A day when memory serves

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Few Thanksgiving holidays actually resemble those magazine portraits of elegantly set tables, fond glances and turkeys basted in glory. The following thoughts and tales of our lifestyles writers demonstrate that holidays are often as much about those who aren't present as those who are, that they usually carry lessons of how we could all so better, and that they are rich in the humor that comes from trying to please everyone.

2 But the sound of his voice is still beyond me.

Rob Hiaasen The house in Carney was sold this month. As I stood in the dining room on the shiny hardwood floor after the movers cleared out everything but memories, my thoughts went back a year. When the green and white Oriental rug lay on the floor, when the corner cabinets stood gleaming, when the oval table was set for dinner under the brass chandelier, this was the place of my most memorable Thanksgiving, and my last in this house.

The Edel family had 37 Thanksgiving dinners here and I was present for 24 of them.

In early 1992, Dorothy Edel, my wife's mother, developed severe headaches and balance problems. An MRI found the inoperable cancer.

The rest of 1992 became a tumble of emotions -- sadness, tears, hope, acceptance, a lingering sense of impending loss.

Home health aides tended Mrs. Edel around the clock as Thanksgiving neared. In the past, this is when Mrs. Edel would be spending days preparing food and getting the house ready. My wife, an only child, worried about how to handle this year's holiday, wanting it to be a good one for her mother.

Then, my wife got a phone call.

"We're going to have Thanksgiving dinner here," her mother announced. "I've already called Bowman's restaurant. I ordered four turkey dinners to go. All you have to do is pick them up."

She had decided. She was in control of the holiday preparations, even if she couldn't cook.

When we arrived, Mrs. Edel had left her sickbed and was sitting in a favored chair. Rachel Stevens, one of her home health aides, had helped with her hair and makeup.

As daylight faded, the four of us had dinner around the dark cherry dining room table, moving turkey and dressing from Styrofoam containers to blue and white china. My mother-in-law smiled more than she had in weeks. So did we.

Afterward, Mrs. Edel insisted on giving my wife and me our anniversary gift a month early. "I want you to have it now," she said quietly.

She died Dec. 19. She was buried Dec. 23, our 25th wedding anniversary.

Wayne Hardin We are very different from one another.

Most of the time, it matters.

However, we have gathered together in this dining room whorled with remnants of other Thanksgivings: Familiar remarks, the scent of silver polish and stale tobacco. Over the years, some of the faces have begun to crinkle like crepe. Expressive, you might say, expressive.

And transparent.

The children are fidgeting in their seats: Restless, fresh, soft -- as soft as the cotton batting used to wrap brittle things.

Before us lies the good tablecloth, revealing its highly interpretive history of stains. And here comes the rest of the Thanksgiving fleet: Two gravy boats followed by several barges of food.

Harbored, we await transformation through the joyful act of eating.

It's not clear how we achieve that holy state, that losing of our differences through the ritual of feeding. Perhaps a blessed wind blows through the world and lifts our forks.

Ready, set:

The wine glasses are raised, the words are said. No more time to contemplate the mission, no room for the reluctant or the disengaged. We have joined together. Let nothing come between us.

Here we go:

A quick rustling followed by chewing, swallowing. Comforting barn sounds. We are in communion, incommunicado.

Then, just as suddenly, we return slightly dazed and refreshed. Heaping hosannas upon the slightly dry turkey, acting charitably toward the candied yams.

Pass the butter, please. Heard your back's been bothering you again. Who made these rolls? So what's the latest from the salt mine? More gravy down this way. It's been crazy, absolutely crazy. Put something different in the stuffing this year? No, you can't be excused yet.

Someone tells a stupid joke, someone dabs at a stain. An old spill, once humiliating, it is temporarily beyond judgment.

These are our jokes, our stains.

Give thanks.

Linell Smith It's always hard to tell a story on yourself. In fact, until I hearmy wife Katherine first tell this one, I never quite realized it was about me. I'd always thought it was about her. Or the dog. Or the turkey. It's sad when you're the last one on your block to get it.

But it happened in Denver, in the mid '70s, when my mother and father flew out from Syracuse for a Thanksgiving visit. Naturally, we planned a home-cooked dinner of turkey with all the trimmings. That was the way Mom had always done it, and in those days ignoring the Mom Way of Life was a felony.

To prepare, we divided the duties this way: Katherine would cook the turkey and all the trimmings and I would eat it.

We had three children under six and a dog named Dooley who was so hyper he once dived through the glass front door after a mailman. Dooley barked constantly at my mom and dad and, combined with three kids running, shrieking and scattering toys, the tension was soon exquisite.

We watched football in the family room while Katherine slaved in the kitchen. She took a phone call as she opened the oven door to baste the nearly done turkey. Momentarily she took her eyes off the bird. When she next saw it, the large pan-with-turkey was sliding off its rack and down the open oven door. As she screamed and dropped the phone, the pan sluiced to the floor, the bird popping free and skidding all the way to the refrigerator.

Dooley, of course, was there instantly -- as was I, who had heard the loud crash and come running.

Such a sight. Katherine and Dooley eyeing each other from opposite sides of the still-spinning bird, both growling menacingly. She kept him back with a well-aimed wooden spoon in on hand while trying to grab the turkey with the other. She howled as she grabbed the hot bird, but my mind could focus on only one thought: a perfect occasion stood in jeopardy. What would Mom think?

And thus I spoke the words now etched in stone in the family hall of fame.

"Er, will there still be gravy?"

Very bad move.

That I am still alive to tell this tale owes completely to my not slipping and falling on the spilled juices -- as did poor Dooley -- as we both turned tail and ran for our lives.

Patrick A. McGuire I'm always dubious when spokesmen for the turkey industry insist around Thanksgiving that consumers shouldn't load up on the bird just a couple of times a year -- that it's a cheap, low-fat, nutritious dinner no matter what the calendar says.

Well, I love turkey, but I never eat it except at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Maybe it's because I associate turkey with those holidays, and at any other time it seems out of place. Or maybe it's because I once tried to eat two in one day.

That was eight years ago, when for the only time in my life I scheduled back-to-back Thanksgiving dinners. The first was at my aunt's house, a traditional family gathering. But days before Thanksgiving, our good friend Paula asked if she and her chef boyfriend Rick could visit for the holidays. They would make the dinner: All we would have to do is show up to eat at our own house. I suspected that might be overload, but figured I'd just nibble at the first dinner, then splurge at the second.

But at my aunt's, I ate two servings of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans and two slivers of pumpkin pie. So much for restraint. I'd been so conditioned to feasting at Thanksgiving that the best I could do was pass on whipped cream with the pie.

Two hours later, when we returned to our house, I felt as stuffed as if I had just put down my fork. Meanwhile, Paula and Rick had whipped up a fabulous meal. Even the gravy looked as if it were right out of Bon Appetit.

Our other friends came in, and the night grew more festive. We -- or rather they -- wined and supped and raised their glasses in friendship. I tried a few bites of turkey and sampled a couple of dishes. But mostly I wanted to throw up.

The consensus at evening's end was that it was the finest Thanksgiving dinner in memory. I couldn't disagree, for it certainly looked great. And when people went home, I went upstairs and then straight to bed. I didn't eat for a day and a half.

Tim Warren The earliest memories are sensual, impressionistic: rich blue cheese dip stuffed into celery sticks, crisp Waldorf salad, turkey that always smelled better than it tasted, tangy olives, bowls of uncracked walnuts, pecan pie that was tooth-achingly sweet.

As I grew up, Thanksgiving's familial themes were sharply contradicted by my parents' discord. By the time I was a teen, my mother had become skilled in dodging traditional obligations that would force her and my father to preside together over a groaning table and three uncomfortable children.

One year, she held Thanksgiving on the day after the actual holiday, and urged us to invite our friends. It was a raucous affair, and my father was easily lost in the shuffle. Another year, she invited the housekeeper -- who had become one of her best friends -- and her family. My father stiffly and distantly performed his carving duties and slunk early to the couch.

There was also the Thanksgiving when just my brother and I were home. By then my father had left. My mother bought an enormous amount of haddock and fried it up. The fishy excess turned my stomach.

After college, I stopped going home for Thanksgiving. While living in Vermont, my roommate and I once tossed our own Thanksgiving. I even made a pumpkin pie from a real pumpkin. (Never again.) By then, there was a disposable boyfriend on the couch watching football and complaining about having to peel and section oranges for the ambrosia requested in deference to his Southern roots.

This year, my husband, children and I will be in New Jersey, in the same hometown where I grew up. But I will be in a different home -- my sister-in-law's. And Thanksgiving will be large, loud and I'll probably get a headache. But then we will go for a long walk, through the campus and down to the lake, pushing and coddling our lagging children, and I will think about the family I now belong to.

Stephanie Shapiro Most families celebrate with turkey. We preferred Bullwinkle.

And Snoopy. And Spider-Man. And small-town cheerleaders, baton twirlers, marching band members, B celebrities and the whole cast of characters who make up the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

For as many holidays as I can remember, it was this event, more than the feeding frenzy that followed, that gave us reason to rejoice.

Even after we moved to Baltimore from New York, we'd return, packing as many relatives as we could into our blue station wagon (nickname: Nellie Belle) and heading for the corner of 67th and Central Park West.

Nothing could compare to watching that first lumbering balloon bob and weave through the sky, like an airborne puppet held to earth by wisps of string.

How we fretted over Bullwinkle's antlers, always hovering too near a brittle tree branch. And how dreamy we thought Glen Campbell looked lip-syncing "Wichita Lineman." We hardly noticed when the baton twirler, her teeth chattering and lips blue, missed her cue.

Sunshine or rain, we showed up, sometimes wearing green trash bags as raincoats and ending up with colds afterward that my mother blamed on the parade.

She always dressed sensibly in the same wool cap with a patchwork pattern that reminded me of the stained-glass windows in church. We ignored the four food groups that day, drinking Coke and eating soft pretzels and hot dogs, all before noon.

Even with each of us wearing three pairs of socks and several scarves, our feet would be numb and our noses a Christmas red by the time Santa Claus arrived for the finale.

We'd trundle back to the car. My father would curse the traffic, and my mother would try to calm him by praising his apple pies. In the back seat, my sisters and I would sit, feet up on the window, hungry and sleepy and thankful for parades.

Mary Corey

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