I used to spend Thanksgiving with one family member or another — flying to Washington, D.C., or driving to our family house in the Chicago suburbs. It was hard for all of us to get together with 10 children splashed across North America from California to Canada, from the Midwest to the East Coast. But there were usually gatherings of three or four of us on Thanksgiving which made for a satisfying experience.
But the last decade, that hasn’t been the case. The Chicago suburban house was sold years ago after my mother died. And usually, I was working or too involved in a project to take the time. I regret those missed opportunities — especially now that travel is physically difficult for me.
But I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for me. The long skein of memories of Thanksgivings past is more than enough to fill me up with joy and be thankful for what I have in the here and now.
Those cherished memories led me to write of the 10 reasons why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I’m sure you can add a few reasons of your own.
10. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Yeah, I know. Pretty pathetic, huh? Watching a parade on TV barely beats watching golf or curling.
But over the last 50 years, I may have missed the parade three times. It is pure Americana — a spectacle of culture and capitalism that is absolutely irresistible. Lorne Greene, who played Ben Cartwright on NBC’s long-running western Bonanza, co-hosted with the irrepressible Betty White, who never failed to be awestruck by the gigantic balloons of superheroes, cartoon characters, and literary icons, manned by 50 volunteers who were sometimes lucky not to get blown away when there was a stiff breeze. Today’s hosts — mostly talent from the Today show — are engaging but lack the charm and warmth of previous hosts.
Pop stars, Broadway’s finest, and even talent from the Met would stop in front of the NBC broadcast position and lip-sync their latest hit.
And yes, I still get excited when the parade concludes with Santa and his sleigh.
9. The start of a long weekend
When I was in school, Thanksgiving meant the longest weekend off of the year. Even as a young adult living in Washington, I was almost always able to wangle Friday after Thanksgiving off from my boss. It’s a nice break just before winter is beginning to sink his claws into you and the weather is still warm enough for outdoor activities.
Today, I’m not sure how many Americans take Friday off, but it’s a lot fewer than used to. Still, I’m sure the kids enjoy the extra time off from school.
8. The official kick-off of Christmas season
That’s a laugher considering that some retail outlets put up their Christmas decorations the day after Labor Day.
But once upon a time, before everyone knew what “Black Friday” meant, and stores were closed on Thanksgiving, part of Thanksgiving Day was spent pouring over the Sears catalog. Funny thing is, we rarely picked out gifts for ourselves. We’d see something in the Big Book and say, “John would love that,” or “That would be a great one for Peggy.” Thus, we all shared in the spirit of giving.
Thanksgiving was also the day my mother unveiled that season’s Advent calendar, a sure sign that Christmas was just around the corner.
There are some families that plan their entire day around the football games. A little overboard if you ask me, but when the Bears played, my entire family would be glued to the TV. The Detroit Lions have been hosting a Thanksgiving Day game since the 1930s and the Chicago Bears have been a frequent opponent. It’s a little different when you don’t have a rooting interest in who wins, but as a means to get away from pesky cousins or annoying uncles, it was a godsend.
Baked, roasted, fried, grilled — any way turkey is prepared, it’s a special food. The smell of turkey in the oven brings the memories forward thick as prairie grass. And since it takes so long to cook, the smell serves to build your appetite for the feast to come.
My father would receive a gift from a supplier friend of a humungous 24-26 lb turkey every Christmas and Thanksgiving. The damn bird was as big as a bear cub and barely squeezed into our old-fashioned Kenmore oven. But since my mother was usually cooking for 29 people — aunts, uncles, cousins, and a few friends of the family — she always bought a 13-15 lb bird to supplement the feast as well as assure the family of open-faced hot turkey sandwiches the following night for dinner.
Overdosing on tryptophan-laden turkey was a requirement, which meant a lot of sleeping kids and adults about a half an hour after dinner was over.
My mother made the best dressing of any mother in the world and you can quote me on that. Not too much sage, just the right amount of onion, sausage that wasn’t too spicy, and three loaves of Wonder Bread, wetted to exactly the right consistency so that when it came out of the bird it was never too dry or too gooey.
Margie Lou Moran’s dressing was a gift from the gods, equally good hot or cold, by itself or with gravy, eaten with a fork or fingers. It never lasted more than two meals despite the mountain of dressing she made because so many of us would sneak into the fridge and grab a handful.
4. Lime Jello with cottage cheese and crushed pineapple
My mother would make two large molds of this stuff and watch it disappear. It may sound counterintuitive to combine jello and cottage cheese, but it worked. And the acidic snap of the pineapple went very well with the lime.
She was at a loss to explain the jello’s popularity. She once said that she probably made 1000 gallons of the stuff in her life and might have eaten three bites herself.
3. The late-night turkey sandwich
In a family of seven growing boys, a feast at 5:00 PM or 6:00 PM meant that we were ravenous again by midnight. Hence, the tradition of the midnight turkey sandwich.
It wasn’t so much the food that made it memorable as it was standing in the kitchen with my brothers, laughing, joking, roughhousing — making strong the bonds of kinship.
Turkey on rye with sharp cheddar with a dash of horseradish sounds like a food that would give you nightmares. But it was delicious and just the thing to assuage the pangs of hunger and send you off to sleep.
2. Family dinner
In talking with others through the years of their experiences at Thanksgiving dinner, I found some remarkable similarities. There’s usually someone who holds forth, regaling the family with stories and jokes — many of them repeated year after year. Everyone laughs at the same place, making the same asides in response. It’s almost script-like in its comforting repetitiveness. A special feeling of closeness descends on those at the table. The stories, the jokes — they’re not as important as sharing love and affection with those of the same blood, or adopted by marriage.
Cheers for the cook, raspberries for the turkey carver, and a hearty toast to cement the bonds of family and fill the heart with contented joy.
1. My mother
My mother conducted Thanksgiving dinner with the rhythm of a symphony orchestra and the efficiency of a drill sergeant. It was always an amazing performance. To get two turkeys, three pies, jello, rolls, vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potato casserole, and whatever else to the table hot and delicious at the same time always impressed me as a miracle.
This was a time before instant dressing, ready-made pie crusts, fancy salads you can buy at the grocery store, or any other time-saving prepared foods we routinely use today. Everything was made from the ground up, such as homemade pie crusts that were so flaky they melted in your mouth. The aforementioned dressing — a food group by itself. The labor involved in preparing a feast for 25-30 blows my mind.
She’d be up at 6:00 AM, usually with the youngest on her hip or toddling around in the kitchen. There would be 12 hours of kneading, baking, mixing, roasting, peeling, and chopping with the result never in doubt. As the girls got older, they would help, but there is little doubt who was responsible for a repast that never failed to bring ooohs and ahhhs to those assembled.
For myself, Sue doesn’t like turkey but she always makes one anyway. We always have a prime rib roast to go with it — a tradition that we started eight years ago when we got together and one that I cherish as well. And as the house fills up with the smells of Thanksgiving, I return once again to a table seen through the mists of memory with so many smiling faces — many of them gone now, but still alive and well in that place in my heart where recollection evokes feelings of love and longing.