A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1896
November 20, 2017

Thanksgiving Changes

MONTPELIER – Before her marriage, Grandma Lange was a shopgirl at a fancy china, linens, and silverware store in downtown Albany. Apparently, she was a character. Family legend has it that once, locked in the washroom by her playful colleagues, she went out the second-story window (in her turn-of-the-century skirt), slid down the awning, lowered herself to the pavement, and walked back in the front door unruffled. She never told the story herself, but I wouldn't put it past her; she was one of a kind.

What I remember her best for is her cooking. My parents, sister, and I spent every Sunday afternoon at her house for dinner. I'm recalling her equipment as I write: a four-burner white porcelain gas stove on legs, with the oven and broiler on the left at waist level; a soapstone chest slow-cooker; and Granddad to mash the potatoes and squash and, after dinner, whip the cream in an antique cast iron-and-glass whisk that I still have somewhere. When she'd retired from the fancy store, she'd been given sets of linen, dishes, and sterling that would have graced a table at the Chateau Laurier. We dined in style.

Granddad, his ambition to be a surgeon frustrated by early poverty, sharpened the antler-handled carving knife on a matching rod-shaped hone (more gifts from the store), stabbed with a matching fork whatever roast meat Grandma brought from the kitchen, and carved off smooth slices as thin as the coasters that held our glasses. But before that – always first! – he intoned a lengthy and articulate prayer of thanks for the family gathered around the table, and for the bounty that always appeared somehow on Sundays. After 1941 there were prayers for "our boys" overseas, especially for Uncle Alvin somewhere in Europe. All the time, the aromas of our imminent dinner suffused the room, almost unbearable to us kids.

Thanksgiving as a holiday is not a part of our pre-Revolutionary heritage, but instead a 19th-century creation. Its date was punted around like a soccer ball like a soccer ball for some years, thanks to the lobbying of merchants who want as long a Christmas shopping season as possible, but it finally settled on the fourth Thursday in November. To me, when I was working regularly, it made a week with two Fridays and two Saturdays, both pleasurable. For Mother, when our own family was growing up, it was a day to share blessings, and we often invited people who otherwise would have no feast or little to be thankful for. This led to occasional unforgettable afternoons.

I still have a photo of our first Thanksgiving together. I can tell by my posture in it that I used the camera time delay and rushed into position. It's 1960. We're in the parlor of our $20-a-month apartment in the eastern Adirondacks at a table made up of three smaller ones. I'm holding Virginia, the baby; Mother smiles proudly over the spread before us; three of her younger sisters (temporarily entrusted to our care) crane to smile at the camera; and my father and mother complete the crowd. There are, besides the stuffing, vegetables, and gravy on the table, a turkey and a hindquarter of venison. My father, by right of seniority and his priestly status, said the grace; but in his thanksgiving I'm sure he missed the blessings that Mother and I counted most important: health, a healthy baby, a roof that no longer leaked, a space heater that worked, and employment. Not to mention the unspeakable pleasure of each other's company.

This year's Thanksgiving will be just a bit more subdued. The pleasure of each other's company has been, shall we say, somewhat refined by the passage of almost sixty years, but remains intense. The feast, however, will be provided by our younger daughter, who with her husband will bring it to Mother's nursing home, and the four of us will dine right in her room. Grandma's fancy oak table setting will be replaced by a couple of adjustable rolling trays, a wheelchair, a wheeled walker, and one upholstered chair. It's hard, at 82, to give thanks with a straight face for health, but the power I'm thanking will know what I mean.

In church this past Sunday, the rector ended his sermon by passing around the hand-held mike to encourage folks to express their thanks for their blessings. I didn't raise my hand, but listened instead. There was gratitude for families, friends, support in times of trouble, and the fellowship of the church membership. There was thanksgiving for an abundance that allows us to share with the less fortunate.

My own mind ran to embarrassingly mundane matters. Remembering the recent power outage – and dreading more as the climate worsens – I was thankful the outage occurred during a spell of warm weather. I was grateful for a roof that doesn't leak, a furnace that's working and faucets that give water when I turn them on. For not having to live by lamplight. For a credit card that works and vehicles that start in the coldest weather. For plenty of firewood. For faith that, as bad as affairs in our country and the world currently seem, humankind will somehow be able to recognize its shared predicament and potential. For the puppy sleeping at my elbow as I write and the incredible woman waiting for my visit this afternoon.

Photo by Willem lange