A Thanksgiving Memory
As the youngest in my family and the only daughter, I didn’t always know the family history or the many years of experiences and emotion that led up to certain events. But even when I was quite young I did understand the atmosphere the past created. My naturally curious nature made me always want to know more and eventually I became the family story keeper.
From the earliest that I can remember, every weekend my Daddy’s maiden sister, my Aunt Gladys, came from Topeka on the Friday night bus, stayed the weekend and left late Sunday afternoon. Aunt Gladys worked all week as a librarian so this was her time off, far away from the demands of the Dewey Decimal system. Mama still did all the cooking and baking plus the other household chores while Aunt Gladys sat with Daddy in the living room on a straight back wooden chair.
Mama never said anything though she would mumble under her breath just out of earshot on occasion. I also began to notice that when the big Sunday dinner was almost done and Mama would bring to the table whatever delicious dessert she’d baked that morning, Aunt Gladys would always put her hand to her throat and say, “Oh dear! That looks too rich for me!” Mama’s mouth would form a straight line, the serving knife would bang against the plate hard and she’d let out a big huff of a sign, but still say nothing.
Usually nobody said anything at this point. Everybody just helped themselves to the dessert and tried to fill their mouths with food instead of words. Unless my brother Richard was at the table that is. It had to be Richard because Lowell never had much to say on Sunday as he was often still recovering from Saturday night. “Getting over the night before?” as my Dad would ride him when he sat down, elbows on the table holding his head in his hands.
But Richard had a way with Mama. He could get away with saying things to her that if anyone else said the very same thing she would have got steaming mad. When he said whatever wisecrack he’d come up with to break the tension Mama almost always ended up with a smile. Sometimes he’d even get her to laugh, then we all could laugh or sometimes provoke her to crack wise right back at him. When he did that, I could relax and enjoy my dessert.
I was about four years old when I first got just how deep the tension truly was between Mama and Gladys. It was a Saturday afternoon and we were going into town. We’d go to the IGA, Pat the Baker’s and maybe I’d even get a dime so I could buy a cherry coke at Denny’s Drugstore. Mama was brushing my hair and I was fussing because I wanted my hair down and Mama wanted to put it in a ponytail. Aunt Gladys came through the kitchen and said, “Let your mother put your hair in a ponytail Linda. It will make your face look rounder.”
“Okay then,” I said giving in.
As she went into the back bedroom to get her purse, Mama started brushing my hair down like I had wanted all along. When I looked up, Mama bent down and whispered in my ear, “I wouldn’t do anything SHE said to do,” and went back to brushing the tangles out of my hair with great vigor. I still remember my little girl brain reeling with this new information and thinking, “WHAT! Wow! Mama doesn’t like Aunt Gladys!” I also knew that it was a secret not to ever be said out loud.
These kind of weekends went on until that old house burned down when I was 10 years old and we moved to town. The fire had stirred up lots of entirely different issues and tensions and Aunt Gladys didn’t come quite so often. When she did come it didn’t seem to bother Mama nearly as much as it once did. Also life was a bit easier for mama in town since we had running hot and cold water and a bathroom inside which meant much less toting and lifting. I even had my own room so life was better for everybody.
Years passed and eventually Daddy took a job as a guard at The Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kansas which was much farther from Topeka. Aunt Gladys still came to visit every few months and of course every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Our Abilene Thanksgivings fell into a yearly pattern.
Daddy worked the graveyard shift at the Center so he’d get home in the morning right about when Mama was kneading the dough for her famous dinner rolls. I was living with Mama and Daddy, Richard always came home from Chicago and of course Aunt Gladys would come on the bus from Topeka so we could all celebrate the holiday together.
Daddy always said to go ahead and eat when the dinner was ready because he had to go to bed and he would eat when he got up around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Lowell and his family usually had Thanksgiving with his wife Joy’s family, then come to us on the following Saturday. Every year Thanksgiving went pretty much this way without fail until my 19th birthday. That was a holiday dinner that will live forever in my memory as the day when years of unspoken anger burst forth in one quick action.
Mama had been up since about 5 a.m. in the morning making her bread rolls, her much loved stuffing, baking 3 kinds of pies, boiling potatoes, basting the bird and letting us help with only a few tasks. When Mama cooked like this it was so good and she wanted to be sure the praise for that meal was all hers – and rightfully so.
Daddy was sleeping soundly by the time I had set the table with real cloth napkins and a pine cone centerpiece. Mama put all of the food on the table then pulled the golden bird out of the oven. Richard was sitting in Daddy’s chair at the head of the table opposite Mama. I was at Mama’s left across from Aunt Gladys. My mouth was already watering when Mama said Grace and we were all smiling as she stood to carve the turkey. We began to pass the rolls as Mama continued to carve when Aunt Gladys asked, “Would you pass the oleo margarine please?”
Before anyone could pass anything however Mama raised the big butcher knife high in the air and plunged it into the breast of the turkey full force and yelled, “Well by God – You’d say butter at anybody else’s house! You and your uppity ways! Everybody says butter! Even when it’s oleo margarine!” She sat down, her face still stern and said, “Pass the butter please!”
We were all sitting there in stunned silence for a second staring at the butcher knife sticking straight up out of the bird still vibrating a bit from the sheer force that had put it there. Finally Mama said, “Well!?” This prompted Richard to pick up the butter dish, pass it to me and then I passed it to Mama who took it and began to fix her plate like nothing had happened.
The three of us sat there looking at Mama who wasn’t looking at us. Instead she was simply spooning mashed potatoes onto her plate and buttering her roll. A few more seconds that felt like an eternity passed and we all followed her lead and began to fix our own plates. Then we ate our Thanksgiving dinner, mostly in silence. Nothing else was said about it. Daddy got up around 4:30 p.m. and had his turkey dinner. Later we all said polite goodbyes and shared a few brittle hugs before Daddy drove Aunt Gladys to the bus station.
The next morning Richard slept in, Daddy came home and went to bed while Mama and I sat at the kitchen table having toast and coffee. The only time the “incident” was referenced at all was when my brother Richard came yawning into the kitchen and Mama asked him, “Do you want some toast son?”
Cutting a mischievous eye at me, he replied in an innocent tone, “Only if I can have oleo margarine on it!” He did it again! Mama started chasing him around the house trying to snap his bottom with a wet dish towel for the comment but laughing all the way. One thing is for sure – we always knew how to put the “fun” in dysfunctional.