthday it is today, once acted out his father for us in this game. He puffed out his  tummy, lay down on the floor and began snoring with a newspaper over his face.

Our then ten-year-old then ‘did’ me. “Come to dinner, people!“, she shrieked. “Come eat your dinner before I throw it in the yard!”

It’s instructive to watch yourself thus parodied.

And there’s never a dull moment, just generally in a family, because in a family, everyone comes home with tales of pain and triumph – and with funny stories too.

That then-kindergartner, being new to the world, had the most stories: The story about the little girl in his class who squeezed her eyes shut and clasped her hands as if in prayer every day when she recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Or the tale of the older boy who told him he had his pants on backwards. “I can’t understand it,” I remember our little guy saying. ” I put them on this morning and they were frontwards! Sometimes I put one pair of underpants and find out later I have  two pairs on. One day I put on a pair and looked later and they were gone!”

“You talk a lot,” one of his older sisters observed to him mildly, after ten straight minutes of this monologue.

“I can’t help it,” he said earnestly. “School is a strong thing.”

School sure is a strong thing. And work is a strong thing too. We all go out each day to face strong things.

I remember how the morning would come and one alarm after another would go off in this house. The sound of five showers would drum in the bathroom. Coffee would be gulped, cereal smeared and sprinkled around. Then there’d be a mad scramble to find shoes.

Now too there are those same scenarios in households the over world.  Folks go out into their day and return for supper, glad to be back home.

Back in the years I am thinking of now, when the children were asleep at last, we two tired parents would make the rounds and collecting stray socks. We would kiss their sleeping faces and they smelled so good; like apples, and geraniums, and fresh-baked dough.

We knew that one day these children would be gone from us, and dinner would be a  far quieter affair.

We were right there for sure.

But today, on the birthday of our youngest who is up in his 20s by now,  I’m reminded again of how much their dad and I have loved them all; and how much they have made us smile.

mpm's 1st day of school

This Day of Remembrance

We always went to the cemetery with our mother and aunt, my sister Nan and I, though it didn’t mean much to us, young as we were. We mostly danced among the graves, and dashed happily off to fill the dented metal watering can at the leaky old spigot.

Anyway, our dead had been dead for so long, the mother of our mother just letters etched on granite and never mind that I bore her name. Never mind that my sister looked just like that poor doomed girl who died so young, along with her equally doomed and stillborn child.

Then the years passed as the years will do and I guess I was around 20 when I noticed that we weren’t going to the cemetery so much anymore, though by now our mother and aunt’s father also lay in that grave.

“Is it because we moved an hour north and the place is too hard to get to on the busy holiday?” I asked our Aunt Grace one day as we she and I stood in the dining room of my childhood home. “That’s not it,” she said right away. “It’s because they aren’t there,” she went on and then repeated the declaration with a strange passion I had never before seen in her. “They’re NOT THERE!” she said again, as if to suggest that any fool knows the dead travel to a place infinitely farther than we humans can conceive of in our poor imaginings.

Was that why we weren’t going to the graves so much anymore?  Because nothing was really down there but clay? Or dust? Or whatever remains behind aside from the metal hasps of the coffins? And if that were the case, then why, all these years later, do I still stand again at that grave and picture them all just a few feet below me? I see our mother in that pale lavender suit she so loved; our grandfather with his dark eyebrows; the young lady I should have known as my grandmother lying in the high-necked Gibson-Girl-style dress they would have chosen for her back in 1910.

What good can come of these vigils? Two years ago I saw a young woman sitting on the grass of a soldier’s fresh and flag-decked grave. She was there when I came by at noon and she was there when I came again at 6:00.

It seems we process death by degrees and each in our own way.

Myself I have found over the past weeks that when I think of  our final elder who left us just last month, I do not think of Heavenly realms and eternal reward, in spite of the fierce faith I saw lived out in my family of origin. I think of that man as I knew him over the last six years of his life when he became in many ways my closest friend.

In the long quiet days since his passing I have studied countless snapshots of him – in Latin School in the 30s, in the South Pacific in the 40s, in college on the GI Bill in the early 50s – and am newly in awe at all that a life can contain. I even imagine that I’m beginning to understand what Aunt Grace meant that day: The dead really aren’t ‘there’ under the ground. Rather they are all around us, not farther but infinitely nearer than we humans can conceive of in our poor imaginings.

a bouquet and my grandmother, dead at 31

The Best Book I Never Wrote

What’s nicer than helping other people feel that they can write? Encouraging them to, I mean? My chance to do this came the day an 85-year-old lady from my church called up to ask if I would teach a course to be called Writing from Personal Experience at the local Senior Center.

“We’ve all been talking,”  she said and we know you write for the paper each week.”  

They had all already decided it seemed that I would teach them once a month –  “on Mondays we thought, in the afternoon, since we  don’t like to go out at night.” I would prepare a lesson each time and assign a writing topic. Then,  at the next meeting, I would collect up all their pieces, take them home,  write comments on them and report on them at the next meeting at which time I would repeat the process…

“And oh!” she added cheerfully, “course we wouldn’t be paying you anything; that’s our policy here at the Center.

“What do you think?”

What did I think?! My palms had begun sweating at her first sentence. Why had I even picked up the phone? How could I POSSIBLY do this?  I’m too busy! What about all these kids in my kitchen every night!

Then I had one of those rare moments where I felt that someone way bigger than I am was nudging me forward.

I gave in to it. “OK,” I said meekly.

And so began a three-year odyssey that ended in a book whose title comes from a poem by Robert Frost  about the near-impossible task of raking leaves, something we all know a little bit about at this season for sure. 

We began each class saying something about the day itself and then we would start.

Once Bill Jeffery  read aloud a remembrance from childhood, his voice broke and he had to stop.

 “Let it out!” cried the lady across the table who had been in his First Grade Class some 70 years before.

“My wife says I’m emotionally unstable,” he joked before clearing his throat and going on.

But permission had been given: from that day on we were unashamed to show our feelings.

Looking back, I now realize there were tears at every session. We listened to one another’s memories and we cried. Because of this, class member Clarence, who wrote for most of his 96 years, called the classes my “séances.” (He once dropped me a note in his bold hand, “Lately I haven’t been well enough to get to too many of your séances…”)

Maybe he thought we were conjuring the dead in that basement room with the orange tulips painting the outside of our little window come spring.

Maybe he was right. 

Here is one of his poems now:

The Cat

 The Cat is a creature of infinite grace,

It spits on its forearms and sponges its face.

It licks and it sponges itself every place.

It licks and it sponges itself without haste,

It uses no soap no powders, no paste,

No cold-cream, no napkins, no towels to waste

Very efficient – but how does it taste?

 

Witty eh? But his best work – indeed everyone’s best work appeared when they looked back to the early decades of the last century – the meadow and the field, the bucket and soapstone sink – and to those long-gone ones who populated that world.

If you’d like to give this book to a friend download the same form I referred to in the last two posts. Again I’ll cover the shipping costs.

I’m smiling now just thinking of those stories: of ladylike Eleanor Matson taking off her coat in church – only to look down and see she had forgotten her skirt. Ah bless them all for having the courage to believe that harvest was anything but meager! The evidence is all right there.

This photo at the top is just me at a talk I gave on this and other books  for the Friends of the Abington Library, speaking of cool older people.

And underneath here is more about the book. Just click on it to make it easily readable.