Not having family within reasonable traveling distance, I often don’t particularly look forward to the holidays. Thanksgiving, which used to be such a wonderful family event when my parents and grandparents were living, is now often just another day at our house.
So, when an elderly neighbor and longtime friend called and asked if my friend and I would like to join her and her new husband for Thanksgiving dinner, it sounded like a stellar idea. Just being invited out was a sweet gesture and we hadn’t seen Alice in a couple of years. (None of the names here are real, for reasons that will become apparent.)
“What can I bring?” I asked Alice. She was fixing the turkey, potatoes and gravy, she said, and maybe I could bring a salad or a dessert. Asked if she and husband Bob had any special requests, she suggested a cranberry salad and a pumpkin pie, to which I happily agreed.
When we arrived at Alice’s house, the driveway was full of cars.
Entering, we saw an assortment of people we’d never met before and soon went about introducing ourselves and trying to get acquainted. Alice announced that dinner was about to be served.
“I got up at 3 a.m. to start the turkey cooking,” she said, explaining that she hadn’t baked a turkey in a decade and hoped the bird was done. It was now 1 p.m. Ten hours for a 16-pound turkey seemed to me about 5 hours too long, but I kept my opinion to myself.
Everyone’s contribution to the dinner, a remarkable-looking feast, was laid out on tables so we could serve ourselves. The feast looked right, but something was missing.
My childhood memories of Thanksgiving are mostly about the smells. Sage and thyme, savory, onion, the pumpkin pie spices — all combined to make the house smell fantastic. But none of those scents were apparent on this day.
Bob attempted to carve the turkey, which had been cooked so long that the bones were soft and the carcass had collapsed in on itself. Tender didn’t quite describe the turkey; rubbery might.
Alice explained that she didn’t have any sage or thyme for the stuffing, so it might be a bit bland. Bread cubes, an onion and celery without sage and thyme? Bland doesn’t come close. Bless her heart, she did offer the pepper shaker, saying, “Jim, I know you like things herby.”
Granted, I had arrived with preconceptions: Memories of my mother’s Thanksgiving dinners, in which she would gather and dry the sage from the garden the week before, and add thyme and parsley at just the right time not only to the stuffing, but also to the turkey broth that would become the gravy.
The group gathered at Alice’s also didn’t quite match up to my expectations of joyous conviviality. Alice meant well, but she had managed to assemble a melange of completely unmixable people. I like interesting people, but these challenged even my dogged attempts at sociability. As the day got longer, it got funnier.
Picture it: A dozen people around a long table. Alice, to my left, is Doris Day, but older. (People actually do call her Doris because of the strong resemblance, in spirit if not appearance.) She didn’t eat a bite for jumping up and trying to wait on everyone.
Immediately across from me was Bob’s brother, Henry, who obviously didn’t want to be there. He would neither converse nor respond when directly spoken to. He ate, but he might as well have been in front of the television because in every way but the physical, he was elsewhere.
Immediately to my right was a 13-year-old girl who was s-o-o-o-o mortified to be seen with adults that she was apparently following Henry’s lead and pretending she wasn’t there either. Next to her was her 14-year-old brother, in that voracious stage boys enter in which they will eat anything that isn’t moving or doesn’t bite back. He systematically cleaned his plate three times, then started on his recalcitrant sister’s plate, then grazed from his father’s plate to his right, with his grand finale being the emptying of all serving bowls within reach. It was a sight to behold: He seemed to grow in front of our eyes.
Across from him were two attention-hungry children of the single woman guest who paid no attention to either of them. These two were probably 7 and 8, a boy and a girl. Even when the boy took the plastic pig (which squealed and oinked) from the centerpiece and proceeded to pull its tail and make it squeal loud and high, the mother paid no attention.
As I worked my way around the table hoping for some sort of conversation, I noticed that no one was talking with the elderly couple near the far end of the table. I soon learned why. The poor old fellow was trying to engage his wife in the meal, but she only sat with her purse clasped to her bosom, staring at her plate and occasionally demanding, “Whose glass is that?” and “Where are we?”
Bob, bringing up the head of the table, was an odd and reluctant host. A retired school superintendent, I assumed he was simply still shell-shocked from his years in high school hallways, monitoring haircuts and skirt lengths. How else to explain the 24 paperclips he pulled from his pants pocket, fastened together like a rosary? He seemed to do a prayer for each paperclip, his lips moving with no sound coming out, a habit that must have sustained him through the reprimand of many a high school student.
When things got especially quiet, or if someone asked Bob a question, out came the paperclip rosary and he’d finger each clip as he attempted to come up with an answer.
And there we sat, lost souls washed up on Thanksgiving’s shore, pulled together by Doris Day in one last movie plot, trying to remember our lines, struggling to find a common thread to hold onto.
It was sweet that Bob and Alice included us. It was certainly an entertaining dinner, with pigs oinking, children shrieking and teenagers sulking, not to mention the flaccid, collapsible turkey and flavorless gravy. If we get invited back, this year we’ll take a packet of parsley, savory, rosemary, sage and thyme to make us all cheery. And see if Alice will let us bring the bird.
Jim Long’s gardens and books can be seen at www.LongCreekHerbs.com. Readers’ comments and questions are always welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net.