I wrote this two years ago and I thought that it bears repeating.
I get nostalgic this time of year. I may live in Northern California where we barely have seasons – I think we may have two or three – but I grew up in western New York where we had all four in abundance. This year, 2017, seemed to feature the never-ending summer. Fall didn’t arrive until damn near Halloween.
Christmas creep, as much as I despise it and as bad at it has gotten, has me thinking about how things used to be.
I grew up thinking my Aunt Carole’s (my father’s only sibling) house was out in the country. The drive out to Scottsville, N.Y., seemed to take forever. It was picturesque as we drove past the horse farms that lined the road along the scenic route. For some reason I always took note of the rambling white fences that paralleled the road. As mom, dad and I approached the turn off, empty fields and barns dotted the landscape. The topography, architecture and open spaces cried country.
The house had once belonged to my grandparents, whom I never knew. My father’s father died in 1959, and my grandmother passed away in 1966, three years before I was born. My grandmother bequeathed the house to her two children – my father and his sister. I don’t know the whole story but Dad didn’t want to live in the house, my aunt ended up with it and lived in it with her husband, my Uncle Freddy, for the better part of her life.
The driveway wasn’t paved. A basketball hoop that hadn’t felt the touch of a net in years was loosely attached to the front of the rickety detached garage. There was well water. Eventually a pack of the meanest shepherd mix dogs I’ve ever known took up residence in that garage and adjacent fenced-in yard. You had to walk up a small embankment to get to the well-worn path to the house. I say path because the sidewalk that led away from the house went straight out to the road and had nothing for you if you were coming from the driveway.
My parents and I would carry our dishes to pass, mostly my parents carried them, and I was a lazy ass who couldn’t be bothered with such things as a child. Aside from pies, the only dish I remember Mom making was a sweet dressing made with prunes and apples. Mom made a great pie crust, however, her apple pie filling left a little to be desired. Apple pie filling isn’t supposed to be gray, is it? Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious, it just could have been better. My aunt made a great apple pie filling that looked the part, golden honey. One year Mom and Aunt Carole combined forces…oh, man, was that a pie. I am partial to apple pie. I hate pumpkin pie, absolutely hate it.
More on pie later.
We had a rather old-fashioned, misogynistic (almost chauvinistic) kind of Thanksgiving, my four first cousins and I. My aunt and her three daughters – Tammy, Debbie and Shari – toiled in the kitchen with a little help from Mom, as we menfolk settled in for a day of feasting and football watching. Aunt Carole would tend to the bird, which I am sure routinely tipped the scales at 22 pounds or more. I don’t remember much of what the oldest, David, did while all of this was going on, I just remember what it was like when he was of working age. School friends, later boyfriends and girlfriends, then husbands/wives, and kids would join us for dinner.
My father, my uncle, my cousin David, my mom and I (and later other invited guests), eagerly awaited the feasting while watching the Detroit Lions in their annual Thanksgiving match-up. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade had already been watched at one house or the other. For whatever reason, I always seemed to root for the Lions no matter who they played. I still do.
I was a finicky eater as a child. And to this day, there are certain Thanksgiving staples I don’t like. I won’t touch cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes (yams) or squash. Just give me turkey, mashed potatoes with butter, salad, soft fresh rolls, and mom’s sweet dressing and I was a happy boy. David would pile his plate a mile high at least three times. The army of cats would benefit from the leftovers.
Then there was pie. Apple. Mincemeat. Lemon meringue. Key Lime. Pumpkin. Oh boy, was there pie.
Eventually, we’d settle down and watch the Lions, and maybe we’d catch some of the Dallas Cowboys game, have more turkey or pie. I never knew the Cowboys game was much of a Thanksgiving tradition – I would learn later that this was a mistaken belief. My cousins and I sometimes ended the day with board games. If I was feeling adventurous, and the ground was covered with snow, I’d go sledding in the dark and careen through the scrub brush.
We’d have as few as eight or nine, and as many damn near 20 for Thanksgiving dinner. As I got older, many of us took up smoking as a habit and we’d crowd on the enclosed porch (healthy) if it was too cold to go smoke outside.
The house itself had a distinct aroma, it was charming in some parts, dilapidated in others. It always seemed to be organized chaos. It certainly had something after the wood-burning stove was installed in the living room. Sometimes it felt like a sauna, even in the dead of winter. If it got cold, my uncle would just throw another piece of wood in.
All four parents are gone now. All that’s left of those Thanksgivings are memories. We didn’t take many photos of those events, despite my father’s shutterbug tendencies. I couldn’t find any pictures of Thanksgivings past. There could be slides somewhere, I’m still a little bit of a lazy ass. Maybe my cousins have some.
We weren’t rich people – far from it. We certainly were not the embodiment of the Norman Rockwell painting. But we did it this way every year with very few exceptions. I was in the Navy for 10 years, so I missed some. But when I did get back and attend, it was like I had never left.
Say what you want about what we did or how we did it. These were our Thanksgivings. We enjoyed them and each other.
I reset the trip-o-meter on a drive from my parents’ last house to my aunt’s house once. I had to know. I had driven out there a few times on my own as an adult. I still thought of it as the “country.” As I got older, it became less and less rural and more and more suburban. To me, that’s the saddest part aside from the dissolution of the get-togethers altogether.
Nine miles. An online driving directions site says just over 13. Not quite over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.
You know what? I’ll always remember it as a drive in the country to Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house. Those fences and those horse farms will always line Route 31, that barn a few hundred yards from the corner of Scottsville Road and Chili Wheatland Town Line Road, will always signal the turn.
These were our Thanksgivings and I wouldn’t have traded them for anything.
I miss them.