Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ere the Winter Storms Begin

I keep seeing these little featurettes on "how to survive your family at Thanksgiving," the assumption being that everybody has a family full of jerks. In fact, there's one such article on Salon right now, entitled "A Holiday Guide to Arguing With Your Right-Wing Relatives." Then there are the articles which presuppose that Thanksgiving dinner has to be a six-course gourmet stunner requiring all-night cooking marathons and exhausting repeat trips to the grocery. There must be millions of people for whom Thanksgiving is this way, but I feel sorry for them. They've missed the boat on the best holiday of the year.

When I was a kid, Thanksgiving meant the Tennessee cousins were coming to Georgia (or we were going to the cousins'). Either way, it was heaven for me: I was the youngest in the extended clan, and there is no such thing as a kid who does not like to hang around older siblings and cousins, in order to get a preview of coming attractions (dating; high school; acne; college). Aunt Ruby and Uncle CC and the four cousins would always promise to arrive at 2 and get there at 4, bringing pound cake and a gallon jar of ambrosia and dressing, several side dishes and at least three kinds of pie, which would be added to the three kinds my mother had already made. My mother would also make the turkey, and no force on earth could stop her from also making collard greens, which she loved but which are not everybody's favorite smell. (One year my cousin Butch came in the door and announced, "Aunt Ruth, something has died on your stove.") There was no such thing as menu planning; in fact, there was no such thing as recipes, because this was just the kind of food every Southern cook knew how to make. The china didn't match, the serving dishes were a motley collection of Tupperware and whatever was handy, and the kids always wound up with the salad forks because there weren't enough of the big ones to go around. The table was a card table attached to the dining table extension, covered by an old bed sheet or mismatched table linens. Nobody cared.

But the food was only half the attraction, if that. Mostly, it was just the talk. My family was not a bunch of joke-tellers; as somebody once observed, Southerners do not tell funny stories; they tell stories funny. (For that very reason, these are hard to reproduce--you really had to be there--but there was the time my cousin Butch was asked to assess the structural soundness of a building his church owned, and found during his inspection a massive bee's nest in the rafters and a nursing mother in an out-of-the-way classroom, and returned to the next deacons' meeting to report, "My brothers, I come to you from a land of milk and honey.") Before any of this, however, there would be church--a Thanksgiving morning pancake breakfast (probably designed to get the kids out of the kitchen), followed by a worship service at which we sang, "Come, ye thankful people, come/ raise the song of harvest home/All is safely gathered in/ 'Ere the winter storms begin."

It was the faint chill of those last three words that always struck me--a dark background for a brilliant present, a reminder that winter would come, and death would overtake us, and we would not always be together. And indeed those things have happened. But somehow it's okay; those memories exist for me in some kind of Eternal Now, protected from time and decay and death. Come to think of it, that Eternal Now is all I really have right now, today. It's all I've ever had, or needed.

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