Sunday, November 16, 2014
An Acre Memory: Thanksgiving
I predict in a very short time we will be celebrating a new holiday called HallowThanksmas. It will be a combination of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Children will tear into festively wrapped boxes of turkeys stuffed with candy. Right now the week before Thanksgiving, in my neighborhood there are 5 houses decorated with twinkling lights and blow up Santas. Nearby is a house with a witch on the doorstep and the remnants of a jack o lantern leftover from last month. Remember when Thanksgiving was its own day and not the day before Black Friday? Thanksgiving held a different connotation than it does now.
I grew up on the corner of Broadway and Walker Streets in the Acre section of Lowell. The block I grew up on was a set of tenements all connected with concrete paved space in between. Without knowing it, we may have grown up poor, using today’s standards. We didn’t have a car for many years, but neither did a lot of people. Many of my friends wore hand me downs. Mine were from my cousin Armand. I never fell for my mother’s trick of trying to get me to wear my sister’s old mittens. The oversized jars of peanut butter and big blocks of cheese should have been a giveaway. But when it came to holidays, my parents spared no expense.
When I hear folks spin yarns of Thanksgivings of long ago, they’re infused with images of moms wearing aprons, wiping hair away from their foreheads with flour covered hands. My mother was no Martha Stewart. Her kitchen philosophy consisted of if it came from a can or a box, it was homemade. We would be dismissed from school early on the day before, and my mother would have my sister and I walk from St. Pat’s School to downtown Lowell to buy some supplies. We’d go to Kresge’s and Woolworths to buy bridge mix, a blend of chocolate covered peanuts, raising, and caramels. (Do they even make that anymore?) Thanksgiving was also when peach blossoms would appear, those wonderful salmon shaded sweets filled with peanut butter. I recall one year carrying the goodies into the kitchen after making the 1.5 mile track from downtown (How often and easily we made that walk without even thinking about it!) only to find my father sitting at the kitchen table. Why was Dad home so early? Over supper they told us he had been laid off yet again from Raytheon, but we’d still have a good Thanksgiving. After all we had bridge mix!
The night before the feast my mother, being French Canadian, would begin her stuffing. The smell of sage brings me back to those days. I loved looking at the bright yellow box with the turkey on front. The next step was the washing of the bird. Because neither of my parents had much of a culinary background, they both hated the chore with the slippery leviathan once landing on the floor. The house would be spotlessly clean, even to the point of the winter curtains being hung. There was an excitement and an air of anticipation. Stores closed their doors early. Folks went home, and stayed there. This was a day for family.
By the time I woke on Thanksgiving morn the house was already abuzz. Every pot and pan was put into use. My job was to set the table with the fine paper tablecloth and napkins we picked up at the 5 & 10 the day before. The good china, the set my parents bought in 1953 that had a gold crown to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, was taken out. The silver, which was used twice a year had to be cleaned. It sounds fancy, but these were the only pieces of value my folks owned, and besides, it was a holiday.
All stores were closed, except one, the packie (for those of you outside the Merrimack Valley it’s the liquor store). If you knew the right people you would go to the package store and even though the law said there should be no liquor sales, you could buy what you needed. In my house it was the smallest bottle of brandy you could get. It was for the eggnog, you understand. It was a necessity. My mother, who never drank, would have her one shot of eggnog and brandy as she cooked. Within minutes she would declare the house too hot and open all the windows. Weighing 90 something pounds and under 5 feet, that one little nip would make her tipsy, or so she thought.
My mother was from a family of 13 kids, my dad from 7 kids. We had family, lots of them. Sometimes too many, now too few. In hindsight, it’s interesting that the 2 families never met. They would alternate holidays. (Was there something going on I was blind to?) The Macy’s parade would start off, often with a bagpipe band. Maybe because with a last name like McKean, but the whole family would stop to hear them play Scotland the Brave. When it was done everyone would return to their given task. One by one the family members arrived. Just as the Underdog balloon would come into view my mother would call me to the kitchen, tell me to bundle up, and bring 2 dinners to my memere and pepere who lived down the street. I’d whine. She’d command. I’d plead to see Underdog; she’d take a shot of eggnog. Their house was 4 doors down, but I’d turn it into the Long March. Memere would open the door, I’d put the dishes on the table and attempt to run out. Underdog was on his way. In her thick accent, she’d say thank you a million times, but I was too busy to hear or even give her five minutes of my time. I regret that.
Back at the ranch people were just sitting down at the table and I’d squeeze in. Then began the beautiful tradition of Grace. My mother would ask for someone to begin. Silence. My mother would look at my father. Dad would begin, “Jesus Christ almighty.” Before you think he began the prayer, no, that was his response to anything. Then my mother would command me to begin. It was the same scenario every year until adulthood. Being a product of parochial education, I knew what to say. What I wanted to say was, “Over the lips and past the tongue…. But that would have gotten me a hit on the noggin. Instead I began, “Bless us O lord and these thy gifts….” This was followed by the lifting of glasses. Most families had wine, we had cranberry juice. Without getting into it, my mother didn’t allow wine (just her stash of eggnog). We had all the traditional foods most American families had, along with my mother’s specialties. Celery with cream cheese, pickles, and pickled onions. Haute cuisine, Acre style. Like most families the meal would be done within 8 minutes. Then men would retire to the TV room, the women to the task of scrubbing and cleaning.
My dad was not a giant TV sports fan, but he was on Thanksgiving. He’d have me take my place by the TV to turn the channel. My father’s philosophy was that children were made to change TV channels, since these were the days before remote. Thankfully there were fewer channels. Since he imbibed tryptophan, he would soon be asleep. If I dared changed the channel, he would immediately awaken and want the game back.
The meal was not done until dessert was served. My mother’s theory was that there should be as many desserts on the table as you had guests. The table would be laden with apple pie (from Table Talk), pecan pie (from Aunt Cis), mince pie (from Table Talk), pumpkin pie (from Aunt Cis). The one creation of my mother’s was the mandatory Jello. She’d stand there with plates of wiggling Jello, holding it like she won a Betty Crocker medal. If you didn’t put a blob of it next to your pie, she’d be heartily disappointed. After the meal Ma would put the fruit bowl on the table. My mother wasn’t much of a nutritionist, and we didn’t have a lot of fruit, but this was not for eating, it was for show. Everyone knew you needed a fruit bowl on the table at Thanksgiving. That was accompanied by nuts, not shelled, but with the shells. Then the contest of where the nutcracker was would begin.
One by one folks would leave with a paper plate filled with enough food for a few days, including jello. Dad would be back to sleep; he did that a lot. Ma would be in the kitchen cleaning up, but next to her was her eggnog. Quiet would descend on the house.
As the years passed, fewer people come over. We all went our separate ways, even losing contact with some. Soon my parents were the grandparents sitting at my wife’s and my table. We kept some of the old ways, but started some of our own. Now there are even fewer at the table. As the gray hairs on my head multiply I think more of those days. The nice part is that I still have cousins whom I love dearly and have reconnected with others over the past year or two.
Be thankful. Give the day its due. “Bless us O Lord….”