Author: Alice Sink
A New Way to Celebrate an Old Tradition
Our children and grandchildren spend alternate Thanksgivings with us. Last November, Tom and I planned a different, sophisticated, and sociable Turkey-Day celebration at our Hilton Head Island home. We scored on one of the three—different!
Every host and hostess envisions the perfect bird, succulent dressing, candied yams, fresh green beans, yeast rolls, and homemade pumpkin pie. The dining room table must sparkle magnificently with antique lace cloth, Francis I sterling, Charnwood china, and Duncan and Miller Chantilly goblets. Candles cast a romantic shadow over the cut-glass centerpiece of burgundy mums. Classical music plays in the background. Adults toast the holiday with a delectable chardonnay while the grandchildren, dressed in designer kiddy outfits, join in melodious, thought-provoking table conversation, hands folded calmly in laps.
Yeah, right! If you believe that, I’ve got a kudzu-covered lot I want to sell you.
Our afternoon began in a believably normal manner, with everyone engaging in ordinary holiday activities. Curt and J. W. sprawled on the living room floor, busily putting together a pilgrim punch-out scene. Bella sat in the La-Z-Boy, drawing a picture of the first Thanksgiving. “Granny, what did the pilgrims eat that first Thanksgiving dinner?” she called to me in the kitchen.
“Oh, turkey, corn, squash, turnips, shellfish,” I answered.
“Did they have cranberry crunch, stuffed olives, and sour cream coconut cake?”
“I don’t think so,” I responded honestly. How would I know, I wanted to say. You’d have thought I had been there.
“Well, what else, besides turkey and stuff like that?”
“They probably had cornbread, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and something made with apples,” I guessed.
The image of pilgrims giving thanks for their plenty, safety, health, and happiness during their first year in the New World obviously intrigued my granddaughter. After a few minutes of silence, I heard her ask, “Granny, why don’t we have an old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner this evening?” She elaborated, “Instead of the plain, ol’ boring stuff.”
Now, I really had never considered my dinner parties boring. She had my attention. “How? What do you mean by old fashioned?”
“I mean we kids dress up in costumes; have the table decorated with corn and apples, stuff like that.” Bella’s two brothers shouted a verbal agreement. They clearly wanted in on this exciting holiday project.
Realizing that this could provide an inspirational, creative, and educational experience for all of us, I agreed to let the kids decorate the dining room table and dress in traditional costumes—provided they got their gear from the box of old clothes in the attic, design their own costumes, and not detain me from important food preparation.
“Okay,” I said. “I think an original table setting would be extremely interesting, and everyone may dress as she or he chooses,” I agreed. “But one more thing,” I interjected, wanting all the grandchildren to internalize just how far I intended to go with this old- fashioned idea. “You’ll have to agree on table decorations. No bickering. No arguing. And you must put your own original outfits together. Use your imagination,” I said, laying down the ground rules. “And, no help from grown ups allowed.”
“We will. We’ll be original,” Bella, Carl, and J. W. assured me. “You’ll see,” they promised, with saintly tones—exactly what they knew I wanted to hear.
As the aroma of the roasting bird filled the house, the three children stayed busy behind closed dining room doors. Later, they assured me the table had turned into a holiday masterpiece, but no one should preview their handiwork. They wanted to surprise all the guests. Then they went to the attic to assemble their costumes.
When great aunts arrived, no kids skipped to the front door to greet them. “Where are the children?” everyone asked.
“They’re in the attic, dressing the part for a wonderful Thanksgiving gala.” I would reveal no details.
“I think that’s sweet,” Aunt Cathy announced. “Children can be so resourceful.”
Aunt Bessie Mae agreed. “The little darlings are so creative,” she said, “I can’t wait to see what they’ve done.”
“Touché,” Aunt Carrie Jane chimed in, as she handed me a lovely surprise basket filled with her homemade mints and fudge and topped with a dewy bouquet of fresh violets.
“They’ve worked real hard decorating the table and planning their first Thanksgiving costumes,” I told everyone—including their parents, who by this time took turns shooting paranoid sidelong glances at me like I had totally lost it. “So no matter what they look like, please don’t laugh,” I informed the gathering crowd of relatives before I excused myself to tend to last-minute food preparations in the kitchen.
A calming hush fell on the house as the adults enjoyed cocktail hour. As I started into the living room with a tray of appetizers—sausage balls, barbecued hotdogs, and slices of ham—I heard Aunt Cathy describing, in gory detail, the hazards of eating pork. Then I heard Aunt Bessie Mae tell about her recent, near-fatal case of food poisoning from eating contaminated potato salad. I retreated to the kitchen with the pork killers and quickly hid the bowl of potato salad in the back of the refrigerator. About that time, I heard Aunt Carrie Jane say, “It’s almost as bad as poisoning from cream pies and cakes.” So I put the sour cream coconut cake on the shelf next to the potato salad.
Then the shout sounded from above: “Okay, we’re ready. Go in the dining room and sit down. We’re coming down in a minute.” We obeyed like doting grown-ups.
We all entered the dining room and chose seats around a table decorated with strips of red and green crepe paper left over from the previous Christmas. Enough acorns, hickory nuts, and berries to feed every squirrel on Hilton Head Island dotted the shredded paper. The centerpiece, a homemade paper cornucopia filled with dead sprigs of kudzu, shedding stalks of scarlet sage and flaky, nondescript zinnias, resembled someone’s dying summer garden growing in a dunce cap. Trails of stinking marigolds surrounded the cornucopia. All eyes zoomed in on the table decorations.
“Here they come,” I called in a cheery voice. “Let’s be sure to tell them how nice the table looks. They’ve worked so hard.” I knew I had to be gung-ho and chirpy to compensate for the eclectic table décor.
Bella appeared first. She looked dignified in a gingham skirt, white blouse, neck scarf, apron and handmade cardboard pilgrim cap. Curt entered next in an old moth-eaten tuxedo, Salty Dog T-shirt, Hilton Head visor, and flip-flops. Little J. W. followed.
Aunt Cathy turned away quickly to keep from laughing. Aunt Bessie Mae pretended she had dropped her hanky under the table and bent to retrieve it, while Aunt Carrie Jane made grunting noises as she stared at the chandelier. I focused my attention on the little black bugs that kept crawling around the nuts and berries of the centerpiece. Pappy Tom had a sudden coughing fit and had to leave the room. The children’s parents sat frozen and anesthetized. Even the little black bugs stopped roaming and stared.
J. W. wore only a loincloth, war paint strategically administered with colorful magic markers, and his winter-white skin.
After the children found their seats, Pappy Tom re-entered the dining room, his face red from laughing and his eyes watering. Everyone held hands and we said grace.
“What are the black bumps in the dressing?” Aunt Bessie Mae asked as a dinner conversational opener.
“Smoked oysters,” I told her.
“They look like dog-do,” J. W. volunteered.
I pretended he said something in French and reminded him not to talk with his mouth full.
For more amiable table conversation, the kids decided to discuss the time we had found a dead bat in our house. They went into detail, relating how we had to keep the corpse in a coffee can in the freezer until the Health Department opened on Monday morning.
Aunt Bessie Mae tried to change the subject by asking, “Can we use these cloth napkins, or are they just for looks?”
An hour later, after cleaning away the dishes and serving the adults their pumpkin pie and coffee, I told the children we’d take a walk—get out of the house for a little while. No one except me had appreciated the kids’ creativity, innovation, and spontaneity on this very important holiday. Well, I’d show them I cared!
I excused myself, went into the bedroom and put on my vintage majorette outfit—complete with white tasseled boots. Then, I secretly signaled for Bella, Curt, and J. W. to come outside with me. Like four goons, we marched down the bike path, reached the Forest Preserve, circled the lake, high-stepping and swinging our arms —as any true pilgrim worth his or her salt would do—and singing at the top of our lungs bits and pieces of the only Thanksgiving song I could remember:
Over the river and through the woods,
To Grandmother’s house we go.
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
Through white and drifting snow.
Hurray for the fun.
Is the turkey done?
Hurray for the pumpkin pie!
When we got back to the house an hour later, I noticed that all adults had sprawled in easy chairs to digest their dinner and watch the football games on TV. I got the kids ready for bed, and when I tucked them in and gave them a goodnight kiss, they said, “This has been the best Thanksgiving ever!” I thought so, too. As four zealous, modern-day pilgrims, we had certainly braved our new world. And we had enjoyed every second of our silly venture.
As I headed for the living room, I noticed that our cat, whose diet usually consists of begonias and Swedish ivy, had found Aunt Carrie Jane’s violets a culinary delight. The varied menu obviously had not agreed with his tummy, so he had gone around the house throwing up little pools of phlegm, each puddle centered with a wilted purple flower.
About midnight, we said goodbye to the great-aunts and made them promise they would return.
Until they do, though, we’re going to be eating a lot of left-over sausage balls, potato salad, and sour cream cocoanut cake.