Thanksgiving Day. A tiny trailer-house kitchen fills with cheerful voices as my daughter and her partner create culinary wonders. Michael stresses over the 17 lb. turkey tucked into the smoker, which is chuffing away in the barn. My role is modest, spooning olive, walnut, and Italian sausage stuffing into casserole dishes.
We maneuver the table from the cramped kitchen/dining area into the more spacious living room. The cat’s ratty armchair moves to the dining room, causing the old, not-too-bright Siamese a lot of stress. One of us finally takes pity, picks her up, and dumps her on the chair, “There it is, you silly cat!” Once settled, she curls her paws under her chest and surveys the disruptive bustle with wary eyes.
Inserting an extra table leaf found hiding under the guest bed, we create room for six at this year's Thanksgiving table. This modest number is exactly right as I only have six chairs, but its tidy proportions contrast with memories of Thanksgiving past. A past when the table sat at least twelve and often more, depending on how many little kid bottoms we could squeeze along the bench length. One is not better than the other, just markedly different.
To create the proper Thanksgiving ambiance, I have uncharacteristically ironed (!!!) the tablecloth and polished the silver. I bring my great-grandmother’s crystal water goblets and blue-hued wine glasses out of the cupboard. As I gently wipe away the dust, I inform Jane of their history. “I want you to know this so you don’t give them to Goodwill when I die. These are special.”
Bob the Turkey is dug out of the “OTHER” decorations box. I feel bad because his fabric tail-feather fan droops from being crammed under the Easter baskets. Bob is an important part of the Thanksgiving ritual. He is the only remaining decoration from an extensive child-crafted collection that includes handprint turkeys, adorable Pilgrim villagers, and construction paper pumpkins. I create a lovely centerpiece with Bob, mini-pumpkins, and candles, but Jane quickly points out I have to choose between room on the table for food, or decorations. Bob, like the cat, is moved where he can survey the festivities without being in the way.
Earlier in the day, a Zoom call connects me with two brothers, one sister, and their families. As much as I hated the isolation of the pandemic, our family in now connected through technology in a way that erases the miles between us. There is chatter of football, a nephew’s baptism, broken pipes, “So glad Mom and Dad decided not to come! We had no water until this morning!” My sister, Jennifer, tells us she has brought a small slice of American Thanksgiving to her international school in Papa, Hungary; she has introduced her students and staff to the Corn Ceremony.
Here’s the story. The occupants of Plymouth, Massachusetts, feasted with their Wampanoag neighbors in the fall of 1621, only to have famine once again stalk them in the late winter of 1622. According to some book somewhere, they existed on seven pieces of parched corn per meal, and miraculously, none of them died. Mom took that historical tidbit and turned it into the sacred Corn Ceremony of my childhood.
The lead-up was very serious. After stuffing ourselves with food, real Thanksgiving took place. We would go our separate ways, attempt to find a quiet corner in a too-small house, and make our Thanksgiving List. Only SEVEN things could make the list, and for us younger kids, Tramp, the dog, was at the top. You had to be grateful for God; that was a given. Mom, of course. Sheesh, only FOUR corns left and so much to be grateful for!
Gathered again, we received seven pieces of dried corn that we held carefully in our sweaty palms, waiting for the brass bowl to come our way. Seven times it goes around the room. Seven times seven = 49 corns hitting the bottom of the bowl. Plink, I am thankful for hiking in the woods. Plink, I am thankful for books. Plink, I am thankful for a warm house. My dad’s last turn comes, and he puts in his final corn, Plink, I am thankful for your Mom.
Your Mom was always one of my dad’s corns, and he always cried. Yes, the Corn
Ceremony was a time for crying. God, Mom, the dog, hiking in the woods, being warm, sitting shoulder to shoulder, respectfully waiting to hear what the person cradling the brass bowl had to say. These memories are still fresh in the minds of my siblings and me.
We all continue the tradition, passing it down to our children, grandchildren, extended family, and anyone lucky enough to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with us. It is not always comfortable; my family cries easier than most, and many people are not used to baring their souls so soon after turkey and stuffing and, often, a bit too much wine.
This 2022 meal has been one of the best in recent memory. The smoked turkey is A+ despite Michael’s hand wringing. My friend Laura’s spicy collared greens somehow ended up on my plate three times. A salad of beets, greens, and pomegranate seeds, all from my garden, fills me with joy. Two pieces of pecan pie slide down the hatch because, seriously, who wants pumpkin when there is pecan?
We play several rounds of the game Apples to Apples, a wholesome step back from last year’s Cards Against Humanity. The person who has never heard of the game is the one who wins round after round despite our cries of distress. I disgust Laura by declaring, "Chickens are not foolish!" and denying her what she thought was a sure win. My speech on the subtleties between foolish and stupid (chickens are most definitely stupid) falls on deaf ears as more wine is poured. “Last round," I finally declared, wanting to do corns before the night and the drinking get away from us. It is almost 8:00, after all.
I fetch the little glass jar filled with brightly colored Indian corn. My mother divided up her stash a few years ago and sent 1/6 to each of her children. I then sent 1/5 to each of my children, but, like God’s goodness, there is still plenty to go around. We decided on three corns each as Laura and Jay are new to the Corn Ceremony, and we don’t want to overwhelm them emotionally. We go around the table, one at a time. Plink, I am grateful for the generosity of friends. Plink, I am thankful for support in my creative endeavors. Plink, I am grateful for my job. Plink, I am grateful for new opportunities to connect. Plink, I am grateful for Alice.
I look down the length of the table to the face of my husband as he drops the Alice corn into the ceramic bowl. Being made of sterner stuff than my dad, he doesn’t cry, but his face says it all. I am loved. I am honored. I am safe. I am seen. My heart is full as I look around the table, soaking in my bountiful life. I am, oh so, very thankful.
P.S. Decided a repeat of last year's Thanksgiving post was certainly ok as I barely remembered it, so I am sure my readers don't. I have no idea what this Thanksgiving will bring as we are traveling to Colorado to celebrate with Jane and Mike in their new abode. All I know is, I will be grateful, and FULL. I am positive as to both of these.
Holidays are tricky for so many people. Families are fractured, traditions no longer have the weight they once did, or maybe the person who held your family together is no longer with you. One of the things I love about Thanksgiving - it is a Day of Thanks. So simple. So accessible to all of us, no matter who we are, where we are, who we are with.
I have a challenge for you - reach out to ONE person (or more of course, but no pressure) to say you are thankful for them. I don't care how you do it: mail, text, dozen roses, rock through window with a note tied on it, singing telegram, gushing four-page letter, just do it. The people in our lives are the greatest gift we will ever receive.
On that note, I am so grateful for each of you as you click on that Alice Picks Up a Pen email. It brings me much comfort, confidence, and most of all, courage to keep sharing my words with the world.