Maybe the Best Thanksgiving Ever
Sometimes it amuses me to read those "helpful" articles where the Know-It-All Writer will tell you How to Get It Right (only, of course, after trashing the way you already do because You're Doing Everything Wrong). This morning, the article I read was about the perfect way to make your guest feel welcome. The list of "musts" was lengthy and pretty demanding. Since this is Thanksgiving week, I suppose it's a good reminder since a lot of people will be hosting their visiting out-of-town family members.
Of course, all that stuff got me to thinking about times past, and that ineviably reminded me of the year when I hosted my family for Thanksgiving.
I was a teaching assistant and going to graduate school at UA/Tuscaloosa, and I lived in the sort of digs that poor students can afford: let's just call places like that Unusually Uncomfortable. My place was in an old house that dated back to the 1850's or earlier, and it had been split into oddly sized apartments.
My big rambling space wasn't too terrible; it had a bedroom (which one of my earlier apartments didn't).....but I couldn't sleep there because Nextdoor Guy was a party animal. So I hauled my twin-sized bed out to the living room where it was a lot more quiet, and there was plenty of space for it along with the sofa and chairs because the room was vast. Since the ceiling was about 14 feet high so heat would rise, it was nice and cool in summer but absolutely arctic in winter, and that year the winter was unusually long and unusually cold. The only heat was one of those scary ancient open-fire gas heaters. There was absolutely no insulation under the floor which had a huge very chilly open basement 15 feet below it, so the apartment was incredibly cold underfoot. The bathroom was unheated and seriously painfully cold.
The kitchen was housed in what once had been the house's original bathroom. It had no cabinets and not one single inch of counter space: fridge, stove, sink, dresser, tiny 30 X 40 inch dining table, two chairs, and that was all--it was a really small room but it was the one warm space in the place, and I loved it. Strangely enough, I especially liked the odd old homemade window that swung open inward dangerously low over the gas stove--it either had to be totally open or totally closed if you were cooking. There was no safe in-between choice.
My apartment also contained the home's originally hallway--it was a gargantuan 8 X 25 foot space but no use as a room because it had no heat, lights, or window. My cat Buzz loved that hallway, though--he used to get a running start at the front door, race through the living room, and then hit the hardwood in the hall, sliding all the way down until he ran BAM! into the door of the unusable bedroom which made for a big echoing boom in the empty space. The cat did this a lot so apparently he thought it was pretty funny.....and I did, too, because I'd be willing to bet the noise woke up Nextdoor Guy when he was sleeping it off. Payback!
I was planning to drive home to my folks' house for Thanksgiving. (They lived in a tiny little town that was just a dot on the map near the Louisiana/Mississippi state line.....a dot that, years later, Hurricane Katrina scrubbed so thoroughly from existence that the USPS actually revoked its ZIP Code.) But a few days before Thanksgiving, my mother called me with a change of plans: they would come to me instead, loaded down with all the necessary fixings; she would even cook a turkey--and that was unsual. My mother actively disliked the traditional, so our holidays were never the same from one year to the next--we might have lobster, pizza, or Chinese on Thanksgiving. One memorable (chilly and rainy!) Thanksgiving, we cooked steaks on a grill that was precariously perched over the stern rail of a sailboat in the harbor at Santa Monica. Yes, sometimes we had typical stuff but we rarely decided until the last moment. The only thing to do was roll with the punches and enjoy the ride. It was a holiday adventure.
That year when I was living in Tuscaloosa, my mother and stepfather were both over 60, and my grandmother (always a fixture in our home--I shared a bedroom with her for years when I was a kid) was in her mid-80's. Perhaps you wouldn't think they could tolerate difficulties but they generally thrived on it.
My apartment with the cold floor had a twin bed and a narrow sofa in the living room. Yeah. No special accomodation for guests, unlike the article I read this morning would have insisted upon. My parents somehow shared the twin, Nana bunked on the sofa, and I made a pallet on the floor for myself--all of us in the one room. It never really occurred to any of us that this was unacceptable or that anyone was being hard-done-by. It was just fun, and it was just the way things worked out.
And it was fun trying to cook a big meal in the tiny L-shaped excuse for a kitchen.....which became far too hot with the stove going but by then it was impossible to open the window because there were pots on every burner. It got so hot in the kitchen that it set off the electric smoke detector on the other side of the wall in the gargantuan hallway.
Unfortunately, some clever person had wired the detector through the ceiling into the apartment upstairs which meant that it was very nearly 14 feet up and impossible to turn off or re-set without a really tall ladder which, of course, I did not have. Since my apartment had the central hall, every other apartment in the whole house was treated to a screaming smoke detector. We opened the back door to try to minimize the problem, so the house that was very close next door got to enjoy the noise, too. We finally hit upon the idea of bringing out a box fan and dragging the tall dresser into the hall to put it on so we could direct it upwards.
That worked great but if we shut the back door, the siren started up again. With the door open there was a tremendous breeze, so we couldn't keep the old gas fire running in the living room. It was about 28 degrees outside, and pretty soon it wasn't much different inside except for the kitchen which was like a blast furnace. Mother and Nana were sweating in shirtsleeves in the kitchen while Dad and I were shivering in heavy coats in the hall.
The kitchen had become too crowded for the table, so we hauled that into the hallway, too, and set up to eat there with the two chairs and a couple of footstools for seating. The table was too tiny for serving dishes so we moved my sewing machine into the hall as well and made it into a temporary buffet. Since there wasn't a light in the hall, we ran an extension cord from the bathroom to plug a lamp in. That worked great, unless someone wanted to go to the john because the door wouldn't close with the extension cord in the way. Either the person in the potty had to tolerate the embarrassment or everybody in the hall had to sit in the dark. Somehow we managed.
I only vaguely recall that turkey and the fixings. It wasn't an especially memorable meal. But it was a wonderful experience. We were even laughing about feeling grumpy about it all. We thought it was hysterically funny. All of it. It was an adventure! And maybe it was the best Thanksgiving ever.
You know, those people who have to have everything Exactly Perfect are totally missing the boat. Yeah, maybe it's nice to be all comfortable and for everything to run like clockwork with the just-so traditional meal. But I think the folks who are aiming for that sort of thing cannot have as much fun as we did on that long-ago Thanksgiving. Convenience comes at a price. That's why I couldn't wipe the smile off my face this morning while I imagined the writer of the Perfect Host article trying to survive the arctic/furnace holiday that we enjoyed in Tuscaloosa. She'd never have lasted without an extra big helping of Sense of Humor with a side dish of Humility.
I'm glad that my mother never showed me the way to the traditional; I didn't understand that when I was a kid but I sure do now. It makes life a whole lot easier when you know how to roll with the punches and enjoy the ride. Life is imperfect. It's nice if we can accept that and see it as an adventure. That's a lesson I'm thankful to have learned, and it is the season for thankfulness after all, especially since I get to treasure the memory of Maybe the Best Thanksgiving Ever.