(This is an excerpt from a chapter I wrote for my memoirs project a couple of years ago about some of the more memorable meals I’ve experienced – doesn’t look like it is going to make the cut, but it seems to be in the spirit of the season)
Probably the best Thanksgiving dinner I ever had was the Thanksgiving of 1978. I was already living up north, and Dad wasn’t going to be up until the Friday after Thanksgiving, so Don came up on Wednesday night. I met him at the trailer that Thanksgiving morning, and we hunted all day, and then in the evening, Don, in a testament to his skills as a cook, with only a wood burning stove and cheap electric hot plates to work with, prepared the greatest meal I’ve ever experienced. I don’t even remember everything we had, I just know he had apparently gone to the store with a plan in mind and executed it brilliantly. There were several main courses, I remember there being spaghetti, I think ham, there were green beans, and a whole package of dinner rolls, heated and browned to perfection on the wood stove. As we ate, on my little black and white portable rabbit-eared television, on channel 13 from Eau Claire, the only channel we could get in, Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers was destroying the Dallas Cowboys in one of the all-time great Thanksgiving games. The whole episode was one of those moments when all is perfect in the world, the heat from the wood stove warming up the damp chill in our bones from a hard day of hunting, the warm food replacing the dull ache in our stomachs with a contented fullness, and in the background, football.
Then there was the meal, maybe the following year, I don’t recall exactly when, that my Dad, Don and I all slept through. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, a sunny and cold day, not a cloud in the sky. After finishing lunch, Don dropped my Dad and I off at the east end of the 80 acres of Schultz’s woods where we used to do the majority of our deer hunting, and then took the truck to the swampy Mudbrook country that bordered the west end of the same property. None of us saw any deer that afternoon, and my Dad and I met up at about 4:30, shortly before legal shooting hours for the day ended and about a half hour before the sun went down and the winter darkness would overcome the still clear bright sky. There were a couple of inches of snow on the ground as we walked out of the northern edge of the woods and through the farm fields that lay between us and the trailer. As we crossed the fields, the wind kicked up out of the north, slapping us in the face, and the temperature, which had been in the mid twenties all day, almost instantly dropped to zero. To this day it is the fastest and most extreme drop in temperature I’ve ever experienced, and the walk from the woods to the trailer, across three different fields, never felt so far or cold
My Dad and I finally made our way back to the trailer, and we started a fire in the wood burning stove. It was about this time Don came back with the truck. We were all jolted by the cold, and stood in our hunting clothes close to the stove, waiting for heat, when my Dad remembered that he had a small bottle of Yukon Jack whiskey with him. It’s the only time I remember hard liquor ever being a part of our hunting season (normally, there was lots of beer). It was bad, rotgut stuff, but it was warm, it warmed our insides as it went down. As the fire warmed up, we found what remained of the ham we had for dinner the previous night and a loaf of bread. We’d slice off chunks of the ham and throw them on the stove. The three of us remained huddled around the stove, eating ham sandwiches and passing the Yukon Jack around, shedding off layers of hunting clothes as the fire gained heat, until both the ham and the whiskey were completely consumed. It was at this point, dark and bitterly cold outside, that we remembered we were due at my maternal grandmother’s house in Ladysmith for dinner that night. One of us went out and started the truck, and, after waiting long enough for it to get warm, we climbed in.
When we got to my Grandmother’s house, we were greeted by a table full of food and waves of heat as my Grandmother, and her 2nd husband Gordon, maintained the thermostat in their house at somewhere close to 85 degrees year- round. We sat down, my Dad in a comfortable chair, and my brother and I on a soft and comfortable couch, across from my Grandmother and Gordon, who as usual could barely conceal their glee in seeing us. Minutes later, after sitting down in the warm comfort of my Grandmother’s living room, and after a day of being in the cold and harsh elements, and after consuming a bottle of Yukon Jack and countless hot ham sandwiches, all three of us were asleep – as in sound asleep. You could hear my Dad snoring. About an hour later, we all woke up enough to realize it was getting late, that we’d better get back to the trailer. In the still foggy cloud of heat and ham and alcohol, we managed to say goodbye to my Grandmother and Gordon, somehow excusing our not eating, and climbed back in the truck, turned on the defrosters, and headed south down Highway 27. Don was driving, it was starting to snow out, but all three of us remained groggy. I, in the middle, and my Dad, to the right, quickly fell asleep, and so did Don, the driver, although he managed to wake himself several times just as we were veering off the highway into the dark oblivion. We somehow managed to make it back to the trailer, where we slept soundly; not realizing until the next day how much our sleeping visit must have disappointed my Grandmother.
My Grandmother, Ethel Scrivner, was the classic Grandmother; sweet and immense, she was at this time in her late seventies. She had had a difficult life, with her first husband, my Grandfather, walking out on her and their four small children in the early 1930s, leaving her alone and broke during the height of the great depression. She somehow managed, though, cleaning office buildings and whatever other work she could find, eking out a living and providing a home (or rather homes, as they lived in a variety of houses in Ladysmith that were sometimes barely above shack classification) for my Mother and her three brothers. In the mid 1960s when she was also in her mid 60s, she met a widower from near Green Bay named Gordon Booth, a sweet and lively old man who was constant motion – it was in adults describing him that I learned the adjective “spry” – for some reason, a word you never hear associated with young people. He was a kind old man who looked out for her and, after a hard lifetime of work and poverty and being overweight had left her aching and arthritic, Gordon and his doting ways were just what she needed and deserved. More than 30 years after abandoning her and his family, my Grandfather, living in Iowa at the time, mailed the papers granting Ethel her divorce, allowing her and Gordon to be married.
Gordon was a simple man who, prior to meeting my Grandmother had spent many years taking care of his fatally ill first wife until her death. They had no children of their own, so when he married my Grandma, he inherited four adult children and by my count 12 grandchildren. He was simple and unsophisticated in his views of the world, but his capacity for kindness and caring remains unsurpassed in my experience. He lived, to put it simply, to care for others, his first wife for all those years, and then, in the last twenty five years of their lives, he lived to care for my Grandmother. My Grandmother was the first to die, in 1989, and the image I’ll never forget from her funeral is at the cemetery, the sight of Gordon sitting and watching from the front seat of the hearse, his lungs not healthy enough to withstand the cold spring air. He watched as me and my brothers and my cousins carried my Grandmother’s casket to her grave, his gray face through the car window sad and small and burdened with the weight of heartbreak and loneliness. It would be only a mercifully short few months later that Gordon, with no one left to take care of, would also die.
For a time, in the late 70s, in the lonely bachelor days when I lived in Ladysmith, I’d drive across the railroad tracks to their small house on Corbett Avenue and enjoy Sunday dinner with them. I’d get there in the late afternoon and as my Grandma would be putting the finishing touches on the multi-course meal, I’d take Gordon, who had already given up on driving, to the IGA so he could get their weekly grocery shopping done. He loved getting out of the house, and he was proud to be seen with me, and the feeling was infectious, as I was proud to take him. No sooner that I’d park the car than Gordon, like a bullet shot out of a gun, would be on his way through the parking lot, walking that frenetic leaning forward walk of his, as if his feet were having trouble keeping up with his torso. Once inside he’d get a cart and, his hands extended face level on the handle, frantically push it down the aisle like a man possessed, grinning from ear to ear, thrilled to be out of the house and on a mission.
When he was done, we’d load up the bags and return to their house. I’d reach in and take out the items one by one and hand them to Gordon, who knew exactly where in the cupboards everything belonged. The stove would be hot with the few remaining pans simmering, and the table would be set and waiting for us, with my Grandma’s wonderful main courses steaming in the early evening sunlight. Finally we’d sit and eat, and for me, it was heaven, a weekly home-cooked masterpiece that never disappointed. As we ate, my Grandma would tell me stories about my Mother, how she loved mashed potatoes when she was a child, or about the first time she brought my Father home to meet her. “Oh, he was so gorgeous”, she’d marvel. “I told her, don’t you let this one get away – oh, was he gorgeous.”
I’d stuff myself with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, dinner rolls. “You want any more, Davey?” Gordon would ask, and I’d answer no, I have to save some room for dessert, at which point Grandma would beam, proud as she was of the pies and cakes and cookies she always had waiting for me. After thoroughly stuffing myself, Grandma and I would retire to the living room and watch television, Gordon joining us after clearing the table. Grandma and Gordon each had their own chairs, and I’d sit on the couch in the tiny living room of their tiny house. We’d sit and quietly watch T.V, whatever show came on; they weren’t the most discerning of viewers. There wasn’t a lot of talking, there was instead a satisfied comfort, for me the satisfaction that comes from a wonderful home-cooked meal, for them, the satisfaction of opening up their home to family, a chance for them to play roles that in their distant memory they played every evening, when family was real and close and immediate, when they mattered, when they were needed.
Finally, after the evening sky grew dark, I’d get up and leave, thanking them profusely for the evening, and saying, yes, I’d be happy to come back next Sunday in answer to their inevitable questioning. Then, after saying the final goodbyes, I’d get in my car as Grandma stood in the front door. I’d return her solitary wave of the hand, and pull out into the darkness as she shut the door. I remember how cold the night always felt, mainly because my Grandma and Gordon ran the furnace in their house year round. As I’d return to my darkened apartment, the satisfying fullness from the meal would slowly fade and be replaced by a melancholy ache. I missed my family.