My Aunt Vera was a genuinely nice person. She could have been the All-American model for a Norman Rockwell painting and she always looked, as my Dad might have said, “neat as a pin.”
Aunt Vera favored tight little curls in her grey hair. Most would consider that an “old fashioned” look now days, but it 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.
Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943. It has come to symbolize the American holiday.
My Dad had two half brothers and while they had different last names, they were in every other respect as close as any three men – three brothers – could be. Growing up I lived near one of my Dad’s brothers and his wife, my Aunt Mae. They became second and very indulgent parents to me. What a blessing for any kid.
We didn’t often see the other brother, my uncle, since Hisel and Aunt Vera lived some distance away. With a name like Hisel you can understand why everyone called my uncle by his nickname, Smut, which is another story for another Thanksgiving. But, I digress.
It was suggested during that long ago autumn that the family should establish a new tradition and annually rotate Thanksgiving dinner with first one brother (and wife) hosting and then another. The idea was immediately embraced as providing a happy excuse for a get together and a big, enjoyable dinner.
Everything went swimmingly when my mother hosted the first Thanksgiving dinner under this new arrangement. My mother was both a lovely person and 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 at our house 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. My Aunt Mae was a sassy, funny, outspoken woman. She was an outstanding amateur golfer in her younger days. She could smash a golf ball and as a kid she gifted me some old clubs and joyfully coached my swing. And she could cook, too.
I still remember my father and his brothers telling stories on one another during these Thanksgiving gatherings, 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 affection with what amounted to 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 and frequent glances at a football game. Naturally I hung with Dad and my uncles.
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 to watch my Mother and Dad challenge each other to say something positive about the food at that dinner. As they struggled to remember anything that went well, often while we enjoyed another of Mom’s outstanding meals, the table would be engulfed in laughter at the memory of the turkey that never quite got done and the side dishes that never quite worked. And, yes, there is a reason I never developed a taste for mince pie.
Finally Mom would 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. Hold the politics. 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 parents, aunts and uncles, it is the laughter and the love that sits most lightly on my mind. I’ve tried to resist the urge this week to think too much about our controversial president, our polarized politics or a changing climate and instead let my mind drift back to the Nebraska of my youth where turkey and cranberry relish mix with the sweet memories of people I loved and still love.
“Society is consumed by negative partisanship,” Charles Lane wrote recently in the Washington Post. “Restoring the right balance is the key to stabilizing the republic.”
He’s right. And balance begins with giving thanks. This is a great – not perfect – but great country. Give thanks for that. We’re stronger and happier when we reflect on our shared good fortune and our shared values. We’ve been through a lot and somehow keep moving. Give thanks for that. When we focus on what each of us might do to make this fleeting and limited life as full and decent as it can be for family, friends, folks down the block and, yes, even those Americans who come from other places with other traditions we are truly living out our creed. Give thanks for that.
Aunt Vera’s undercooked turkey wasn’t the point. The togetherness was the point and gratefulness was the side dish. We’ll not be happy without a sense of thanksgiving. It’s a path to a better life and a better world.