My earliest memories of Thanksgiving always surround my grandparent’s rowhome on Kirkwood Road. A table extending two rooms with half of us seated in the dining room and half of us seated at the other end of the table in the living room.
I spent most of my childhood living in the same neighborhood my dad had grown up in, just a short walk from my grandparent’s house and I visited often. If I was lucky and visiting two days before Thanksgiving, my grandmother would assign me the job of setting the two room Thanksgiving table. I would pull out the ivory china plates and gravy bowl with delicate pink flowers etched on each piece from her china cabinet. A gift she had given to her mother for Christmas while my grandfather was away in the Korean War. Having placed them on layaway at a jewelry store months before Christmas, she visited every Friday, after receiving her paycheck, to pay toward the balance because as she always reminded me, “You could only purchase fine china at jewelry stores, back then”.
And Thanksgivings continued that way for years but just as families evolve, so did our Thanksgivings. My brother and I began attending every other year, an alternate schedule most children become accustomed to after their parents’ divorce. My grandparents eventually retired to the beach and we decided it would be memorable to move our family Thanksgiving to Deep Creek Lake. A few of my grandfather’s siblings each renting houses with their branch of families and turning Thanksgiving into a 4-day extended family celebration, complete with my grandmother learning the game of Asshole and never hesitating to yell “beer bitch” when she finally had a good handle on the rules of the game. Our branch was kicked out of a few houses that Thanksgiving night but Mommom didn’t care, she just invited everyone back to our rented lake house for the remainder of the night, after we provided a detailed explanation of the game of Flip Cup to her.
We didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last Thanksgiving in Deep Creek Lake and the last Thanksgiving we would celebrate with my grandfather. Life can be cruel that way. We do not always get a chance to appreciate the importance of a moment until it is in the rear-view mirror.
We, as a family, decided that the Thanksgiving following my grandfather’s death would be less weird for my grandmother if we held a Hawaiian themed Thanksgiving, complete with Hawaiian shirts. This was not so. It seems Mai Tai’s and leis do not distract a person from realizing their husband of 50 years is still dead.
After that, Thanksgiving in our family lived a nomadic lifestyle and bounced around between my dad and his two brothers’ houses until firmly landing in my lap about 10 years ago.
Always ready for a challenge, I took on the role of Thanksgiving hostess with desire and determination, despite being the only family member with two small children. I created a menu complete with detailed shopping lists, flower arrangements and set my table not 2 days early but 3 days early, just to be safe.
On the eve of hosting my first Thanksgiving, after putting my two boys to bed, I grabbed the turkey I had been thawing for days, per the Butterball thawing recommendations, grabbed a pan, ready for roasting brilliance. Removed the turkey from its plastic casing, pulled out the neck and bag of giblets, (wondering what in the hell I was supposed to do with those) and placed my turkey in the pan. Then flipped it over, again, and again and again. “No problem”, I thought. Nothing a quick google search can’t solve. How do you know if a turkey is upside down?.… Nothing. I searched again. Photo of turkey in roasting pan… Still couldn’t tell. I was out of options, I decided to call my dad.
“Dad, don’t let Mommom know you are talking to me. How do I know if the turkey is breast side up or back side up?” I asked.
“HOW DOES SHE KNOW IF THE TURKEY IS UPSIDE DOWN?” he replied, yelling out from the phone.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph! She doesn’t know if the turkey is upside down or not?”, I heard my grandmother eloquently yell from the background before grabbing the phone from my dad and offering, “THE POPPER UPPER!”.
I realized by her volume I should have understood but her description provided little guidance. She completed her advice, with instructions “not to listen to my stepmother and to cook the turkey covered, on low, overnight and then pop it up in the morning”.
My stepmother’s voice was next on the phone, offering zero advice on how to locate the breast on a turkey but instead, instructing me in a hushed voice, “to not listen to my grandmother and to not cook that turkey below 350 degrees or you will give everyone food poisoning”.
I hung up the phone staring at my turkey, still unsure what side was the breast of the turkey, picked a number between food poisoning and 350, threw the turkey in the oven and called it a night. That Thanksgiving, eenie meenie miney mo prevailed, no one died of food poisoning and my grandmother said it was one of the best turkeys she had ever eaten.
This year, on my 10th year hosting Thanksgiving, I am reminded that our house is bigger than the rowhome on Kirkwood Road, but our table is smaller. Family now scattered amongst different states and different time zones, celebrating at different tables, some with new faces and some with empty seats.
This Thanksgiving may be very different for many families. Traditions change through the years, even when we don’t want them to. Some we are only able to visit in our memories, enveloped in nostalgia but if we are lucky, a few survive for us to pass down through our family.
On Tuesday, I will pull out the ivory china with the delicate pink flowers etched around the edge and matching gravy boat, although I haven’t heard my grandmother’s voice in 5 years. My children will help me set the table, as I tell them the journey of our Thanksgiving dishes, reminding them of course, that the finest china could only be purchased in jewelry stores back then.
All while still wondering how you know if a turkey is upside down.
Remembering those that created the memories of Thanksgiving past, grateful for those creating the memories of Thanksgiving present, and hopeful for our children who will create the memories of Thanksgiving future.