Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Thanksgiving Story from Chicken Soup for the Soul

Thanksgiving with Mary Jane

Small cheer and great welcome makes a merry feast.
~William Shakespeare

When you’re a teenager, there are a million places you’d rather be than at a family gathering. However, when I was fifteen, Thanksgiving at home with my relatives was the best turkey day I’ve ever celebrated.

A week earlier, the postman had delivered a package from our hippie uncle in Oregon, an artisan potter. Gathered in the kitchen, my two sisters and I watched my mother open the Christmas gift from her younger brother. Inside was a hand-crafted mini broom, a leather strap nailed to its handle for hanging at the hearth. Perfect for our 1916 bungalow’s fireplace.

While we read the card wishing us a happy holiday in my aunt’s blowsy writing, my mother unwrapped another present: a large freezer bag of homegrown cannabis. Our eyes widened. A resinous, earthy green scent overwhelmed the yellow-tiled kitchen.

My mother froze, holding the illegal parcel from her off-the-grid brother and his part-Blackfoot wife. My grandparents had bought the younger couple a house just so they wouldn’t live in a tent on a Santa Cruz mountain, and they stocked my wild cousins with cotton panties so they wouldn’t run around without underwear. Compared to that branch of the family tree, our household was conventional. Mom pursed her lips.

My Bohemian New York father swooped in from the living room.

“I’m going to put it in the stuffing,” he crowed, snatching the bag from Mom.

“Oh, Charles,” my mother sighed as he sprinted up the stairs with the Christmas contraband. A capricious architect, my Lithuanian father liked to bait her about the in-laws.

My traditional Italian grandparents did not embrace my father. They were in the habit of warming to respectful young men in crisp white button-down shirts when my father showed up on their middle-class doorstep in 1959. He was an art-school Beatnik in a ripped T-shirt. Still closely shorn from his stint in the Army, where he’d met my mother on a French base, in no other way was he regulation. He snubbed social convention, burying his nose in political paperbacks during my grandparents’ cocktail parties with their keeping-up-with-the-Joneses neighbors. Their proper daughter, an elementary school teacher, could surely do better.

Our nuclear family usually observed holidays at their San José ranch house on a staid cul-de-sac filled with cookie-cutter residences. My dad would be gritting his teeth the entire time. But this year my conservative Chicago grandparents had accepted our invite. They didn’t enjoy visiting “fruits and nuts” Berkeley, our feisty university town famous for sparking the Free Speech Movement and agitating against the government’s foreign wars. My grandfather complained there were never any spots on the hilly, busy streets to park his boat-like Oldsmobile. Accustomed to La-Z-Boys and sturdy American pieces in walnut from Mervyns, my grandmother found our wicker French café chairs uncomfortable and the Joe DiMaggio giant mitt baffling. “Who wants to sit in a baseball glove?” she protested about the cult classic some Italian designer thought up. We may have lived an hour apart in the San Francisco Bay Area, but we really lived in different worlds.

Another reason my parents didn’t host often: Mom wasn’t a cook. In fact, my kitchen-averse mother was so grateful when my father offered to deal with the big bird that she christened him the turkey expert and let him do whatever he wanted. So the turkey was Dad’s rightful domain, and this year my grandparents would be eating it. They were also bringing a recently widowed neighbor, Mary Jane. I can’t say I forgot about the surprise stash, but we all dismissed the stuffing threat. Crazy talk was my father’s specialty.

On the morning of November 24, 1979, Dad got up at dawn, prepared his poultry, and went back to bed. By noon, my grandparents had arrived with the sweet-natured widow. The eight of us squeezed into our places at the round butcher-block dining table, café chairs grinding against each other. The turkey was nicely done, not dry. Polite conversation flowed due to the gentle outsider, Mary Jane, who asked a lot of questions.

Suddenly, I spied a big brown bud on the edge of my grandfather’s plate, speckled with bread and celery. I glanced at my sisters to see if they had noticed. Pushing food around their plate with secret smiles, they obviously had.

“Your stuffing is very spicy, Charles,” effused the widow. “Is that sage?”

We kids stifled giggles.

I couldn’t look at my mother. Dad was poker-faced.

“Oh, I’m tipsy! It must be the champagne,” tittered Grandma, leaning in to shoulder-nudge her neighbor like a schoolgirl.

After my finicky grandfather cleaned his plate, he went to recline on the Italian baseball mitt. Soon, he was sprawled across the giant glove like Fay Wray in King Kong’s hand, snoring. The seventy-something dandy in a mint-green Qiana shirt and white leisure shoes looked comfortable -- and finally at home in our place.

We devoured the pumpkin pie and Grandma’s anise cookies, but didn’t budge from our rosy circle. For the first time, I saw my family as individuals rather than role players. In the lanky figure of Grandpa in repose, I recognized the easy character captured in a 1928 photo of him squatting in front of a baseball dugout. Witnessing chummy Grandma, I understood her life-of-the-party image from a Wisconsin lake in the 1940s, an arm slung around her ten younger siblings. Inside my strait-laced mom, I sensed a woman appreciating her daredevil husband’s off-kilter view of the world. And I realized my rebel father wasn’t really antisocial if he brought us all together. My sisters suddenly seemed like fellow sojourners navigating teenhood, as well as my natural allies in this normal-slash-bizarre family. They weren’t so bad.

When the three seniors said goodbye, our hugs were heartfelt. My father asked Grandpa which route home he’d take, a mellow and unnecessary exchange between the two men.

“Your family is lovely,” Mary Jane exclaimed, kissing each of us. “Today was the best since my husband died!”

As the five Ashmans gathered in the kitchen to do the dishes and review the day’s events -- with uproarious laughter and genuine shock -- I found myself thinking of the untamed Oregon folk who couldn’t be with us. Their holiday gift ensured they were here in spirit. In that moment, I grasped the meaning of family.

In retrospect, I realize how unorthodox this recipe for a happy family gathering was. But I’ll never forget the spirit of 1979’s seasoning and what I learned about my relatives that day.

~Anastasia M. Ashman



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