November 27, 1996
The day only turkeys
are stressed

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Thankful? I'll tell you why I'm thankful. I'm grateful we still have one unencumbered holiday left. Today, we gather simply to eat too much, watch too much football and wonder why cranberries are included in the celebration.

We don't have to shop or color eggs. We don't need special clothes. You will not receive a card with a form letter from your college roommate telling you her son's SAT scores.

Except for the football marathon, things are pretty much like the Thanksgiving Day of my childhood. And yours, I'm guessing. The cooks have changed. And maybe in some households, the turkey has gotten more exotic. I understand some of them baste themselves now.

This is a shame. One of the best things about the day was when my grandmother opened the oven to baste the turkey and the aroma filled her house. We were such a bunch - about three dozen - that no single turkey was big enough to feed us all. So my aunts brought venison and squirrel and rabbit, courtesy of my uncles who hunted. ''Sit up straight. Use your napkin. Watch out for the buckshot."

A peaceful meal

A lot of families, I hear, designate a children's table. Ours didn't. You ate with your mom and dad and brothers and sisters. No matter your customary relationship with your siblings, it was understood that on this day, there would be no pinching, no bickering, no tattling.

Likewise, adults were allowed to argue about safe topics such as religion and politics, but Grandma wouldn't let them talk about more perilous subjects, such as hair. ''Why don't you get a haircut, Jeff? You look like a girl.'' Forbidden.

The littlest kid got the highchair. The other kids sat on books if they needed them to reach their plates. Seating always included an old chair missing its back for as long as any of us could remember.

Every year, a near ritual was when whoever had The Chair leaned back and both feet flew up, smacking the underside of the table. Everybody grabbed for the glasses. Some milk, some water. But most of us, even the kids, had wine.

My grandfather was Italian.

If Grandma was the heart of Thanksgiving, he was the soul, bellowing orders from his seat at the head table. ''Put a little gravy on the dressing. Don't take that, David, unless you're going to eat the whole thing. Pass the squash."

Noisy and opinionated, he loved any excuse to cook and to eat. He handled the side dishes and the cleanup. After bolting his food, he would turn his formidable energy to clearing. The slow eaters learned to eat with one hand and hold their plate with the other.

After dinner, the women and older girls were incarcerated in the kitchen with Grandpa. Soap suds flew everywhere, and your dish towel had to be wringing wet before he'd issue a new one. Silverware had to be counted. Inevitably, a spoon or fork was missing, and somebody had to paw through the garbage.

The older boys were in charge of folding up chairs and tables. The men were in charge of playing cards and drinking beer.

Off in a corner, my cousin Mickey was organizing the Thanksgiving Play. She did this every year to avoid the possibility that she might have to dry some dishes or sift through turkey bones and bread crusts looking for a teaspoon.

To be fair, she did have a flair for drama. She wanted to be a lion tamer when she grew up. Mickey is a junior high school teacher, so I guess she got her wish. Anyway, she'd round up the little kids and dress them up as Pilgrims and Indians. They'd re-create the first Thanksgiving, as they imagined it might have been.

''Sit up straight, John."

''Use your napkin, Priscilla."

''Watch out for buckshot, Squanto."

I'm planning to be thankful all day today for this holiday, a celebration of generosity. I will remember Pilgrims and Indians and Grandpa and Grandma. I'll try to remember that the main idea was peace and sharing, not turkey or football.

Maybe it's a lesson we could remember the day after. And the day after that. Maybe it's a lesson we could remember all year long, even without a turkey. Starting now.

No pinching. No bickering. No tattling.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.