Melding Traditions at Thanksgiving

Our parents had a common heritage and instilled in us the importance of family and tradition. Among her staunch convictions was that Mom sincerely believed that older people were interesting to listen to, and that without them, the world would be very boring. In Daddy’s mind, family was his siblings; we kids were a close second, and accepted our place in the pecking order, especially on holidays.

Some of the more wonderful memories I have as a small child on Thanksgiving were making the rounds with Daddy.  We visited his older sister first thing; might not yet have been 10:30 in the morning, but they were up and ready for us, our aunt greeting us like long lost prodigals, and our uncle hugging us in a vice-like grip that, once over, convinced us we could still breathe on our own; our ribs hadn’t cracked.

Daddy would join the adults in a holiday drink and we girls had Shirley Temples.  It was okay on Thanksgiving to eat dessert in the morning.   Cookies on the side table were waiting.  One type in particular was an old family favorite that only my oldest aunt baked – a ravioli-looking cookie with apricot or prune filling, dusted with confectioners’ sugar.  The “Tourtons” brought back memories of “down the house” and was one of Daddy’s favorites; they soon were mine, too!

Back at home, our Thanksgiving table was set to include the aunts and uncles who had no children.  They were brave enough to join us two of the three main holidays each year.  Only Bro and his family always joined us as well.  This was a fun time for us younger aunties to spend with our two little nieces.

Mom’s concerted efforts to replicate the familiar repast, again from “down the house”, kept everyone happy; our table was always bountiful. Sadly, the meals caused our mother considerable stress and strain to maintain the expected standards each year.  She was a nervous wreck on every holiday.  Once she had served the dinner, however, she could finally relax in the knowledge that it had met with everyone’s expectations and approval.  Talk about peer pressure!

Sometimes I honestly wish that I could relive just one of those Thanksgivings. I loved hearing the stories around the table, especially from my uncle who had served in WW I.  My aunt’s harmony and the siblings’ ability to break into song during dessert can never be replicated.  This was a once in a lifetime experience; even our nieces barely recall some of the original players.

The older ones are all gone now.  We second generation are left to communicate and continue the traditional family fare. Our challenge is to communicate the caring and the sharing, not the stress and strain! I long ago made choices; neither time nor finances would ever afford me the opportunity to completely recreate our childhood dinner table. Since then, I have chosen to include some things and delete others; often, I alternate certain specialties from time to time.

Fast forward; I managed to pass along some of our family standards to My Only.  New traditions had to be melded to accommodate the latter day necessity of job commitments and the longer distances traveled between family branches.    My Only doesn’t remember the uncle who squeezed me to death until I thought my ribs would crack!  Traditions had changed as had the personalities involved.

When her turn came, My Only learned all the nuances for her uncles. For example, she learned how to properly greet her Uncle J.  We fashioned a particular protocol, specially honed for the one uncle who didn’t like little kids hugging or hanging on him with sticky hands and runny noses…

I kept the instructions simple:

Honey, just walk in, say “Hello, Uncle J” and keep on walking toward Auntie Dee…

Talk about passing with flying colors; my daughter became a master at this routine.  She’d be through the front door and nearly midway toward the kitchen by the time he could respond, “Hi, Kid”.

It worked. We always had a great visit, and Uncle J thought she was rather well behaved; for a kid.

(My Only with her two big cousins; circa 1980)

THANKSGIVING DAY

May blessings big and small, large,

Little, thin and fat exceed

Your smallest expectations and help

See you through this season’s needs!

With brothers and sisters take

Comfort under His arms and wings

Until you hold in your own hands

A cornucopia of favored things!

Honest toil, good health, a smile,

Some crusty bread, a wedge of cheese

With heirs and friends, join

Loving hearts in gratitude for all of these!

Have a Safe, Blessed and Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

We Were Americans

Mom and Dad brought a common heritage to their first and only new home on Rubberneck Avenue.  Our table had the same four food groups from “down the house” like our grandparents‘ home: wine, French bread, salami, and cheese.  The traditional hospitality of offering a casa croute (sharing of the house bread) continued on Rubberneck as well.

While our table often identified us as French descent, herein lay the distinction:  we were Americans first.  We joined the melting pot of other first and second generation families whereby respect and love for country were inherently as important as the November celebrated reason for gathering.   Like the Pilgrims at Plymouth, we ate turkey on Thanksgiving; the main course, however, was followed by the required bit of French bread and blue cheese to enjoy with the last sips of wine, while we listened to the stories that our uncles with accents had to tell.

 

Author’s Note: plate pictured was always used for salami on holidays!

Talking Turkey

Our most American tradition – celebrating the year’s harvest and blessings – is once again upon us.  Thanksgiving is a holiday that Americans can historically claim as our very own. Does that mean that other peoples before us were ungrateful?  Not by any means.  But IT IS OURS, the one day on the calendar that evokes a melting pot of commonality, culture,  and deep emotions; encouraging a nation of immigrants to give official thanks for the many blessings and bounty we share in our land.

I submit that while holidays can be difficult at times, maintaining some or all of the family traditions can be especially comforting; let these rituals provide the familiar landscape wherein each of you can still participate, even if the role is slightly amended from years before.  If need be, add a new tradition. I suggest:

The “Talk Turkey” Challenge:

  • Give yourself permission to share a story that you’ve never told before; grandparents, this means YOU.
  • Encourage all ages to join in the conversation.  Keep the technology at a minimum (football games excluded)
  • Don’t pull rank; parents often do, then wonder why the kids never talk.  Embrace the ones around you; life is too short to let a minor grievance ruin the holiday camaraderie.
  • Allow a bit of silliness!  (Not necessarily at the expense of table manners, but you be the judge; lots of family stories evolved from dinner tables in past years; try not to shudder.)
  • Fight over the last drumstick; cajoling a sibling into a little childhood skirmish can be fun, especially if one or both parents or an aunt or uncle are still around to watch and laughingly reminisce…
  • Consider each new happenstance a future memory; find the humor in it and laugh together.
  • Look into each face around the table. Observe the personality nuances and mannerisms.  In as brief a span as five years, table personalities will change; children will grow, friends will leave the area; family branches will sprout afar.
  • Can’t travel to be together this Thursday?  Just wait until the next time you can all regroup!  The possibilities are endless!

Growing up, it was easy to take the Thanksgiving holiday for granted; November was a happy month, the start of the Holidays!  Some of us matured rather abruptly once we saw our president assassinated; we all remember where we were, who informed us, and the immediate days after when, as a grieving nation, we gathered that next week to celebrate Thanksgiving.  Many of us remembered only a little boy saluting goodbye to his daddy.

The old adage, Death has no age, was suddenly meaningful; it is this year for some whose  loved one will be missing for the first time this Thanksgiving.  The holiday season can be a particularly painful period.

The coming months present some economic challenges for many; some earners last year are currently unemployed and find themselves in a completely different scenario than the last time they hit the pavement.  Hitting a keyboard can be just as frustrating.

Thanksgiving will arrive just the same. This season, keep our fellow countrymen in prayer.  Choose how to make Thursday one of the sweeter Thanksgiving Days in recent memory.  May we forever feel a depth of gratitude for the lives and goodness He has bestowed upon each of us.

Rejoice! Celebrate! Praise God! Lastly, may God Bless America.

That Blackest of Fridays

Seems like the American media never miss an opportunity to take a tragedy and embellish upon it for later publication. Obligatory markers are a priority, and sadly, JFK’s Assassination is no exception. 

This is the fiftieth anniversary; the media’s obsession and fascination with unanswered questions, conspiracy theories and the renewed cold war climate has again spun its web around our hearts, luring us into a personal time capsule to endure another painful return voyage. 

My journey always begins on the entrance steps of one junior high school in the Bay Area; we were seventh grade “scrubs”, so enjoying the sunny, mid-day lunchtime break was just another Friday with my friends at our usual spot. I remember no faces, just a mass of chatter spilling out of the cafeteria, spreading the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

The president would want us to go on…

How did my gym teacher know what JFK would want?  None of us sitting there in our gym clothes were able to fully comprehend, let alone focus, on the class requirements before us. The few minutes between the principal’s announcement in the cafeteria and the beginning of fourth period was certainly not long enough for any of this horror to sink in; we were still in disbelief and few details were known. Our president assassinated? In our own country? In Vice President Johnson’s Texas? How were we supposed to run laps and play a game as though nothing had happened?

Until that noon hour, we students were an innocent but idealistic bunch, having been inoculated two years before with the Ask Not serum: 

Ask not what your country can do for you;

Ask what you can do for your country.

 

JFK’s quote hung in our school’s front showcase. Many of us were planning to join the Peace Corps when we were eligible; or, at the very least, become teachers and serve the needs of children on our own soil.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was 43, the youngest man and the first Catholic to take the oath of office; handsome and somewhat boyish charm aside, he was also a WWII Navy Veteran.  Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade?  It was within our grasp because this was America, where anything was possible if one believed and envisioned it so.  JFK’s youthful exuberance represented all that was historic and bold and fresh about the American Dream. 

Mom had the television on when I came home from school. The black and white screen repeated the same footage all evening:

There was the young President and First Lady walking along the airstrip fencing, shaking hands and greeting loving well wishers; the handsome couple smiling and waving in a motorcade; and then the distortion of confusion in a shaking, hand-held camera, capturing the indefinable moment. 

News reels would always follow with photos of people crying in the street, discarded roses lying on the floor of an abandoned limousine, and eventually, Walter Cronkite’s tearing up and wiping his glasses on camera as he completed the official pronouncement that President Kennedy had died.

In between the broadcasts, we reminisced: Mom remarked how JFK had “pardoned” the traditional White House Thanksgiving turkeys just a couple of days earlier; what had been a light-hearted presidential photo op now, in hindsight, seemed eerily foreboding; our president had received no such pardon.  

Grasping for some comfort, Mom and we girls took turns leafing through the magazines stacked on the fireplace wall shelves; midst the keepsake newsprint inserts from the weddings of Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, and Margaret Truman were some Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, and other periodicals with Jackie on the cover; color photos of a loving mother with her two darling little ones were rampant, as was the genteel coverage about her maternal fragility. Jackie had been plagued by difficult pregnancies; she had recently lost their third child.  Any woman’s magazine worth its salt had taken a turn extolling the virtues of this young, refined and well-educated thirty-something who had become our youngest First Lady.

Like many families, we had accepted all the hype and the story lines, including the media’s making of a pill box styled Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.  This was the era when Washington as well as Hollywood deleted any scandals from the story lines that might implicate repetitive or rampant undignified behavior by our government leaders; the Kennedy Administration was no different. 

I remember the initial telecast of asides from grief-stricken public figures.  Ladybird Johnson mistakenly remarked that the most terrible travesty was that the assassination had occurred in her beloved Texas.  She later apologized for this faux pas, clarifying that the most terrible travesty was the loss of our beloved president.

The swearing in of Lyndon Johnson by necessity took place on Air Force One.  The new widow insisted on attending, so the ceremony was delayed until Jackie’s arrival. The historic snapshot conveyed a grief-stricken assembly of figures; the viewers’ eyes eventually focused on the blood-stained skirt in the foreground. Some reports suggested that aides had encouraged Jackie to change her clothes for the historic ceremony, but Jackie had refused.  She reportedly responded, “I want them to see what they did to Jack”. 

I had much admired Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy as First Lady, but her words struck me to the core.   I absorbed them completely. I waited for some type of explanation or retraction, but I never heard the First Lady apologize for that which in my sensitivity was a deeply punitive remark.  

We prepared ourselves for the weekend’s continual coverage; maybe new reports would offer some of the missing details.  We were glued to the screen the entire morning when we witnessed in real time Jack Ruby walking up to Lee Harvey Oswald and shooting him at close range. 

Dear God! What must we endure next?

We were all in a daze; even the solemnity of a four day weekend of national mourning didn’t close the door on the restlessness or fear inspired by these two indescribable acts. 

Images…the boots facing backward in the stirrups, the black bunting across the White House windows, the little guy saluting his father’s caisson… I had expected historic precedence to console… now, one man’s visions had been diminished to an eternal flame, extinguishing a fountain of youthful promise.

There was little consolation from the Warren Report.  I quickly caught the cynical virus from the adults.  I couldn’t then and still can’t break away from my initial skepticism that the historical summation by the Warren Commission was a political assessment rather than conclusive of either guilt or trajectory findings. The report at best rubbed salt in our intellectual wounds; few Americans accepted its findings as convincing; and the government’s decision to seal the documents for fifty years fed our doubts and fueled every conspiracy theory that later arose.

Some years I managed to set the painful memories of November on the back burner. But American journalism’s insistence on commemorating a Camelot that never really existed made forgetting the story’s tragic ending impossible.  They stirred the pot enough so to keep us somber and close to a  seems like just yesterday awareness.

Not that we needed any reminders. Poignant images presented themselves with or without the help of the media; they were permanently embedded in our common psyche. Each November 22nd , we who were old enough to remember that day recalled where we were… and when we heard… and how we as a country mourned. 

I do not exaggerate when I state that a part of my own emotional maturity was frozen in place on that blackest of Fridays; but I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that JFK’s death was only partially to blame; my brother’s nervous breakdown in September had already altered some of the family dynamics.

Neither my brother’s vulnerability nor JFK’s death would fade away very quickly.  From my eleven year old eyes, I wasn’t sure of anything that autumn of ’63 except that my immediate future held more sorrowful weeks ahead.  I sought escape where I could, and burrowed even deeper into my school studies, managing to accomplish a fair amount of distance during waking hours before going to bed and shutting myself away from my family’s personal heartache.

Historic events come and go; unfortunately, the more dramatic ones languish much longer than we wish, lurking in the shadows like smears of glue that have yet to dry clear, leaving unwanted traces marring an otherwise precious entry in our life’s scrapbook…

 

Gifting Outside the Box – 2021 UPDATE

Establishing months for special causes works really well for marketing purposes, but it won’t prevent the occasional gaps that occur in between.  A good example is our Military Families and Veterans.  May and November holidays call attention to these groups, but their needs are year-round.

Americans are some of the most caring and generous people in the world. While each generation may have had its challenges, the time for each of us to think and consider gifting outside the box has arrived…so, I suggest we change our course for Thanksgiving and Christmas Seasons THIS YEAR.  Pick up an extra can or two at the market and delete a gift or two from under the tree; here are some alternative gifting ideas:

  • Donate to the local food pantry at your church or one in your community.  COVID-19 and its ramifications have been financially tougher than most for many of our loved ones; some who previously donated in the past now find themselves on the receiving end. No telling about 2022…so,
  • Fill those plastic bags that the Scouts leave at your door with canned goods and pantry staples up to the brim!
  • Support your local merchant; don’t be fooled by a national brand.  Many of the “chain” stores and fast food restaurants are actually franchises owned by individuals who have faces,  names,  families, and payrolls to meet.
  • Let your children carry change in their pockets…The Salvation Army will have their red kettles out very soon.  They will have more needy than ever to feed and clothe.  The change adds up quickly, and the kids will get a big kick out of contributing!
  • Carry an extra ten dollar bill or whatever you can afford on your person when traveling by air…happen to see a serviceman or servicewoman traveling home or leaving on assignment?  Press the bill in their hand, thank them for their service, and give them permission to “spend” a little something on themselves.  You’d be amazed at the morale booster an unexpected greenback from a total stranger can give…I’ve seen the smiles myself.
  • USO Centers  can only stretch their holiday cheer so far; when multiple units begin passing through in droves during the holiday season, the pickings can get very slim.  Check in with the Center nearest you, especially if you have memories of having yourself spent a holiday at one just like it.
  • Your local VFW will happily accept donations for Operation Uplink, the internet phone program for military overseas to communicate with loved ones at home.
  • Some of us had a child who was helped by medical foundations or organizations like Shriners Hospitals for Children.  There are little ones there now, too…in the same departments we once visited on a regular basis.
  • Whether you belong to a service club or not, you have friends who do.  Ask if they need support on any particular projects.  Rotarians are busy year-round, and their Rotary Foundation is one of the best places to put money to work, locally and globally.

THESE ARE ONLY A FEW IDEAS from your humble writer.  Thanks for indulging my 2021 soapbox persona by reading this special snippet.

Sincerely,

Custer 🙂

Hansel and Gretel; the Retirement Years

Like every child in junior high, all my mother had to do was walk in a room and I experienced “embarrassment”; it didn’t matter…whatever came out of her mouth, no matter how entertaining or engaging for the other adults, would easily direct me under the nearest available  table.

My mother was a genial sort who never failed to entertain my mentors with her laughing, smiling, and congenial personality.  Truth is she never stopped talking, especially when she was nervous.  Hence, her stories and jokes were nothing short of revealing to this twelve year old, especially when she shared a chuckle with my eighth grade art teacher.  Like the day she shared her favorite joke:

Eat every carrot and pea in your dish.

Giggle, giggle, smile, and the eyes twinkled.  My teacher thought it was cute; but then, her parents were of the same generation, so I am sure she had learned to cope much better after she’d passed thirty years of age.  I would not recover from this happenstance for another twenty years…

While Mom thought peas and carrots were funny subjects to joke about, she found little other vegetation amusing, especially that from my father’s backyard garden.  She couldn’t believe the amount of water that Daddy used each month to water and care for the plants; the water bill was easily the sorest subject for her every year.  There were other sore subjects as well; like the mud he always tracked in.

Daddy would come home after working all day, pour himself a glass of red wine, slice a piece of bread, grab a couple of slices of salami or cheese, then stroll down the hallway to the backdoor exit; he was on a mission: time to check his garden.

One could follow my father’s steps by the wine drops and French bread crumbs.  The kitchen door was a more convenient exit, but for some reason, he preferred to walk down the sixteen foot long hall, leaving his markings (I never had any problem believing Hansel and Gretel had marked their way back home; I’d witnessed this a hundred times as a child; bread crumbs are easily seen under any lighting, even on shag carpeting!)

Once he’d completely planted the backyard bed and lined up all the paste buckets for that growing season, Daddy moved forward, focusing on the planting space that remained along the sunnier side of our home.  Tomatoes and pepper plants lined the western side of our house, adjacent to our narrow cemented driveway.  Because of the hours of good hot exposure, some of the best fruits of his labor were produced along this narrow planting strip.

Mom maintained that it would have been cheaper to just run to the Japanese produce stand down on the boulevard.  But Daddy had decided that he would always have his garden.  Sometimes, the tension was very strained during those retirement years.  Each time Mom tried to explain that the cost of growing his own garden was not worth all the trouble, my father was more determined than ever to grow his own vegetables.

This particular day, Mom had had it.  The mud that Daddy tracked in with his prize crop (some of the tomatoes were no bigger than marbles) finally was too much for her to take.  She was tired of all the extra dirt and loudly said so. When she flatly refused to wash any of his garden harvest and told him to take it back outside and wash all the dirt off FIRST, Daddy said “to hell with it” and announced he would cook it himself.

I stopped by after work that afternoon, as sometimes I had a few minutes and, having returned to the area, I could enjoy a short visit a couple times a week before heading on home.  I walked in and Mom informed me that Daddy was outside with “his” vegetables.

I stepped out in back and discovered that Daddy had fired up the charcoal grill.  He was cutting up his prize vegetables and throwing them in a pot of water sitting over the coals; he was making soup.

I’m not helpless…I’ll show her…your mother isn’t the ONLY one that can cook…

Obviously, this was a very serious stance in my father’s eyes. I walked back in the house and noticed Mom was peeking out the back window, watching his every move.  She’d giggle a bit, and then return to her kitchen. Soon after, our neighbor arrived home, closed his garage, and saw Daddy over the wall, standing by the grill.  He walked over and heard the entire story while Daddy proudly showed him his “soup” and reiterated,

The woman thinks I’m helpless, you know…

Our neighbor just chuckled and shook his head, finally taking leave and going home for dinner.

Don’t ask me what Daddy’s soup tasted like.  By this time in my life, I was old enough to understand this particular standoff was far from over; good time for me to split…