As the Bird Turns
Thanksgiving is all about the food -- or is it? We all know that the meal is the excuse for gathering around one table and breathing the same air for about four hours, whether or not we like each other. For some of us, this meal is an annual reunion of relatives, both estranged and strange, the one opportunity every year to stand witness to our DNA and to make small talk with people who may as well be strangers.
With such a heavy premise, the food had better be good -- or what on earth will we talk about? Will we be able to endure the agony of sitting next to a cousin whose politics are radically different from our own? Will we able to keep the lecherous uncle at bay and and smile at his wife while he smiles at your chest? Will we be able to lie once more about our sister-in-law's really bad creamed onion thing that she insists on bringing every year?
The circus, ladies and gents, is in town. And we hope and we might even pray that the meal will get us through the night and make everything alright.
But, as the song goes, you can't get always get what you want.
Thanksgiving, 1990. I was 24, in my second year as a reporter in Philadelphia -- young, eager and although green, very proud of my journalistic endeavors.
Dinner, which was always at five, was at the O'Donnel homestead in nearby Bala Cynwyd. My brothers were high on drugs and had plans that didn't involve turkey and stuffing. We were six at the table: My great aunt, and her companion, Angelo, who has since passed away, my college friend, Richard, who trained in from New York, yours truly, my mother and lastly, her live-in beau, who shall go by the fictitious name of Trouble.
Trouble was a drinker. He liked beer with a whiskey chaser. He would begin his liquid diet sometime in the afternoon so that by the dinner hour, his brain would be nicely marinated. He was a mean drunk who liked to pick fights and run his mouth. I likened him to a bad case of poison ivy that no calamine could soothe.
I was on this kick of stuffing the turkey with whole garlic cloves and flambÃ©ing it with cognac as it emerged from the oven. I think we may have graduated from the Stove Top box to homemade stuffing, but my aunt took her time-honored station of manning the gravy drippings, doctoring them up with a few splashes of Kitchen Bouquet and jars of Heinz gravy.
We gather in the dining room with the pink piano and multi-colored wallpaper, and we sit down, Parker House rolls and all, to give thanks.
We pass platters and pile up our plates with the fruits of our labor, and we say "Grace" for a hot minute. I am still on my first helping of turkey when Trouble starts.
As a member of the public relations staff for the office of the Mayor of Philadelphia, Trouble fancied himself a journalist in the know about newspapering and such.
"I read that Welcomat of yours this week," he says, staring at me.
"I work for City Paper, not the Welcomat (a now defunct weekly paper)," I respond quickly to correct him.
But he keeps going, like the rash that won't quit.
"Yeah, there's just nothing good in there to read, may as well use it to line the bird cage."
Richard looks at me, mortified. My aunt moves her mashed potatoes nervously on her plate. And I've got a blood vessel that's about to burst.
There's a pregnant pause. I take a sip of wine, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"How can they call that rag a newspaper anyway...."
I drop my fork into a puddle of gravy, and it clangs against the plate. I stand up, look at Trouble, who continued talking, and scream at the top of my lungs.
"SHUT THE [expleteive] UPPPPPPPPPP!"
My mother, not known for her ability to deal with conflict, immediately stands up and starts clearing the table. Everyone else is stunned into silence, even Trouble. I can hear the sound of the plates being loaded into the dishwasher.
There would be no dessert that Thanksgiving, or leftovers, or idle chit chat about the wishbone. It would be six months before my mother and I would speak again. And Trouble, he eventually left paradise so we could enjoy our Parker House rolls in peace again -- a little thing but one for which we could give thanks.
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