Holidays Vivian | 08 Jun 2011 07:00 am

A Not So Normal Rockwell Thanksgiving

Thanksgivings were always held at my grandma’s house, which was kind of funny because Nannie, as we called her, couldn’t cook. She didn’t know that, with the exception of her desserts, everyone avoided her cooking. Lucky for us, she had somehow managed to inherit the baking gene from her own mother, but the bus stopped at cooking any kind of real food.

Every year that she insisted we all have Thanksgiving at her house, Mom desperately tried to convince her otherwise. But when Nannie was adamant, she was adamant. So Mom got the idea to have a potluck Thanksgiving. She phoned all the relatives and assigned them each a dish. Since Nannie was given dessert duty, we all felt Thanksgiving would be safe again. It wasn’t.

When we arrived on the big Turkey Day, we were greeted by Nannie’s twenty-one year old cat, Billie. He had four teeth left and eyes like wrinkled old apples. His meow sounded more like a hoarse cough. Or horse cough. The big gray and white tabby, who looked more like a dried prune, would retreat to the back yard, dig a hole, and stick his head into it. I was convinced the old mange ball was trying to put himself out of his misery, but Nannie would just go out and pick ol’ Billie up and give him a big kiss, right on the lips. It would have been cute to see this if it wasn’t for the drool strings dropping from Billie’s tired mouth. “Billie, you silly willy! Sticking your head in the sand!” Nannie would mockingly scold. She’d set him down on the couch and Billie would flop down in defeat.

Every relative from one end of the state to the other was there. There was my Uncle George who was a minister of a huge congregation. I was ecstatic when Uncle George came. As the minister of the group, he was always asked to pray over the food and he had the fastest prayer in the west. That meant we could eat quicker. His prayer went like this: Thank you, food, Amen. I figured he must have some kind of deal with God because mom would never let me get away with a prayer made up of four words.

Then there was Grandpa Howard. I wasn’t sure if I should run when he came around or not. He was always tickling us ’till we cried. When we’d start to cry he would call us, “Big bawl babies!” and tickle us even more. When Grandma Howard came over and shooed him away he would always come back to trick us. He would offer us either a dime or a nickel and ask us to pick which one. We would always pick the nickel over the dime because it was bigger. Then he’d laugh and call us, “Brainless babies!” and Grandma would come over and whack him with a wet dish towel. “Leave those precious babies alone!” Grandpa would look at Grandma, take out his dentures, and ask her for a big kiss. He looked like Billie. She would just whack him again with the dish towel but it never stopped him.

Then there was my Uncle Rich and his son, Greggy. They were known for eating whole flats of cherries and then passing lots and lots of gas. They admitted they ate the cherries for the side effect. My mom was always disgusted when those two started lighting up.

As we got closer to dinner time, everyone was getting hungry. All the kids were milling around the kitchen and being shooed out like flies. Mom was so glad to have it all under control, or so she thought. Everyone had brought their signature dishes, Aunt Tylene brought her tamale casserole, Aunt Marge brought her world famous sausage dressing, Mom supplied the gourmet whipped mashed potatoes with turkey gravy. And Nannie told us she made a beautiful chocolate torte. But Mom noticed two relatives missing, Aunt Chris and Uncle Bob. Mom started to panic, “Myrtle,” she said to Nannie, “where are Aunt Chris and Uncle Bob?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you? They couldn’t make it. Uncle Bob has a bad knee you know.” And as Nannie began telling the knee and doctor visit reports, Mom broke out in a sweat. “But Chris was bringing the turkey.”

“I took care of it Lois. I bought a turkey last night and I cooked it.” Mom was, horrified as were everyone else in the house who caught wind (and I don’t mean Uncle Richard’s and Greggy’s wind, either). This was serious! The room froze. Mom swallowed hard. Aunt Tylene ran to the oven.

There was a big, twenty pound turkey that was beautifully browned. She gave Mom the thumbs up. Everyone that had been holding their breath, released. And Greggy released, too. (And it wasn’t his breath…) We all thought we were safe. Maybe Nannie could cook; at least a turkey.

The table was beautifully set with a huge cornucopia as a centerpiece. All the steaming dishes were on the table, and the smells were heavenly. (Greggy! Stop!) All twenty three family members found a spot to sit. The kid’s table included a couple of twenty year old cousins who hadn’t graduated to the big table yet, Greggy was one of them. I was lucky to avoid sitting by Greggy because I don’t think I could have eaten with the smell of rotten cherries wafting next to me.

It was Dad’s year to carve the turkey. We bowed our heads in prayer as Uncle George did his three second graces. “Thank you, food, Amen.” Dad picked up the carving knife and cut into the turkey. He faintly smelled chocolate but thought it was his imagination. It wasn’t.

The turkey had browned all right but the inside was slightly raw. Okay, that was an understatement; it was so raw that it was inedible. But why the smell of chocolate?

Nannie had cooked the bird for an hour, not the recommended four hours. She thought her way was better, turn the oven up and cook it less. But not only that, she didn’t have enough room in the oven for the turkey and the torte, so she stuck the chocolate torte in the cavity of the turkey to cook at the same time. Turkey and torte ruined.

As we all left for home after dinner, turkeyless and dessertless, Grandpa Howard leaned over to give Billie a pat. “No wonder you keep tryin’ to kill yourself. She’s probably been trying to kill you for years with that cooking of hers.” Grandpa gave him a gentle nudge with the toe of his boot. “Cat?” Another nudge, this time a little more forceful. “Billie? Speak to me!” And Grandpa knew that Billie’s ninth life was passed. Grandpa gazed at the old cat lying in peaceful repose. “Well, Billie, one thing about it… You look better than Myrtle’s turkey, and you’re in a better place.” Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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