Thanksgiving Memories


Thanksgiving Memories 1


“Simple Gifts”


Thanksgiving Memories 2There are two Thanksgivings that I especially remember, and I think the first was father to the second because both of them revolved around the same concept, that family was important enough to spend time with. Old as I am, I really cannot remember a Thanksgiving that did not have football games of some sort. Failing that, there surely would have been the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and if I take this back to the Fifties—which I will—that sort of thing would have been wonderful fare, simply for the fact that we could live in Montana and see live events from New York City.  In those days that was a miracle, not the Same Old Same Old it is now. Bear in mind, now, that I’m old enough to remember lying in front of the Philco and listening to radio shows. TV was a later invention, not something “we’ve always had.” But in any case, TV is not at all what I remember about that earlier Thanksgiving.


It was, as I said, in the 1950s when we still lived in Helena, Montana. It feels bizarre to remember it this way, having lived in Southern California for so many years, but the truth of the matter is that we almost always had snow by Thanksgiving, as we did that year. One of my mother’s sisters lived at the other end of town, and this particular year the two families got together at our house. There was a huge turkey and as large a chicken as we could find. I don’t remember who provided which, but I still remember that at the end of the meal exactly one half of the entire turkey was gone. It was almost surgically sliced from top to bottom. The chicken was gone completely, apart from a few denuded bones still lying on its platter.


But what I most remember about that Thanksgiving Day was that we had made a day of it. Our in-laws did not arrive twenty minutes before serving time. They got there early, so my aunt could help my mother in the kitchen and the two families could spend time together. One of the big attractions in those simple days before video games, cell phones, and that infantile, incessant, insipid texting was a bowl of mixed nuts with the shells still on them. We talked and laughed and carried on, as families were wont to do in those days, as the nut cracker and nut picker made their way around the coffee table where we were all gathered.


It was a simple enjoyment, all we could really afford in those days. My aunt and uncle were blessed with more income than my parents, but neither family could have been considered rich, at least not in material things.


The second Thanksgiving I especially remember occurred some thirty years later, during the 1980s. By then we lived in Southern California, but my aunt and uncle were still in Montana. I was married then, and the other children who went to the folks that year were also adults and married. In those early years—and in often snowbound Montana—people really did not travel a lot on Thanksgiving, which surely gave rise to the concept of making a day of it. Later, of course, so much of that, along with civility, manners, and common decency went by the wayside, but in the eighties we were still without cell phones, although the NFL had now come to Thanksgiving. Stores were still closed, though, and families still got together, as did ours.


It was a bit of culture shock for Christine when we first got together, because her family has always served the Thanksgiving meal at 6:00 or so, whereas our family has always served at 2:00, but there was a method to that madness, as she learned this particular Thanksgiving. The football games were available, as always, but the TV remained dark, people opting instead, if memory serves, for pretty much the same carved wooden bowl we’d used so many years earlier, filled with unshelled nuts. And again the nut cracking implements made their circuit around the family circle.


By then Christine and I had long since begun our tradition of baking two pumpkin pies from scratch for each mother, a tradition we continued for over 30 years, never missing until the inevitable. My mother left this Vale of Tears in 2001, hers just three years ago, and we’ve not had the heart to bake a pie since. But to continue with this, we showed up with more than the two pies that year. I was once the company baker while I was in the Army, and I still remembered the drill, so I’d made two loaves of homemade bread.


The meal itself was a leisurely affair, as no one was in any particular hurry. Eventually, the table was cleared and the dishes washed, but no one left. My parents had a little house in Lakewood, California, which had, as its largest room, an attached family room the Old Man had built himself. It was an absolutely delightful room that they were able to make up into pretty much any configuration that pleased them. By then the last kid was gone, so they really did not need so much space on a daily basis. Most of the year there were several round tables and chairs, which they used as they were needed. For big doings, though, the Old Man had made some table tops which he used to link the tables together. For a gathering as big as the one that year, he could make a long L-Shaped table that made its way through the Family Room.


Thanksgiving Memories 4After the main meal there were after dinner liqueurs and coffee and conversation. In groups that large, it was not at all uncommon for there to be several conversations going at once, but there were also times when there was but a single conversation because someone was recounting a funny story or zinging one of the family members, and no one wanted to miss that!


Along about seven o’clock Christine learned why we liked doing it early and making a day of it because by then the meal that everyone declared had stuffed them beyond repair had been digested, leaving, believe it or not, the munchies. Some just wanted a slice of that pie they’d passed on at the end of the main meal, but older hands at this made a beeline for that homemade bread. Two slices of that bread, some cold turkey and mayonnaise in between, a bit of cranberry sauce, a slice of pie, and a cold beer. It really does not get any better than that.


But the main thing, and what made both Thanksgivings so special—in fact all of the Thanksgivings I’ve experienced over the years—was just the simple gift of spending time with those we love. I’m not sure we always treasure those moments as much as we should. Looking back on those long ago Thanksgivings now it’s sad indeed to realize that so many of those people are gone now: my aunt, my uncle, my parents, her mother, and two of my siblings. Personally, I have enjoyed entirely too many blessings in life to ever become blasé about it, but I will say that on Thanksgiving I tend to reflect on that just a little bit more than usual.



All or Nothing at All

All In 1 


“All In”


Don’t make me over. It’s an old Dionne Warwick song, and it’s been in my head all morning, ever since our discussion over coffee (I’m writing this on a Saturday). One of the ladies Christine works with has taken up photography and has become very good at it, to such an extent that she can hardly drive anywhere these days without seeing something she’d like to shoot. Last Christmas she gave Christine one of her photographs, which I then framed for her office. It’s a wonderful composition, and since then her friend has only gotten better.


She and Christine recently got into a discussion on her friend’s photography, during the course of which Christine stated an untruth. “I really admire you for so being so passionate about your photography. Me, I’m not passionate about anything.” I’ll have more to say on why I disagree with that self-assessment, but to continue with this, Christine then said, “Joe’s very passionate too. He writes, and he’s a cabinetmaker, and he reads a ton of history, so he’s always excited about something. I don’t have any of those things.”


“You have Joe,” her friend said. “He’s your passion.”


“Of course, I love him, and we’re very devoted to each other. But you can’t be passionate about a person; you have to be passionate about what you do.”


All In 2Then her friend turned reflective. “In a way I think you’re right. I’ve never married, but there were a few times when I thought I might. It was always with someone a lot different than me, but someone I loved. Or thought I did. But when I was with those guys I found myself changing my whole life just to be with them. Whatever they wanted was what I wanted. What they loved, I loved.” She gave a little self-deprecating laugh. “Like Ruth in the Bible. Their gods became my gods. But it never really worked, and afterwards I was always resentful that I had done that to myself for a man.”


Christine and I are as different as any two people can be. We often comment on that. How can two such different people make such a harmonious union, but really, it was my goal from the very beginning. I got out of the Army at age 21 and thought I was ready for marriage. I wasn’t, but if I’d found someone at that age, that would have been my marriage, and almost certainly, a disaster. As it turned out, I didn’t marry for ten more years, but I put that decade to good use, thinking about the kind of husband I would like to be, should I ever become so fortunate. One of the most profound things I ever heard on the subject came at the very beginning of that ten-year journey, at my first job, actually. It was a restaurant, and one of the older cooks I worked with told me he was going on vacation. I said I hoped his wife would enjoy it too and was shocked when he told me she wasn’t going. It turned out that he had very different interests from his wife, which meant they often took separate vacations. “Marriage doesn’t have to be a ball-and-chain,” he said.


Well, as it turns out, Christine and I have sometimes had separate vacations too. Most of the time we travel together to places we both love, but she also loves Las Vegas, and I don’t. When I go, I’m pretty much a wet blanket, so after a failed trip or two, she got to where she just went with her parents, little extended weekend jaunts several times a year. When I wanted to drive around the state of California for some research, I went by myself because she didn’t want to just sit in a car for four days.


But much more than the occasional separate vacation, we have let each other breathe. I am a voracious reader of history and biographies. She reads only occasionally, and almost always it is a novel. She watches TV every night. Other than sporting events, I never turn it on. During the week we have dinner together, usually watching “Wheel of Fortune,” just to have some time together. Then we chat in the living room for fifteen minutes or so, after which she retires to the bedroom and her TV, and I trundle off to the study for the book in progress. She does not beg me to watch her shows with her, and I do not press my latest history tome on her. We leave each other the hell alone. On the other hand, movies and the NFL are shared pleasures. We love going to the movies together, then discussing them later over dinner. And different as we are, we tend to like and dislike the same movies.


When we’re together it’s because we want to be together. We do not drag each other to things. A few weeks ago we visited an elaborate traveling exhibit on King Tutankhamun, an event we both thoroughly enjoyed. And, as I said last week, we can always have a wonderful time with a cup of coffee and each other. Ours is a marriage that is every bit as serene as we say it is.


The day of our wedding Christine called her mother in a panic. She told her mother she was getting scared, and her mother immediately said, “Honey, you don’t have to do anything you want to do. But it’s natural for brides to get the jitters at the last minute.”


All In 3Christine thought about that for a moment, then said, “The thing is, though, I just always feel comfortable around him, like I can just be me, and that’s going to be good enough.”


“Then that’s your answer,” her mother said.


One thing I never wanted to do was to make her into something else. We are all of us different, in how we look at things, in what we can do, in what our interests are. She is not in this world to live up to my expectations. And in any case, I cannot think of a reason in this world why I would want to change her. My woodworking friends are very vocal on that subject. Don’t fix it if it’s not broken. And now we’re back to her misstatement on passion.


Christine really is passionate, but about different things. Mostly, I think, she is passionate about life and about people. I remember once at a family get-together she was whooping and hollering over an Antonio Banderas video, and one of my sisters-in-law said, “She’s so much fun.”


Describing her to an acquaintance, I said, “She really lights up a room, whereas mine is a personality that tends to go about the room snuffing out the candles.” But that’s just the nature of things, really. I write, and I’m a woodworker, working always with my own designs. Any artist is necessarily an introvert because art comes from the inside out. But I have never tried to mold her to me.


She has an empathy for others that absolutely astounds me at times, because she has an incredible knack for getting to the heart of the matter at once. She’s been a human resources manager for over thirty years, and that’s what makes her so valuable in that role, her unerring touch for people relations. She always seems to know just what to say, and especially so whenever she is called upon to mediate between a manager and employee or between two feuding employees. She has often come into a room with a recalcitrant employee, sitting there with arms across their chest, all but defying her to say anything at all in furtherance of getting that person to, quite frankly, knock it off. And in half an hour or so, the employee in question has apologized for the bad behavior and promised to sin no more!


I don’t know why so many people who don’t have a creative bent feel so inadequate around those who do, but it’s a feeling she’s long had. In thinking that she does herself a disservice. I’m the guy who runs the table saw, but I cannot tell you how many times I have asked for her advice on certain design dilemmas—and been glad to get it! But, really, whether she does or doesn’t, it doesn’t matter.


I didn’t have coffee this morning with Christine, the famous writer, or Christine, the world renowned cabinetmaker, or historian, or any other distinguished type, not even with Christine, the great beauty, although she is still as beautiful to me as she was 38 years ago, and her heart is the same miracle it’s always been. I had coffee with my wife, my lover, my helpmate, my confidant, my best friend. And my all.



Celebrate the Moments in Your Life




“Moments in Time”


“Goodbye, Joe.” She didn’t actually say it, and later that evening she told me why. It would have made her too sad. She works some thirty minutes away, whereas I am retired. I’d been at her office because she was able to get me an appointment with a doctor on staff to take care of a small matter for me, which saved the half day I would have surely spent at my own clinic. Before I left I’d dropped by her office to make my goodbyes. It was weird.


The moment I got into her office and sat in the chair before her desk I wanted nothing more than to put my feet up on her desk and spend the rest of the afternoon just chatting with her. She’s high enough in the company that we might have gotten away with such a thing. And it’s so nice in her office because the walls are filled with framed items I’ve made for her over the years. I’m a cabinetmaker, and all the frames are ones I designed and made. But the main attraction, as always, was her, just being with her.


We have been married now some thirty-eight years, but to this day we love nothing more than just spending time with each other. We don’t have to be watching a movie or a football game or doing anything, really, not even having a drink together. We’ve done that on occasion, of course, and enjoyed the heck out of it, but most of the time we drink nothing more than water or a cup of coffee. I’ve said many times that I could quite happily spend the rest of my life with my feet on our coffee table, coffee cup in hand, talking to her about anything and everything, and sometimes nothing at all. Just being together is all we’ve ever needed.


The absolute worst for us was the Orange County job. It’s been some twelve years since she left that particular job, but I still cringe at the memory of it. For four years and three months she left every Monday morning to commute to a job some 100 miles away, much too far for a daily commute, and did not return until Friday evening. We’re childless, so this house echoed quite a bit while she was gone. When she’d return for the weekend, I pretty much followed her from room to room like a puppy. When we retired those nights, I said good night as always and then, “I’m glad you’re home.” Those days are long since behind us, but I still end every evening with the same statement, “I’m glad you’re home.” Because I am. And because I never take her for granted.


Earlier this week, as I said, I stopped by her office to attend to that doctor visit (minor, minor stuff, thank goodness), but when I stopped by her office before leaving, I just had this overwhelming feeling of wanting to stay and spend the afternoon with her. But she has a job to attend to, and I had, as always, a great deal of work waiting for me at home.


Hers is a ground floor office with a sliding door that opens onto an enclosed patio overlooking the parking lot. As she watched me leave, she said, she wanted so badly to get in the pickup with me and go home for the afternoon to do… truthfully, not much. I told you. We’re happy just being with each other. But she knew she couldn’t. For a moment she considered calling after me, “Goodbye, Joe,” but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. It made her too sad.


It’s just a moment in our lives, and I’m not really sure why I decided to share it. Some time ago a maker of specialty coffees had as their slogan, “Celebrate the moments of your life.” My immediate response on hearing that slogan was that we already do celebrate the moments of our lives. And we’re lucky enough to know that every moment we spend together is one to celebrate… and treasure.