Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. One of my first memories is of sucking on a big turkey drumstick, which remains the most prized part of the turkey. My family’s meals were never as elaborate as the ones pictured in ladies magazines or posted on the bulletin boards in school, but they were special nonetheless. Since my mother worked full time, unusual in that era, our cranberry sauce came from a can, a thick gelatinous concoction that wobbled on the plate like Jell-O. But the turkey and the gravy were homemade, as was the sage stuffing, which I refused to taste until I was a teenager.
Meals in my family were always quick affairs, hastily put together and eaten on TV trays in front of the television set, with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley providing the only dinnertime conversation. But Thanksgiving was different.
My mother brought out the tablecloth her mother had crocheted and set the kitchen table with platters, a gravy boat, and silver-plated flatware handed down from her grandmother. She would get up at the crack of dawn, often still tired from working late nights in a restaurant, dress the turkey and put it in the oven to cook slowly all day. My job was to baste the bird every 20 minutes, until it reached a lovely caramel color, and peel the potatoes that my father would later mash with lots of butter until they turned a creamy consistency with not a single lump. After my mother took the turkey out of the oven to “set” before carving, she whipped up a batch of biscuits that somehow managed to have a crunchy crust with a fluffy center, a feat I have yet to master.
Thanksgiving dinner was never complete without my father telling the story about his own childhood memories of the holiday. Growing up in the Depression was difficult enough, but for much of my father’s early childhood, his father was in prison in Leavenworth, Kan., for violating the Volstead Act, which prohibited the sale of alcohol in the United States. My grandfather, Ambrose, was abstemious himself but saw no reason why others shouldn’t enjoy a glass of whiskey or a beer or two on occasion, and was happy to supply much of Albuquerque with alcohol he obtained by regular runs across the border into Mexico. The federal government saw things differently. Ambrose spent 11 years in the penitentiary, leaving his wife and four children in desperate poverty. My father would always begin the meal by telling of the time an uncle dropped by before Thanksgiving to give the family some money for their dinner, but it was only enough to buy a pound of bologna at the local market. He described his humiliation standing at the butcher’s counter waiting to buy the lunchmeat while his neighbors collected their turkeys and yams.
The story made me feel both thankful and a little guilty. We had so much more than my father did when he was a boy, but we would probably be considered poor by today’s standards. We lived in a two-room basement apartment until I was 13. My parents slept on a pull-out couch in the living room, while my sister and I slept in one bed in the tiny bedroom, and we shared a single bathroom with several other families in the apartment building. But we always had enough food to eat, and we never missed a Thanksgiving meal. Television was a less pernicious influence then in fostering a sense of deprivation than it is today. There were many working-class characters on TV in the 1950s, and I could identify with the shabby little apartment that Ralph and Alice Kramden shared on “The Honeymooners,” while aspiring to a room of my own like Betty’s in “Father Knows Best.” Still, like most kids, I envied what some of my friends possessed. My father’s stories helped put everything in perspective.
My father died in 1978, but every Thanksgiving I remember his story as if it were my own. Like the cranberries that I now cook from scratch, it gives the feast its bittersweet edge to remind me how truly thankful we all should be every day of the year.