Thanksgiving Memories

Nov. 17, 2016

We shuffle into the school auditorium, and the teachers line their pupils into more or less orderly lines.  A teacher, who at the time seems elderly but is probably only 40, sits down on a pencil-etched piano bench and starts plinking off-tune keys on an upright piano. Solemnly, a teacher beside her raises her hands, signaling the beginning of the Thanksgiving song “We Gather Together.”

Tiredly, unenthused by the plodding, possibly Puritan-inspired, melody, the students sing along.  One by one, directed by the teacher of each class, the children trudge up to a large box decorated with construction paper turkey feathers and deposit their offerings. When it is my turn, I walk towards the box, cradling my cans of creamed corn and congealed cranberry sauce, then, at a cue from my teacher, plop them into the cardboard receptacle.

As one box is filled, another one, similarly decorated, is brought into the center of the room, and the ritual resumes.  The children, exhausted by this wearisome ordeal and eager to get home for the 4-day vacation from school, fidget. Breathy whispers and unsuccessfully suppressed giggles are sternly shushed by teachers. Finally, as the last can is tossed into the last overladen box, the ceremony concludes.

Looking back on these moments of Thanksgivings past, I experience a jumbled smorgasbord of emotions, feelings clashing, dissonant tastes blending—gelatinous, salty grey-brown gravy, spongy, clot-red cranberry jelly, bland, ubiquitous pumpkin puree.  Moments of pleasure, scented of cinnamon and sage, sweetly settle into a safe, childlike corner of my brain, while all around them, more recent memories bombard the cozy, cave-like walls.

A flimsy cardtable in the living room is set for our preteen banquet, all of us cousins under the age of 13 clustered around it. My oldest cousin, Julie, though only a few years older than the rest of us, always manages to sit with the grown-ups. Another cousin, the one I feel closest to, envies Julie and wants to desert our special table to be seated with the adults.  For that moment in time, however, she is with us and still, thankfully, a child. I resolve never to grow up, trying to forget about the elders around us as I savor the engulfing aromas of the turkey and other oven-nurtured delights.

Shelley, my closest cousin, spending the night for the long weekend, accompanies me to my bedroom to escape the chattering and chewing sounds. Restless that the early afternoon feast is still continuing, we sense an approach of something we do not know whether to fear or welcome.  Before another year rolls around, that “something” may irrevocably change us. Childhood is dwindling; the adult table, laden with temptations and regret, soon awaits us.

As the aunts, uncles, and other cousins leave, Shelley and I venture out of the bedroom to say “goodbye.”  Dishes stained crimson and orangish-brown, smeary with residue of grease and starch, are stacked in precarious heaps alongside the kitchen sink.  Grandma, always the designated cook, dishwasher, and hostess, wipes her dish-soapy hands upon her food-splattered apron. Suffocating in the steamy odors of her kitchen domain, she has missed out on almost all of the meal-time conversations and barely has a chance to see everyone before they, clutching their Tupperware-containers filled with leftovers, depart.

The rest of the evening is ours. As Shelley lies on the creaky cot beside my bed, we talk and make up songs.  One of them is a parody of “We gather together.”  In our version a hungry family eagerly waits for a delivery truck bearing the cast-off Thanksgiving bounty donated by us schoolchildren. With the innocent insensitivity of children, we laugh at our lyrics about the feast of canned peas and gravy.  We do not realize that sadness lurks behind our grimly hysterical ditties.

Now, many years later, as I anticipate another Thanksgiving, the sadness predominates. Almost everyone at the grown-up table has left, never to return except in my dreams and memories. “We gather together” no more, and the feast is a ceremony of hunger, loss amongst plenty.

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Writings by Alison Armstrong