I pulled the box toward me. It was heavy. And I could tell by the solid nature of its construction, it was old. Made to last like a white 1950 Frigidaire. One more yank freed it from the shelf, but the box and I thudded to the ground. My bones were rattled by the impact, but the box remained intact like the cold-war era relic it surely was.
The smell of old book pages filled the air when the box flaps were pulled apart. I looked down and found my past. Family and ancestral faces printed on thick paper in black and white, sepia, and even tin-tone were strewn about the container. On top of the heap my mom smiled up at me. She stood on the church steps in her wedding suit with my dad’s arms happily circling her waist.
I started picking through the pictures, resurrecting memories along with the photos.
Some brought a smile to my lips and others a tear to my eye. I looked at seemingly endless baptisms, Easter bonnets, journeys I’d made as a child, and others I’d not yet been born to take. Each picture I pulled from the box took me to a familiar spot. I could almost feel the cool water of my cousins’ swimming pool and Lake Delavan’s sand between my toes. My brother Bill beamed from his spot upon the iconic ivy-covered, red brick wall back-stopping Wrigley Field’s home plate. A smiling young Ernie Banks stood behind him, one hand on Bill's shoulder. I could almost hear "Mr. Cub" say, “Let’s play two today!”
I laid that one aside and suddenly, there she was! Her lips were pursed in a poker face, but the hint of an upward curl twitched at the corners of her mouth. My Nana Walsh held her cards close to her chest as she looked at the camera. A large print of the Bleeding Heart in its gilded frame hung conspicuously on the small living room’s main wall and mismatched, post-war furnishings were pushed aside to accommodate card tables set up for the day’s amusement. And all of a sudden I was there too, sitting in the black and white memory of an early 1960’s Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving dinner was the biggest and best meal of my year. The house teamed with relatives and yummy aromas. Adults visited over highballs and martinis while cigarette smoke made white swirls in the air. Nana’s biscuits were in the oven, the turkey rested on the cutting board, and my mom stirred the thickening gravy. Meanwhile, we wrapped up our game of hearts. In my 7-year old innocence I proudly laid down the king of spades. Nana clapped her hands and pronounced, “Here comes the black beauty!” as she played the 13-point queen. I took the trick and lost the pot. But I didn’t have time to pout because we were summoned ten steps over to the dining room for our feast.
The table overflowed with food. Relishes, olives, carrot and celery sticks, and pickled pearl onions (ew!) were peppered among the main dishes. Mashed potatoes, candied yams, turkey stuffing, and hot buttered biscuits threatened to jump the confinement of their bowls. Cranberry sauce and Jell-O filled with mandarin oranges and tiny marshmallows brought pops of color to the table. And at its center sat the pièce résistance: a platter of sliced turkey and a boat filled with thick and rich giblet gravy made from a broth that had simmered on the stovetop all day.
We filled my mom’s good china plates, passing the dishes family style, and waited for my dad to give his annual blessing. And then the big moment came when we raised our glasses full of Cold Duck (ew! again)—mine a cordial glass with a one-sip capacity—and toasted the chef.
Nana’s homemade pies made a grand finale. Always pumpkin with fresh whipped cream, and baked apple bearing a lattice work crust topped by a fancy, dough-made “W.” The adults took theirs with coffee.
The table was cleared, and the women and girls hand-washed and dried the dishes. That gender assignment would be overthrown in the following decade, but was completed without a thought in those days. And then the stories began. We learned of our heritage, of how each morning my prim and proper grandmother rode horses bareback to their assigned spots before the carts of her father’s pre-trucking cartage business on Chicago’s west side. And about how that father escaped prison and a sentence to death by firing squad for working toward Irish independence in County Cork on the old sod.
Age determined whether one sipped crème de menthe or soda. Bowls of mixed nuts disappeared as metal nutcrackers snapped their shells open. And then small groups of sated relatives found hats and coats and headed home bringing an end to the simple pleasures conversation and community contribute to a holiday.
What are your fondest Thanksgiving memories? Be sure to pass them down to the younger members of your family, and make sure to remember all of the little things. The smallest details can so often have lasting impact.
Photo Courtesy of Easy Weekly Meals