Thanksgivings: First, Worst and Best
My First Thanksgiving
Our family’s first Thanksgiving in the U.S. was just days after our arrival. If we had flown, we would still have been jet-lagged.
It was cold and rainy as we sailed into New York harbor at around 3 a.m. on the Monday morning of Thanksgiving week, November 1953. We had crossed the ocean on a French Line ship, the Liberté. The story of how we came to leave England and arrive in America will wait for another day.
The Statue of Liberty was not illuminated at that time, but this was an experience not be missed regardless of the hour, the weather or the darkness and, after a cold and rough North Atlantic crossing, we were determined to be the huddled masses on the ship’s deck.
Getting through customs and immigration was fraught with fear. The customs agent found a forgotten dried-up apple in the bottom of one of my sister’s bags, a cause of embarrassment if nothing else. Scarier was watching the immigration agent holding up my mother’s X-rays and scrutinize them. She had had TB when she was pregnant with me and spent two years in the hospital after I was born. She had been cleared and we did have valid visas, but our hearts were still in our mouths until our release onto the streets of Manhattan.
We spent a day and a night in New York, staying in the apartment of a woman we had met on the ship. Looking back I am amazed that anyone would let a family of five people bunk in her Manhattan apartment, and fifty-eight years later, I still remember her name: Ivy Zetheras. The only other thing I remember from that day is eating at the automat, which was an amazing novelty, a precursor, I suppose to eating out of vending machines, except the food was fresher (and better). Dishes were displayed in little windows; you put money in the slot—a nickel for a piece of pie—and opened the window to get the plate.
Tuesday morning we left Grand Central station on a train to Sandusky, Ohio, the nearest town to Norwalk with train service. Our sponsor, Martin (Mike) Elenbaas, was waiting for us and took us to the home in Norwalk he shared with his wife, Bertha (Bert). Mike died the next year, 1954, but Bert lived well into her 90s. They were sturdy Dutch stock from Holland, Michigan. Mike had a heating business and had promised to employ my father, who was a welder and could do just about anything with his hands.
The Elenbaas home was a 1950s dream house right out of the Saturday Evening Post. Built into a hillside, it had a basement out of which Mike ran the heating business, Cook Furnace Company, which used Bert’s maiden name because it was simpler than Elenbaas. The living quarters were on the upper level. It was a fairly ordinary mid-century house, but to me it was the ideal modern American home, right there on West Main Street.
Mike and Bert had five adult children, and most of them and their families came for Thanksgiving. I remember most of their names: Marian and her husband Lou Kish, who had daughters Patsy (now Kelley), Sally and Susie, and who had befriended my parents in England (it was through Marian’s telling her parents about a “wonderful English family” she had become fond of that Mike had offered to sponsor us); Arnie and his wife Juanita, who lived next door, and their daughter; Phyllis and Bill Decker, who had no children, which was a shame because Bill was like a fun uncle to me; Vivian and Gib Black (I think), who had a daughter my age; and Dale, who I don’t remember well at all—I think he lived far away.
Bert used one of those free-standing electric turkey cookers for the turkey, and the large kitchen with its 50s formica dinette set was the center of activity, noise and smells. (I never understood why people used those turkey roasters until I tried to cook a turkey plus all the Thanksgiving side dishes in one standard oven. A turkey almost fills it up.)
I was overwhelmed. I was an adventurous as a kid—I had free roam of the ship because everyone else in my family was terribly seasick, and took full advantage of it, something that would never happen today—allowing an eight-year-old to wander around an ocean liner in the middle of the Atlantic. But I was also shy and extremely awkward, a little chubby and self-conscious of being “different” as an immigrant.
And all that strange food! Whoever heard of eating sweet things with savory? In England, the idea of a gelatin salad with fruit or vegetables (carrots in jello?) was unimaginable. The same would go for cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. We were used to a working class English diet—bangers and mash [sausages and mashed potatoes], eggs and chips, fish and chips, beans on toast; when we did have meat it might be a roasted chicken or a leg of lamb with a vinegary mint sauce, not mint jelly, thank you very much!
Between the crowd of strangers and unfamiliar food, I mostly cowered in one of the bedrooms that day. I’m sure the Elenbaas family thought me equally strange.
My worst Thanksgiving was in about 1990 or ’91. I was single and living in a duplex with my daughter Cori and our dog Jessie. The kids must have gone somewhere with their father that year, and I was at loose ends. I was slightly dating someone, and he had asked me to go for a walk in the morning because he had to work that afternoon. Another friend had invited me to have dinner with his family, but I had briefly dated this guy and really didn’t want his kids to think he and I were an item. The church had its annual Thanksgiving potluck, which I decided I would drop in on if I felt the need, but I thought I could tough it out without doing anything else after the walk.
Around 3:30 I changed my mind and headed up to the church. By the time I got there the event was over: not a car in the parking lot and the church closed and empty, which I was feeling by that time.
I went home and called the friend who had invited me and asked if I could come by for dessert. I went to his apartment and met his kids, who were headed out to a movie. I had a piece of pie and visited a little while and went home, never telling my friend about my empty day.
I promised myself I would never again go through a Thanksgiving without making plans, and I never have.
Thanksgiving 2011 was one of the nicest I can remember. After a brutally hot summer and an endless drought, the weather was moderating and we’d had a little rain. My son-in-law’s mother Sharon has often had Thanksgiving at her house and included us, and we’ve kind of alternated. She had done it the previous year but we had gone to a friend’s house instead. I decided this was my year to cook, and I invited Sharon and the friend who had hosted us last year, as well as my kids.
I kept the menu simple and traditional: turkey and gravy, dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, rolls, cranberry relish, fruit salad my son-in-law made, and pumpkin pie. Some years I have insisted on baking pies and making homemade rolls and doing everything from scratch. This year I bought a pie and made whole wheat bran rolls the day before (making two extra loaves, one for our good neighbor, Don, and the other to take as a hostess gift on Saturday). Sharon brought the cranberry relish and some white rolls. We had cake left over from Gary’s birthday Monday.
I watched the Macy’s parade while I worked in the kitchen—the parade is so cheesy it’s one of those things you sort of love to hate. Except for additions of new balloons of cartoon characters that are unfamiliar and pop stars who are all too familiar (e.g. Justin Bieber, whom my 5-year-old granddaughter calls “Justin Beavers”), it’s one of those unchanging holiday rituals I wouldn’t want to be without, like the Rose Parade.
Cooking is something I enjoy more in principle than in reality, because I forget how physical and tiring it is. I regretted getting up too late to take a walk before having to start cooking, but by the end of the day I realized that wrangling a 16-pound turkey in and out of the oven a few times, putting together the rest of the meal and making it all come out right and on time was a workout. It would have been even harder without the invaluable help of my son-in-law and his trusty electric carving knife, which I requested by text-message mid-morning. He Michelangelo’d that baby into a work of art, piling beautiful slices of turkey onto platters.
I wanted my girls to have a restful day because I know they both work hard and needed a break. Gary mostly played with the grandkids, so without Mike and Gary my day would have been impossible (and I know Mike also works hard, which made me appreciate his help that much more). Sharon and my friend were welcome guests and pitched in as they could.
It wasn’t perfect, to be sure: my friend suffers from depression. I had told him he was welcome to arrive just in time to eat and leave as soon as he was done, or stay as long as he wanted. He stayed awhile but was very quiet while the rest of us chatted after dinner. But I think he appreciate being there. I hope it gave him a little cheer.
And there were accidents. The kids love to play with Gary because he plays like a kid—pillow fights, water balloons, things kids love and moms cringe at. When they get too wild I invoke “Mom’s law”: one, two or all of three things will happen: something will get broken, someone will get hurt, and mom will be upset. One of the ceiling fan shades and the light pull were damaged in a pillow fight; Bryan slipped one leg into the pool when they were playing chase and we had to put his jeans in the dryer. But nobody got hurt and mom wasn’t too upset.
I’m not even sure why, but it was one of the best Thanksgivings ever. The table I had bought at a garage sale, hoping it would accommodate eight or nine, proved to be inadequate, even with the little ones perched on the piano bench in the corner (two kids are not enough for a “kids table”), so Gary and our friend willingly took their plates into the living room. Everything was hot and ready on time and tasted good, and Sharon’s “Sister Shubert” white rolls from the freezer case sold much better than my home-made whole wheat bran rolls, which was fine with me because we enjoyed the leftovers. After dinner I put the remains of the turkey in a big pot with vegetables and water and simmered a stock.
Everyone left by late afternoon and I cleaned up, with Gary’s help (I’m one of those kitchen czars who prefers to clean up after everyone leaves). I began to feel the day’s efforts, and we still had house guests arriving! Gary had offered our guest room to friends who spend Thanksgiving in Austin with family members who can’t put up all the out-of-towners. Not knowing their ETA, I retired early and left Gary to greet them. I saw them at breakfast Friday, and we joined their family gathering later in the afternoon.
When Gary offered our guest room, he forgot that I had agreed to take Chloe overnight Friday and planned on having her sleep upstairs because I had vowed not to sleep another night with a snoring octopus. With the guest room in use, I set up a pallet in our room with several thick comforters and blankets and got to listen to both her and Gary’s snoring; but at least I wasn’t tangled up in her limbs all night.
Our guests left Saturday morning. We had been invited to some friends’ ranch Saturday afternoon. There were supposed to be other families with kids so we took Chloe. Only one other kid was there, a girl of eight, and she and Chloe got along well. We were looking forward to letting the kids run free outside, but it was chilly and windy. Our hosts drove us down the hill to a creek to see dinosaur tracks, so everybody got to work off some energy and see a couple of deer carcasses that hunters had cut the heads off—a great gross-out for the kids (and some of the guys, who fooled around with detached limbs).
After a beautiful supper of soup, bread, cheese, fruit and cookies, we played a game Gary invented, which is basically charades using the Silver Screen cards from Trivial Pursuit. Some people were reluctant but everybody got into it eventually. We let the two little girls play a round using movie names they thought of, and Chloe did “The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.” The final score (women vs. men) ended up a dead tie.
Chloe was asleep before we got to the highway. When we took her home her mother was not feeling well. After we drove away I asked Gary if we could go back and get Chloe and keep her another night. I called Cori and told her to pack a bag for Chloe and we went back and got her. She’s usually eager to spend the night, but I think she missed her mommy and wanted to stay home.
She didn’t want to sleep alone upstairs and she promised she wouldn’t move around too much. I lay down with her, intending to move to our bed after she was asleep, but she somehow kept her promise and I stayed with her all night.
Gary went to church and Chloe and I had a sweet morning. We played around with doing hair, and I got out a basket of stuff I had accumulated when my hair was longer—barrettes, head bands, banana clips, combs—and we put them in each other’s hair (which isn’t easy for her since mine is very short). After I started taking pictures with my phone she got hold of it and took pictures of me (already deleted—I had no makeup on and they were way too close up) and of herself, which were not so bad.
I had asked Cori to come for lunch, and all morning Chloe kept asking when her mommy was going to get there. I made soup the turkey stock from Thursday night and leftover meat, noodles, vegetables and tomatoes with green chiles to spice it up. We added leftover wheat rolls and pumpkin pie and ice cream for a nice lunch.
Despite the good morning with Chloe (and a day off church, probably only the second or third Sunday I’ve missed in nearly two years because of various commitments), I was as happy as she was for them go home after lunch.
The rest of Sunday was truly a day of rest after a full weekend—one of the best Thanksgivings ever, blessed with abundance. The once-strange food was now familiar—there was no jello salad—and I felt no need to cower in a bedroom.