(my part of our lay-led service at UUFC yesterday)
That’s French. “What is Thanksgiving?” French is a big part of me and the beginnings of its hold began at Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a big part of me, too, or I of it. Growing up with Thanksgivings at my mother’s hand formed a big part of who I am.
There’s my meticulousness and attention to detail, what some people might call being picky, but which has its strong ties to those Thanksgiving dinners, and our daily dinners of course, where Mom taught me the proper way to set the table: glasses and plates and silverware “just so” even if for our standard farm supper, everything lined up an inch in from the table edge (nevermind that on days when I was particularly mad at Dad I’d put his silverware all whopper jawed – really showed him). We upped the ante considerably at Thanksgiving though, not only with the fine china coming out and the bronzeware eating utensils Mom loved so, but the elaborateness composing each setting: two glasses, three plates, two forks, soup spoon, dessert spoon, butter plate and individual butter knives. Usually there were place cards made by me, upon which I had glued leaves or heads of wheat, another side of Susan, the art part, sprouting.
Thanksgiving was the dinner each year where we had actual courses: salad and soup before the principal victuals which of course were the same Thanksgiving menu each time with Mom’s special sage dressing (that’s “stuffing” to some of you probably), an extra batch of oyster dressing for Dad (which I grew to love later) and the other standard Thanksgiving fare although we favored candied sweet potatoes to sweet potato casserole, and Mom always made her fried parsnips – a true melt-in-your-mouth delicacy. This yearly pomp is in me, too.
Qu’est-ce que c’est Thanksgiving? It’s learning who you are and how you like to do things, feeling proud when people ooh and ah over the beautiful table, learning how to converse politely and only when spoken to with 7-10 adults at the table each year (we never had a kids’ table at our house, my brother was 8 years older than I and no other kids were ever there for Thanksgiving).
Thanksgiving had a lot to do with the French side of me, too. Yes I teach French but it’s always been more important to me personally and privately, than it has been as a vocation. Two of our yearly invitees to the Clay Thanksgiving were maiden cousins of my grandfather, Rachel and Elizabeth Loughridge. They had long been retired by the time they started joining us for the dinner. Elizabeth had been a librarian and Rachel, my idol, had spent her professional life as a French professor, and had been chair of the Romance Language department of Central Michigan University; I never knew her before her 70’s but still from the age of 7 or 8 onward I wanted to emulate her more than almost anyone. She was a beautiful bird-like woman with cute little tailored suits and short white Audrey-Hepburn-in-Roman-Holiday hair. I adored her. Starting languages in 9th grade there was never any question but what I would take French, mostly thanks to knowing Rachel and wanting to be like her.
So qu’est-ce que c’est Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is dinner, and yearly traditions and people that form us. Of course later we learn to take Thanksgiving with us. Any year when I don’t happen to cook all of Mom’s standard Thanksgiving items, Thanksgiving is no less crucial. We realize that even when every box is not checked for things we used to consider essential to Thanksgiving, this time is just as fulfilling and nurturing. Thanksgiving is about people and fellowship, fried parsnips or not, Mom and Dad and Rachel or not, Ohio or not... etc.
I’ve celebrated numerous Thanksgivings overseas of course, and they’re no less nurturing when they’re completely out of the American context. The biggest Thanksgiving feast I ever attended was in France, actually. The organization France-Etats-Unis (France – USA) hosted it. France-Etats-Unis was a national club with local chapters in most decent-sized French towns where French people who were interested in the US or who happened to speak English for whatever reason (many were WW2 vets) got together monthly with Americans (we’d let Brits in regularly too tho :) to have coffee and speak English together. (It was common to hit it off with a couple or a few people in particular who would occasionally invite you to dinner or out for a local sightseeing trip, too; many of these friendships lasted for years to come.)
The chapter of France-Etats-Unis in Tours, France, used to hold a MONDO Thanksgiving feast in the wine caves of Vouvray each year. The caves are huge, but of course there is not one big room, the tables snaked through the various tunnels of the caves, so though there were 70 or so of us there that day, French and American, you could only see a couple of tables’ worth of people around you.
We got to the table to see the most charming little individual menu cards on our plates. The items on them entailed a not-entirely-accurate but thoroughly well-meaning list of Thanksgiving food: Turkey, yay! Chestnut purée (um most of us had only heard of that thanks to Dickens or someone but OK sounded good). Apple compôte (far more French than Thanksgiving-y but we all loved it so absolutely bring it on!) The list continued with various vegetables, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, etc. We tucked in and eagerly awaited the spread.
A handful of items were served as individual courses (the chestnut purée for one) until the turkey came with a couple of vegetables on the plate and a mound of mashed potatoes. At last! We had just noticed the absence of the sweet potatoes when almost simultaneously we looked at each other, mouths full, in complete confusion, then lightbulbs started going off and we were met with the challenge of trying to chew and swallow and laugh discreetly all at the same time. The sweet potatoes were already present. The mashed potatoes we had mixing around with turkey and other goodies in our mouths had been diligently sweetened with sugar. I should say too, excessively sweetened, but any sugar in mashed potatoes already qualifies as excessive.
In retrospect I see that in a way those were the best sweet potatoes I ever had, prepared with friendship and generosity and the most tangible intent of making someone feel at home. (No matter how crazy – I still picture the French people cooking and taste-testing – rolling their eyes “They EAT this stuff?!” they would ask each other, incredulously.)
Nowadays I’m learning to broaden my mental definition of Thanksgiving even further. My hiking group put on a pre-Thanksgiving feast at Oconee State Park last week where 3 different kinds of dressing (none like Mom’s and yet delicious in their own right) and deep-fried turkey on paper plates made up the perfect Thanksgiving, because 25+ people had all pitched in, lending camp stoves, trading off stirring things, sharing wine from Nalgene bottles, helping make sure the coals on the dutch ovens were duly hot, and especially: sitting around the campfire afterwards digesting and communing.
Qu’est-ce que c’est Thanksgiving? What is Thanksgiving? It is something which we sometimes plan out to the Nth detail only to find out it is molding us much more in return. As much as we have clear, distinct ideas and memories of what Thanksgiving is all about and how it should be, we are equally capable of transmuting it to other experiences, other dinners, other venues. Thanksgiving is fellowship, friendship, caring, mutual giving and mutual thanks. Thanksgiving is inside us – we take it everywhere – if we choose – it is at your parents’ house, then your house, at friends’ houses, and even abroad or in the mountains; it’s with family and friends or whomever we want it to be with, or sometimes with whomever we happen to be with. Like most good things, Thanksgiving is there in our hearts if we take time to look and honor it – for me it’s right between the fried parsnips and the mashed potatoes with sugar in them.