My Aunt Vera was a genuinely nice person. She could have been an All-American model for a Norman Rockwell painting and she always looked, as my Dad might have said, “neat as a pin.” She favored tight little curls in her lovely grey hair, an old fashioned look that seemed to fit her perfectly. And no pants or slacks for Vera, always a dress even when laboring in the kitchen as she did one memorable Thanksgiving more than a half century ago. That celebration with all its sounds and smells lives on in the half-light of memory of a November long ago.
My Dad had two half brothers and while they had different last names, they were in all other respects as close as any three men – three brothers – can be. As a kid growing up I lived near one of my Dad’s brothers and his wife, my Aunt Mae. They both became like a second mother and father to me.
We didn’t often see the other brother since Hisel – with that name you might understand why everyone used his nickname, Smut – and Aunt Vera lived some distance away. When it was suggested that we establish a new family tradition and annually rotate Thanksgiving dinner with first one brother (and wife) hosting and then another the idea was immediately embraced as offering a happy excuse to get together.
Everything went swimmingly when my mother hosted the first Thanksgiving dinner under the new arrangement. Mom was a fine cook of the old school. She lavished attention on her gravy, her turkey was never overdone and her pumpkin pie was a thing of beauty. We didn’t see the good china very often and the “real” silver was stored away for only the most special of occasions. That Thanksgiving Mom set the table as if John F. Kennedy were stopping by for lunch. Even I got a long stemmed goblet and a fancy white napkin.
Aunt Mae also knew her way around the kitchen and when she hosted the second Thanksgiving gathering the following year the food was good and the laughs even better. I can still remember my father and his brothers telling stories on one another, engaging in the good natured banter than passes for intimacy among a certain generation of men. The brothers loved each other dearly, but tended to express their affection with verbal towel snapping and warm handshakes. Hugs were for the women doing all the real work in the kitchen, while the men exchanged teasing jokes in the living room over a splash of Canadian Club. Naturally, I hung with my Dad and his brothers.
The Thanksgiving tradition seemed fully established until it was Aunt Vera’s turn to prepare the feast. For years afterward it was a guilty pleasure between my Mother and Dad to challenge each other to say something positive about that dinner. As they struggled to do so, often while we enjoyed another of Mom’s good meals, the table would be engulfed in laughter at the memory of a turkey that never quite got done, the side dishes that never quite worked. There is a reason I never developed a taste for mince pie.
Finally Mom would try to say something generous about the rolls and butter or marvel at where Vera got those fresh flowers, but inevitably my Dad would smile and say that his brother obviously hadn’t married Aunt Vera because of her cooking.
Thanksgiving, the essential American holiday, is my favorite holiday, a time for family, food, football and fun. Even in a world that at the moment seems seriously off the rails, Thanksgiving is a refuge, a place of memory and warmth, a place to reflect on life’s many, many wonders and blessings.
As I think, as I always do this time of year, of those long ago gatherings with my parents, aunts and uncles, it is the laughter and the love that sits most lightly on my mind. I’m going to resist the temptation this week to think too much about Trump, or terror or Tom Brady and drift back to the Nebraska in my mind where turkey and cranberry relish mix with the sweet memory of people I loved and still love.
Aunt Vera’s turkey wasn’t the point. Putting my feet under her table was.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.