This is a Thanksgiving story you will soon not forget. A true fable, a cautionary tale, if you will, for there is a lesson to be learned.
We pulled into the driveway of my in-laws. My husband, Greg, and our first and only child at the time, Justin, were spending Thanksgiving dinner with his family. With second baby in utero, to arrive in three weeks, it took earnest effort to hoist my beached-whale of a body out of the car. It was 1983 and “eating for two” was still an accepted practice.
“I’m going over for a few minutes to see how Bertie is doing with her dinner,” I told my husband. “I’ll take Justin with me.” Lucky for me, I only had to waddle across the street.
It was my good friend’s first attempt at a Thanksgiving dinner, her first home-cooked turkey, and I knew she was worried about pulling it off. Me and Bertie: young-wife and new-mother comrades-in-arms. That day I was on moral support duty.
Bertie, yes, that’s her real name; I think it was a take on Bertha, which we were never to speak of. She grew up with my husband in this working-class neighborhood of mid-20th century homes built by and for the growing group of white couples that left the cities for more rural settings. Infant suburbia, staking a claim on the American Dream with the type of houses that sat on nice-sized lots, allowing room for additions onto the original modest imprint as the family grew, using money not borrowed, but saved over time.
Bertie and her husband,Tim, purchased their white clapboard home from her Mom. I first met her when me and Greg were living with his parents for a short while when I was carrying Justin. Bertie was also pregnant with her first child, a girl they named Erica. Our new babies arrived just one day apart. We quickly bonded that year.
Justin and Erica had turned three only two months before this Thanksgiving, and for some reason—maybe she was nesting, maybe she wanted to assert herself in the pecking order of holiday meals—Bertie had the wild idea to host her family for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. She wanted to prepare almost the entire meal on her own; for, in-laws, Mom, sister, aunts and uncles — a total of ten adults, and little Erica.
I told her she was nuts, but she got her family to agree. In a show of maternal approval, her mother-in-law gave her an apron for the occasion. Green gingham check, two pockets outlined with even greener zig-zag stitching, complete with white cotton ruffles along the apron’s edge. Not Bertie’s style, at all. But it was a gift. From her mother-in-law. The baton had been passed, her rank upgraded, and this was the uniform.
Me and my little man, in his navy blue “picture pants” with button-down shirt and itchy sweater, went to the back door that opened to a fairly large kitchen for the size of the one-story; the house had a full-sized root cellar, but the only other living space was a family room and a hall leading to one bathroom and two bedrooms.
Ten people, one toddler and an eighteen-pound turkey for dinner in that little house that day. It was warm and loud and close contact. But, like most holiday dinners in that neighborhood, that meant friends and relatives had to interact, engage in conversation. They made up for lost time — until the next holiday, wedding, or wake.
Erica, pig-tails and hair ribbons flying, ran to greet us. Her sweetly flowered dress fell just above her chubby knees, below that, white ruffled socks in black Mary Janes. I was really hoping for a girl this time. “You look so beautiful!” I said, as I gave her a squeeze.
“Look! I got ruffles like Mommy.” She bent over and fingered the top edge of her socks. Before I could comment she and Justin ran off in different directions.
“Nice apron,” I called over to Bertie. She darted me a look that told me she wasn’t in the mood for my sarcasm. This was serious business. This was her turf, her theater, her hill to conquer. I scanned the room to see if I could find what was making her so uptight. She gave me a quick signal with a nod toward the oven.
There it was; the star of the show, the king of the feast, unassumingly browning like a good Tom should. Unaware, was he, of his historical meaning for a nation, of the stately power he reigns over the holiday tables of gathering families.
And there, by the oven door, hovering, peeking, picking and poking were the queen bees – the two family matriarchs: Mother and Mother-in-Law. Little Erica was there, too; standing by her grandmothers, trying on her best “big girl.” She jumped up and down and squealed when the door was opened for a temperature check.
Bertie grabbed my arm, pulling me within earshot of her angry whispers: “Everyone’s been buzzing around my oven! They must be afraid I’m going to screw it up, or something.”
I gave her a reassuring hug; she held on to me, all belly, as if I was a rescue buoy at sea. “It smells like Thanksgiving in here!”, I said, “Erica’s happy, everything looks great, even that Betty Crocker apron.” She gave me a snort and a smile letting me know she would be alright.
It was time for me and Justin to head back over to my in-laws and our Thanksgiving dinner. We said our goodbyes and good wishes. Erica, the big-girl host that she was on that day, walked us to the door and blew us a kiss. “Thanks for stopping by,” she exclaimed, parroting her mother’s common send-off. I couldn’t help but think how fast our little people were growing up.
Oh, how I wish I was a dinner guest that day; the rest of the story is Bertie’s telling.
The turkey made it out of the oven and on to the table, golden-hued and garnished. “Oohs” and “ahhs” all around, Bertie was pleased, Erica was beaming. Seated according to their assigned place cards—hand-made by the host, of course—the family joined hands as her father-in-law led them in a blessing. The quiet grace was soon replaced with hungry chatter as the make-shift holiday table assembly line passed plates and bowls of Thanksgiving fare. Tim was taking requests for white or dark meat as this year’s carver.
Little Erica, at the big table in her booster seat, asked for white meat and Bertie cut it for her; then gave her a big dollop of mashed potatoes and a scoop of peas. The kid was getting good at using her child-sized fork and spoon, but she still preferred the finger method for peas and Cheerios.
“You were such a big helper today!”, said Bertie’s Aunt Martha. Erica nodded in prideful agreement as she pushed more turkey into her cute little mouth. “How is your turkey?”, asked Martha.
Without skipping a beat, smooth as pumpkin pie, little big-girl Erica, flatly stated:
“It’s too fucking dry.”
The room stopped, like a still-life painting, recalled Bertie; eyes popped, mouths opened — for how long she did not know. No movement, no sound — only the happy innocent chews of a clueless toddler.
My friend glared at each of her guests waiting for the confession. None came; nor would it ever. The adults that day only looked down like naughty children as she zeroed her accusatory eyes in on each of them, one by one.
The uncomfortable silence was at-last broken by Tim, who cheerfully announced: “Well, we have plenty of gravy for that turkey.”
Maybe it was the pent-up tension of the month-long meal preparation, or the sheer exhaustion she was feeling, Bertie could not help but break out in unfettered laughter. Soon, a chorus of guffaws filled the little house. And, of course, not wanting to be left out, little Erica joined in with her pint-sized giggles.
OK, so this Thanksgiving story holds two lessons…
Don’t cook your first turkey for a crowd.
Perhaps more importantly…
Mind your tongue, even the whispers — especially when little ears may be listening.
Please help a writer in training!