The holidays are looming. While some of the younger folks kick things off with Halloween, I am of a more traditional bent and prefer to begin my holiday season with Thanksgiving. Let’s call Halloween a holiday appetizer.
I am stressed as we head into the home stretch before the Big T. Gobs to do at work, and having committed to have a thanksgiving dinner at our house, there is much to do there as well. Fortunately, memories of many years ago help to keep me calm in this season. All of the craziness of the current year sort of oozes into the background when the word “Thanksgiving” begins the process of mental associations in my brain.
My father grew up on the east coast, and his father came from Massachusetts, the heart of old New England. Thanksgiving traditions ran deep in Dad’s family and the holidays I remember most are those Thanksgivings spent in the suburbs of Philadelphia during my youth.
A kid’s holiday is always more of an adventure when it involves a trip, and Philly was about six hundred miles from my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. We made the trip several times and in several ways. We flew a couple of times, but for some reason, those trips are the least memorable.
I remember the drives, like the time around 1975 Dad swapped cars with a business partner for the weekend and we had a ’74 Lincoln Continental Town Car to drive out. This was the year that I had gotten my drivers’ permit and was given a nighttime turn in the widest car I had ever driven. It did not help that this drive was also on the old Pennsylvania Turnpike, which was the narrowest four lane highway I had ever navigated. The mixture of these two (with your father at your right elbow) is called stress.
More pleasant travel memories come from the trips we took by train. Passenger train travel was in serious decline in the 1960s, but we made use of it two or three times when I was young. I am probably one of the youngest people alive who can recall boarding a passenger car shortly after the early darkness of late November and spending the night in a sleeper car. “Don’t flush the toilet while we are in the station” was a parental warning I still remember. I didn’t really understand then that the plumbing in those old railcars flushed directly onto the tracks, but boy do I now. Yuck.
Dinner in the dining car was fun, watching the drinks on the table shake to the bumps of the tracks. After our meal, we would return to our compartment to find that it had magically been turned from seats into beds. Soon after, we would turn in for the night.
I have never forgotten the rhythmic “ka dunk ka dunk . . . . . . . ka dunk ka dunk” of the massive steel wheels rolling over the seams in the rails. Every once in awhile, the rhythm would be punctuated by a couple of “ka BANG”s as we crossed a couple of badly misaligned rails. From the ground, those rails look so smooth, but when you are riding on the train the side to side swaying and lurching tells you that it isn’t so. It always made me wonder how long ago those rails had been set and the spikes pounded.
It was on one of these trips that I was unable to fall asleep and had “the conversation” with my father, somewhere in Ohio. No, not that one. The one where I found out that there was no such thing as Santa Claus, and thus was I ushered into “The Club”. That night I became one of people who understood everything there was to know about life. Or so it seemed at the time.
The next morning brought breakfast and a few more hours of travel before we finally arrived at our destination. Paoli Station was usually the place where my grandfather would be waiting to pick us up in his big white 1962 Cadillac. I have never forgotten the black and white interior with the huge Cadillac crests on the rubber floor mats. Until I got too big, my favorite seat in that car was on the wide folded-down armrest in the middle of the back seat, which made me as tall as everyone else in the car.
The rest of the weekend would be blur of activity, much of it involving playing with cousins that we seldom saw other than on these trips. It was a world very different from the one I inhabited from day to day, in big ways and small. Before-dinner cocktails while domestic help finished up with the cooking was not my normal. And why did everyone call it “soda” instead of pop?
The thanksgiving dinner itself was always everything it should be. It makes me happy that what makes a first-rate thanksgiving dinner is one of the few things that enjoy something approaching universality in our fractious modern society. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberries in some form, big soft yeast rolls and pumpkin pie. Everyone does them differently and everyone may add or subtract a dish here or there, but the classics are evergreen and ever delightful. As for dessert, my grandmother always preferred lemon meringue pie to pumpkin, a taste I have carried on to the present.
These weekends were always over way too soon, and it is funny that I don’t remember as much about the goodbyes and the travel home. And isn’t it also funny how the mind can keep alive a long-gone place and time, allowing you to go back to it over and over.
But back to the present, as there is much to do. There will be no travel this year, no Cadillac and certainly no domestic help in the kitchen. What there will be is family coming together over a big traditional turkey dinner in a way that will hopefully create a good time and place in the mental storage banks, whether in my own or in those of others in the family. And perhaps a before-dinner cocktail as well.