November 22, 2005

Thanksgiving and other holiday memories

It has been at least 15 years since I was home for Thanksgiving. Maybe even more. It's sad, but I can't remember the last time I was there. Most likely, I was living in Milwaukee at the time, so if I went home it was because I was missing the family Thanksgiving and had enough for a quick plane ticket.

Each of the holidays at home had a different feel. One reason for this is that my family divvies up the holidays between our various houses. Thanksgiving is celebrated at Aunt Pauline and Uncle Rusty's house. They have a ranch style house in town with a nicely manicured back lawn and flowers around the borders along the fence, as well as a nice patio in back. But, we usually celebrated the holiday indoors. Their large dining room table would get the insertion of extra leaves so that all the adults and a good number of children could settle around it and dig into turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, Aunt Betty's bean casserole, potato salad, jello salad, fruit salad, some strange salad with coconut and marshmallows in it, and desserts like pumpkin pie and mincemeat pie.

Dinner always took about three hours. The courses would just keep coming. Of course, there were always the ones who stood out with their eating habits. A couple of my cousins, and at least one person who married a cousin, always astounded everyone by their exploits. You would never imagine that they could put it away like they could. These people often earned accolades or at least respect for their efforts -- but they were always men. Women were a different story. Often, my sister's eating habits were commented upon. She was (and remains) bulimic and loaded up her plate quite a bit before disappearing for a little while. However, her eating habits always earned some comment or at least the feeling that she was being watched. Others ate very little, which always earned expressions of concern from the older folks -- "Are you not feeling good, honey?"

The holidays were often the time that the trials and travails of family life, the secrets, lies and jealousies came bubbling to the surface like bad smelling swamp gas. None of our families were safe. I think that the worst thing was that whenever a family had something going wrong, they tried to keep it secret. But everyone knew something, if not exactly what, was happening. Protecting my elderly grandmother, the matriarch of the family, was always first priority. Yet she always somehow knew that things were wrong -- you couldn't keep much from Granny.

After pies, the poker table always got rolled out. It didn't matter whether the holiday was Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Mothers Day or Easter, there was always a poker game. And what poker it was! No penny ante in my family. We played for a dollar limit on raises. The pot would often rise to $70 or $80. On one end, Uncle Rusty, a little tipsy from a couple of highballs, would make some ill advised raises and curse his unlucky cards. Uncle Elwin was the master of building a large stake, going on winning streaks that made little towers of chips in front of him. Aunt Betty would be hot and cold. My mom, usually sitting at the end of the table, was inscrutable, the great stone face. She didn't drink, and often came home the big winner and rarely seemed to come away with a loss. The poker games would last until 1 or 2 in the morning. In the old days, it was 5 card draw, 5 card stud, and 7 card stud. Later, someone was introduced to Texas Hold-em, and introduced it into our family games. The only wild-card was a joker, good only with aces, straights and flushes. "We play according to Hoyle," my mother often declared. Occasionally, someone would come in and try to play night baseball or some other game with a billion wild cards. My mother would leave her chips at that point, only coming back when Hoyle was back in force. Once in awhile, a young buck like myself would sit in, only to lose $20 in 15 minutes and be forced back to the couch to watch some comedy show, or play some type of board game with the cousins. Poker was serious business in the family.

Sadly, with my cousins, siblings and myself being grown and moved away, the holiday gatherings have grown smaller and smaller. This year, only six people celebrated Thanksgiving at the family gathering; Aunt Betty and Uncle Elwin, Aunt Pauline and Uncle Rusty, my mother, and Aunt Betty's almost 100 year old father, Papa John. My mother said that no poker game was played, because there weren't enough people. Though Megan and I are going to my hometown for Christmas this year, many of the faces I grew up with will be absent. Others will be like strangers to me -- the kids of my cousins whom I barely know. But some Christmas traditions will continue. If there are kids, most likely a pinata will make an appearance, though I'm not sure how that tradition first started in our family. If five people are up for it, the poker table will come out. The feast will begin at my Aunt Betty and Uncle Elwin's place at about 2:00 p.m. Of course, we'll be late as my family always is. Ten lottery scratch off tickets will be on everyone's plate, a gift of my aunt and uncle. Usually someone wins ten dollars or so. And life will go on.


Blogger Judith said...

I was reading your comment on The Movie Guys website. What you said about those people on the North Shore is horrible. Those poor people were stuck in houses that made them sick & no one would take responsibility. I taught in a school in New Orleans where the AC system was killing my allergies. I mean, you could smell the mold when you opened a door. What connection do you have on this topic??

6:24 PM  
Blogger Michael L. Hess said...

Hi. I didn't see your comment until today about the mold on the Movie Guys website. My wife works in journalism, and did a story about them for CityBusiness, the business weekly paper in New Orleans. She worked there when we lived in NOLA. I couldn't seem to find the article on their website archives, though.

1:28 PM  

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