The year was 1980-something, don’t remember. The hair was spiked (platinum blonde, dark shaved sides with pink and/or blue braids), the clothes were black everything except for splashes of belts and bracelets and the tonnage of costume jewelry from the Mildred Bohlman collection, courtesy of her daughter and my friend, Tina Romanus. (“Yes, you can wear rhinestone earrings to breakfast!” I once insisted to a more conservative friend in plaid and small posts.) I was a singer in a rock and roll band, skinny as a stick at the time (yogurt and Diet Pepsi the only sustenance in my fridge on a predictable basis) and rarely, if ever, was I well fed, usually broke and always on a diet or on forskolin pills. Food had become the “beloved enemy,” necessary nourishment yet persistent obstacle. I had a manager, a mentor, and a band leader tell me at various times in my career that I needed to lose weight if I wanted to be a star. Hungrier for success than fatty foods, I did what I had to do. Then came Thanksgiving.
I had not been home for Thanksgiving in years and for whatever reason, perhaps starvation, I decided this was the year. I was skinny enough to take a chance on a full meal and though the time since childhood and its forgiving palate left me unable to recall if my Mom actually was a good cook, surely she was decent-enough for the auspicious occasion of the Thanksgiving meal. I had warm memories of huge, golden turkeys fresh out of the oven and the requisite high-carb sides that accompanied it proudly and without question: mashed potatoes, yams, stuffing, homemade biscuits, bubbling gravy…the whole shebang. Worth every bloody ounce…pound…I was sure to gain. I booked the ticket, alerted the family, and began to count the days.
My band had a gig the week before my departure and as I stood after the show chattering excitedly about heading home “next week,” one of my bandmates looked at me incredulously and said, “You do know Thanksgiving’s tomorrow, right?” WHAT?? No, I did NOT! I rushed to the calendar hanging in the club office and FOR GOD’S SAKE, HE WAS RIGHT!! For some reason I’d always assumed Thanksgiving was the last Thursday of November and had booked accordingly. But no, it’s the fourth (4th!) Thursday of November and this particular November, whatever year it was, had five freakin’ Thursdays! I could barely contain my panic but I was going to have that damn Thanksgiving dinner come hell, high water, or a $500 last minute ticket change!
A hysterical late-night wrangle with credit cards and flight reservation desks got me that very expensive ticket to Chicago early the next morning, which wiped out my available credit but would surely be worth the drain. My flight got me in about an hour before dinner, my brother picked me up at O’Hare and whisked me to a warm and inviting home that was jam-packed with more people than I’d shared a table with since I…well, left home! Cheers at my arrival were heartening and as my Mom and various siblings got platters out to the table and I waited in anticipation for the entrance of the bubbling brown turkey, my Mom leaned over and in a conspiratorial tone whispered, “Your Dad and I finally figured out how to make Thanksgiving less stressful. We cooked the turkey last week, sliced it, froze it, then all we had to do today was give each plate a dollop of Campbell’s gravy and a quick zap in the microwave…what could be easier??” she chortled triumphantly.
My heart would have dropped to my grumbling stomach had it been unclenched enough to accommodate it.
I was stunned, speechless, barely heard a word as she continued her perky litany of stress-busting miracles inclusive of “do you realize how much time was saved by not peeling potatoes?” (not necessary when Betty Crocker Potato Buds are handy!) and “Campbell’s gravy is just as good and doesn’t get lumpy!” or “I actually hate the taste of real cranberries!” So between potato buds, canned gravy, canned yams, canned cranberry sauce (why do they call that sauce?), bagged dinner rolls and canned bean casserole, we had a Thanksgiving meal so processed it should have had its own bar code. Suffice it to say, this pseudo Swanson TV dinner put my food fantasy to rest before the blessing even commenced but there was not a soul there besides me who seemed the least bit bothered. Perhaps it was the starvation. Or maybe my palate had already turned after a few years in California.
But at some point I looked up from my meager provisions (the canned yams with the melted marshmallows weren’t half-bad) and took in the tableau surrounding me. My parents, laughing and engaged; most of my 10 sibs, various spouses and children, a few friends here and there; the music was playing, the volume was loud, and the cheer – well, the cheer was loud, too. It was a wild group and there was lots of laughter and I felt like…I belonged. Despite the cuisine fail, there was a rush of recognition that here I was, in my family home, surrounded by people I loved who loved me back. I didn’t have to explain myself, we spoke the same language (well, most of us!) and regardless of differences, debates and family of origin debacles (of which there were many), this was a group of wonderful people with whom I’d shared my life and would always have a tremendous bond. And besides, though the bread we were breaking together was processed white rolls from Safeway, we were a group that knew how to PAR-TAY…priceless! Because that, after all, was the point of the thing. Being with people who matter. I went back skinnier than I left (unexpected bonus!) and with a renewed attachment to my history. The buzz lasted a while, though my mother was forever off the go-to roster of Thanksgiving chefs!
Which leads to my, perhaps, more meaningful thoughts about this holiday:
Life is short. Or it’s long, depending on how you look at it. And despite economic woes, global unrest, famine, war, pepper spray, clueless politicians, joblessness, the Phelps family, bigotry, hate and Kim Kardashian (OK, that was just mean!), there is still so much to be grateful for. And we all know it. We just have to pay attention. And what most of us are most grateful for are the people in our lives; the circle of wagons that curls around us like a great, protective huddle. And these people for whom we are so grateful, who carry the key to our joy, these people need to know how we feel. Today or tomorrow at the latest, but don’t wait much past that; don’t wait until you forgot what you wanted to say, don’t presume “they know anyway,” and certainly don’t put it off until the only moment left is the memorial speech at their funeral. Yeah, that’s too late.
I had occasion in the last year to hear of two different families, one in which two sisters haven’t spoken to each other in years at the insistence of one and the complete mystery of the other. Despite entreaties from the clueless one, the sister perpetuating the estrangement rejects any attempts at rapprochement and has announced this is forever irresolvable. And it probably will be. Two sisters split over something unknown and likely very minor. Tragic in the scheme of things. In the other situation, schisms over financial matters poorly handled by one have split a family, likely beyond repair and, once again, what was once a warm, loving group has been fractured due to unspoken resentments and unreconciled shame and confusion. In both cases I wanted to scream to whomever was the hold out, “THIS IS A WASTE OF LIFE! This is your sister/brother/father/daughter/etc. and time will sweep by without notice and all this petty bullshit, this righteous anger, won’t matter a bit when a death bed is involved and life is no longer an option to waste. Fix it! Figure it out! It’s important.”
A friend once told me (poignantly, just prior to discovering she had terminal cancer) how useful it was to live every day as if you knew it was your last. Macabre, perhaps, but it also made sense. Say it all, she said, say it now. Be sure there’s nothing left unresolved. Send the letter, make the apology, breach the gap, smooth the rift; solve the schism. Say all the admiring things you’d want to say at that memorial service but say them while the person is still standing in front of you. Make their lunch. Make their bed. Make their day. Buy, read and make comment on their book. CD. Fashion line. Business plan. Go to their play. Cheer at their baseball game. “Like” their page. Respond to their emails. Listen on the phone while doing nothing else. Do something unexpected to show your gratitude. Don’t make presumptions about “I have lots of time.” You don’t. Time can slip away and sometimes disappear without a warning.
I thought this was good advice. I’ve tried to live by it as best I can. Though I still do clean the house when I’m on the phone!
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays because other than the iconic meal we either do or don’t have depending on our own traditions and palates, its only purpose is to acknowledge and celebrate gratitude. Whatever its history, whatever its traditions and origins, its purest, most salient element is the simple celebration of gratefulness. What a sweet mission statement! And so in my family we not only do make the traditional meal (and I’ve been told no one does it better! :), but we take a moment at some point during that meal to go around the table as each of us verbally expresses what we’re most grateful for. I always look forward to the surprises that sometimes come in those revelations.
As for me, what I’m most grateful for? My husband and son, top of any list; my beautiful stepdaughter, her Grace and the rest of her family, inclusive of wonderful in-laws who’ve become part of our family as well (how amazing is that?!). My eclectic and soulful siblings, mother and extended family of wildly talented nieces and nephews; my incredible and colorful roster of friends, good health (so important), the beauty of the world and my ability to capture it. My writing and the buzz I get from doing and sharing it with those who read it and join me in the conversation.
Those are the broad strokes, you can fill in the fine points.
Mostly I’m grateful for LIFE, the meal we all share. Good, bad and in between. There’s something deeply exhilarating about an adventure where every single day you get to wake up and have a new shot at it. How exciting is that? So thank you, all of you who are part of my adventure. I’m glad you’re here. Stick around. Me? I gotta go start the pies, the potatoes need peeling and the turkey is on the grill for a long, time-sucking 4 hours. I promise, we’re eatin’ good tonight!
HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE!
All photos courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.