“I sometimes joke that my greatest shortcoming as a writer is that I had an extremely happy childhood.” The quote is from Anna Quindlen and I can sympathize.
I did not grow up in a dysfunctional family. My parents were married for fifty years. I had a little sister who was close, despite a six-year age difference. And while our parents couldn’t afford to give us the latest toys and we often ate pancakes for dinner, we knew we were loved.
We lived in a small town near the Pacific Ocean in Southern California, as did a host of relatives. I once joked that I couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a second cousin or a great uncle. Thanksgivings were huge affairs usually spent at my mother’s parents’ house. Two tables were put together in the living room with white lace cloths, the good china, crystal water goblets, and sterling silver tableware.
It was mandatory that we dressed up. We knew great uncle Joe would be there in a suit with a white handkerchief sticking out of his suit pocket. He was the one who got a new car every year. “Why,” I would ask. “The ashtray got full,” he’d say. It was a standard response and became a joke.
Great-aunt Elizabeth would come, prancing around, always cheery, sometimes singing, hanging out with the kids rather than the adults. I was fascinated by her. She was the one who took us fishing and for rides in her classic car on a street with dips. She bought us ice cream and let us hang out with her at the beach. It was whispered she was schizophrenic. What was that? We were kids. We loved her and she loved us. That’s all we needed to know.
Great grandmother Francesca sometimes was there. Even though born in Los Angeles, she never learned English, or so she said. Speak Spanish, she’d tell us, and we did. Even today I remember some of my Spanish, but most is buried from disuse. My mother was fluent, as was my grandmother. I wish I’d used it more. Having two languages is useful.
The dinners were special. Shrimp cocktail to start in crystal goblets. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy with no lumps. Dad would joke about the stuffing. “Not enough apple,” he’d say. Yup, diced apples were in the stuffing, so small they weren’t noticed.
We had odd things, too, that I never think about today…three-colored Jello salad with cream cheese layers. Hot curried fruit. Home-made yeast rolls.
After a couple of helpings of pumpkin and mince pie (I never see mince anymore), the kids would clear the table and do the dishes with lots of moaning and complaining. Hey, it was traditional. Good dishes did not go into a dishwasher. Delicate crystal needed special handling. I can’t believe we never broke anything.
As my sister and I got older, we used to sing while cleaning up, and later we added little dance steps to our songs. There are some songs I still hear today that always make me think of her.
As adults with children of our own, the next generation carried on the traditions as best we could, even when we lived far apart. Until we moved onto the boat, I still had china and crystal. I finally gave it away, but I kept the silver and the Christmas dishes for an occasional large family dinner, mostly because I like them.
I came to understand that dishes aren’t important. Family is. Whether your family members have two legs or four (pets have always been part of my family, too), happy Thanksgiving.