Thursday, November 25, 2010

On Thanksgiving

......a day for contemplation of riches, past and present, including pumpkin pies and dressing.  In the deep past, I can see my father's mother's  face clearly today, as if she were here, the Jewish grandmother from Stillwater, Minnesota, who hid her Jewishness under a thick layer of denial.  Lillian had married the love of her life, whose first name really was Orange, at the cost of complete alienation from her family.  It is hard to imagine, at this remove, the cost of being the only Jewish family in Stillwater, Minnesota, in the first half of the 20th century.   But there she was, in love with an Episcopalian with a big white house on Elm Street and little else.  During the prohibition era, in fact, Orange converted his auto repair shop into a rum-runner conversion shop (to make pots of money!).  There, he and Francis, my father (who had dropped out of high school for the purpose), installed heavy springs in the undercarriages of vehicles that were carrying illicit alcohol between Somerset, Wisconsin, and the Twin Cities (Minnesota).  Dad, who had a naughty twinkle in his eye, once showed my brothers and I the night club along the main highway where he used to hide out under a trap door to evade the feds.   I don't think he was making it up.  

In any case:  the Stillwater grandparents were the most serene and insular of the two sets of forebears -- I now think because they had been cut off from Lillian's family (they sat shiva when she got married) and because she was ill most of the time (psoriasis and a host of other maladies).  But could she cook!  I wish I had tumbled at the time to the cabbage rolls and other dishes that smacked of Jewish family cooking....but I really had no idea.   Only later did I learn what kind of questions I should have been asking the sad woman who spent so many hours in a big chair in the living room.  And of course by then it was too late.   Orange and Lillian, however, remained in love, perfectly content to spend time mainly with one another:  In their late 90s, they'd pile into the big old Oldsmobile every Sunday, weather permitting, and drive slowly to the A and W root beer stand to "watch the kids."

It was the other grandmother, the one I didn't like as much, but to whom I owed the very most, who joined us for Thanksgiving, to whose house we migrated almost every year, once we moved back to Minnesota from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.   I was about 10 when we made that penultimate move -- Dad's partner, Dick Erhardt, had literally walked off with the checking account in South Dakota, so .... time to relocate.  In Worthington, Minnesota, we were just close enough to St. Paul (it was across the state, but not impossibly far) to make the drive once in awhile.  When Thanksgiving was held in South St. Paul, we could at least have fun with Swift and Company foreman Toolie (nickname for the wonderful grandfather, besmirched only by his youthful dalliance with the Ku Klux Klan -- which, in South St. Paul, could ride its motorcyles to Lilydale and harass Jewish blacks in town, so you pick on what's available).   I have always wondered how such a gorgeously funny, genuinely nice man could have been hateful.  I can't ask him -- he died thirty-odd years ago, leaving his unpleasant wife behind.  As with Lillian, I didn't know what I ought to have been asking him.  When he died of kidney failure, a little bit of me died with him -- what a hoot that man was.  The dark underside was nowhere to be seen when we were young.  

His wife, my  mother's mother Carrie Beedle, was not a nice woman.   She paced up and down in front of the local church waiting for Toolie to cease all the annoying chatter and socializing.  She flicked the porch light up and down to let her 30-year old daughter, my mother, know that she was watching every move on the porch swing when she brought a boyfriend home.  In old age, she moved into our final resting place in West St. Paul, criticizing everything my mother and father did.  I was actually glad when she died, and didn't have to say so.  One of my fears, in fact, is that life will end that way for me as well, with everyone smiling at the funeral.   Perhaps we all entertain that fear. 

Yet it was Carrie -- the tyrannical, unloveable Carrie -- who taught me everything I once knew about thread crochet, the one thing she loved to the point of devotion, more than her children and husband, more than anything I ever noticed in her household.  I think now that she used her doilies, tablecloths, edgings, bedskirts, curtains, on and on, as places to live, when the real world became intolerable.  She made afghans too, and quilts, but her real love was thread lace -- and so, together, this awful woman and I 'spoke' to one another in the language of pineapple, filet, Irish crochet.   When I was taking Ph.D. written exams, I made over 200 lace doilies and used them for years afterward to wrap little gifts -- all because of her.  I made dozens and dozens of things as a young woman, all in ecru, white, sometime mixtures......and I owe it to her, don't I, that when I want to relax and find sanity, I escape into crochet, the one that's most natural.  There is a very rich irony here somewhere, because I really hated the way she lived. 

Carrie -- the same Carrie -- could cook up a storm.  When my parents joined forces at Thanksgiving to cook dinner, the results were spectacular.  Nobody had any money.  And, when Carrie finally did have enough money to be comfortable, she continued for the rest of her life to patch her clothes with flour sack patches, to buy everything on sale, to raise chickens, as if the Great Depression were still afoot.  But the old ways led to groaning tables and a week of leftovers.  Yams.  Whipped rutabagas.  Home-cooked cranberry relish.  Overcooked brussel sprouts or carrots, or both.  The apple pies were tall and tender.  The whipped cream dolloped onto pumpkin pie had been 40% butterfat, and so it stood tall as vanilla-flavored Minnesota snowbanks.  Turkeys with savory bread stuffing called to mind past turkeys.  One of the men, grandfather or father, stood proudly at the end spot at dining room tables and exercised the mysterious male art of carving.  The women, of course, feigned ignorance of carving, even though they probably had shown them how to do it when they were boys.  Tradition reigned.  Women cooked, men carved and took credit for the success or failure of The Bird, and everyone else sat there (it was always mid-day, an echo of the days when farmhands ate their big meal at noon) for the entire afternoon, unable to move, unwilling to make an end.

Even in adulthood, when I was living in Washington, D.C., for example, I often drove home (I was supposed to think of St. Paul, Minnesota, as "home" even after decades of living elsewhere) to share that same Thanksgiving dinner in my parents' West St. Paul house.  The dressing (the one I still make, that my brother David still makes) is Lillian's dressing.  The gravy is my mother's gravy.  The pie ingredients and method that I still use originated, when I was in my teens, with Elvira Ballou of Round Lake, Minnesota, who was a Paris-trained chef marooned in the middle of corn fields, who taught my mother to make to-die-for pastry, who in turn taught me.  So when I make pies, I self-consciously conjure up Elvira's amazing face, her carved nose, her loose bun on top of her head.  She had a big old house filled with antiques, and struck me, then as now, as an exotic creature victimized by some kind of time or space warp.....I never did learn how this fascinating, well-travelled woman came to live in that town, where everyone except Elvira made Campbell Soup hotdishes and ate Wonder Bread in the name of Progress.  Nobody made their own bread anymore -- except Lillian and Elvira -- because Progress had given them store-bought bread.  When we were kids, we made little objects at mealtime from the horrible, white, doughy center of those bread slices -- we'd remove the crusts and squeeze it into shapes as if it were Play-Dough.

So tonight, when Larry and Katherine and I migrate to a restaurant for our repast, I will be thinking about those meals, those family gatherings, and maybe I'll silently apologize to Lillian and Carrie and Gladyce and Elvira for not celebrating their ways this year.....for not making that wonderful sage dressing that Mom used to run through a manual food mill (an improvement on Lillian's original method).  I will do it next year.   This year, we need to rest.  I need to spend the time making hats and scarves for sale at the studio, and I need to plan classes for the rest of the semester.  But memory survives.  It will happen again.


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