Heaven help us, the holidays are upon us.
This year, my go-to grocery store started promoting Halloween immediately after Labor Day. With football seasons delayed, schools opening and closing and political debates becoming political debacles, I assume the rationale behind the extra-early call for fall was that we all needed something to look forward to. Still, it was hard to imagine frost on the pumpkin as temperatures hovered around 100 degrees.
For some go-getters and crafty sorts – neither of which am I – the spooky displays served as a gentle nudge to get going on pre-planning. Those energetic folks jumped into action, scrolling through Pinterest for autumn ideas, and they got crazily creative. While devilish decor and costumes are normally the focus, with this year’s pandemic, candy distribution took center stage. And to keep up with the Joneses, it wasn’t only your confectionary choice that mattered. Many of my family, friends and neighbors wiled away the hours engineering, constructing and prepping elaborate candy delivery chutes and ghost ziplines, weaving giant spider webs with candy trapped in them and placing bamboo skewers with candy taped to them in their yards. In theory, this allowed little goblins to get their sugar fix while safe distancing. But my cynical, worrywart-self pictured at least one of them poking out their eye with a candy stick. Scary … but on the bright side, it would certainly serve as the basis for an awesomely authentic pirate costume come Halloween 2021, right?
With tricks and treats behind us, we now segue to the time-honored tradition of Thanksgiving. Now, I’d love to say that our family has created a cornucopia of nostalgic Norman Rockwell memories, full of love and laughter and hope and gratitude. But if I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit that it always wasn’t.
As the leaves change, I recall the heartwarming, hilarious and sometimes horrific moments that holiday gatherings bring to the table. Because Thanksgiving is not only a time for feasting and family; it’s a time for nutmeg and nutjobs. Relatives, reflection, resentment and rehashing arguments … again and again and again. Yet, we revisit the ritual year after year, returning to familiar traditions. Hoping for family scenes from Hallmark holiday specials, but oftentimes getting something that resembles a Cohen Brothers movie.
As the only child of middle-class parents whose relatives were scattered across the nation, our holidays were generally spent with friends of my folks who had kids my age. I have pretty fond memories of these times, with us kids being shut in a room to play and wreak havoc most of the day and into the evening, breaking only for sustenance. Now, you should know that the strategy of having holidays at someone else’s home worked beautifully for my family in the early years. Though my mom was a great housekeeper, seamstress and working mother, she simply despised cooking. My dad, on the other hand, loved crafting things in the kitchen. But times were different then. The roles of husbands and wives were more traditionally defined. So, we were very careful not to share that information with outsiders. At any rate, during the week, Mom did her best and used the shortcuts of the day to put a decent meal on the table. One of these timesaving miracles was instant mashed potatoes, which I was quite fond of and considered the norm. These dehydrated spuds were cutting-edge: fast, laden with sodium and created specifically to be smooth as could be. They tasted great to my unsophisticated palate, so they were a pantry staple. One year, when I was about seven, we had traveled across town for Thanksgiving. Our hostess had gone all out … the table was laden with a variety of stuffings, salads, Jell-o molds and vegetables of all sorts; broccoli-rice and green bean casseroles and homemade mashed potatoes. We said grace, passed ‘round the bowls and filled our plates. Even back then, I had the gift of gab and was in the midst of a story when I took a bite of my potatoes. I’m sure an odd look came across my face, for – to me – they seemed bland and lumpy … nothing like the potatoes I was accustomed to. I tried to recover, but the hostess sensed something was amiss and asked me if everything was okay. This was the moment when I unknowingly “outed” my mom. I mumbled something about how these potatoes were really good, but my mom’s potatoes were different. Mom’s weren’t as chunky and had more salt. There was an odd silence. Awkward glances. Since my dad, along with the other adults, had indulged in a few pre-dinner Manhattan’s, he quietly started chuckling and took great pleasure in telling everyone gathered round the table that I had never before had “real” mashed potatoes due to my mom’s lack of culinary skills. As the laugher grew, so did the tall-but-truthful tale of our “unconventional” household cooking arrangement. In a way, I set my mom free that day. Once our family’s dirty little secret was exposed, we hosted many a holiday gathering, and, with Dad at the helm, every meal was a masterpiece.
Fast forward: For a good part of my married life, our holiday gatherings took place at Grandma Charlcie’s, a humble abode nestled in a tiny Central Texas town. After fighting traffic and dodging 18-wheelers on I-35, we would arrive, tense and stressed with nary a liquor store in sight to help us take the edge off. She had an innate sense of timing and would greet us at the door the moment we drove up, all smiles and hugs, radiating more warmth and sweetness than the just-out-of-the-oven pie cooling on the windowsill.
It was her time to shine, and, having grown up without grandparents, I was happy to oblige her in being the granddaughter that she never had. Over the decades we spent a lot of time together in the kitchen (cooking is the one aspect of domesticity that I actually excel at). As I listened to the vivid reminiscences of family members and friends who had long since passed on, I tried to keep them straight: Elmo Eikler had married Clara Burklebach when they were teenagers; Cousin Bussie never was quite right after that mule kicked him in the head; Aunt Rose and Eva Nell had been estranged since the late-‘60s when Eva Nell had brought her Boston terrier, Nubbin, to a Christmas dinner where he had terrorized some family member or another. These homespun homilies and storytelling are fast becoming a lost art, and what I wouldn’t give now to have had a cell phone to record them for posterity.
Following the ceremonial carving of the turkey (always done by a male), we would sit down to the table. As one of the younger females at the adult table, I was low on the totem pole, so my regular spot was at the corner of the table (with the table leg wedged firmly between my legs) and seated upon the only chair that had, somewhere along the way, lost its back (one of the benefits of this arrangement was that I had excellent posture back then). After the delivery of the blessing (again, always done by a male), us womenfolk would be tasked with serving everyone and keeping the small talk going.
But over the years, family members moved. Gatherings grew smaller, and conversation became stilted. As overworked adults with a tryptophan overload from our meal, the gas wall heater cranked to the max and NFL games as the only distraction in a home without Internet, it was impossible to resist the call of the Naugahyde recliner. Lulled by the monotonous yet comforting sound of Grandma’s voice, I would nod off with predictable regularity, her soft southern dialect a soothing lullaby to me.
Fast forward again: Times have changed. Most holiday meals are now spent at a trendy restaurant, adulting with wine flights and food, venturing beyond the standard turkey and dressing that were synonymous with Thanksgivings gone by. I love the freedom and relaxation it brings. But at times I miss the larger gatherings where families knew how to put the fun in dysfunction. Gone are the days, where alone, late at night, you could eat a cold turkey sandwich over the kitchen sink in your underwear and feel the calming comfort of linoleum and cornbread crumbs beneath your bare feet.
Sherry Etzel is a Dallas-based creative type who enjoys seeking out humor in everyday life. A singer, guitarist, and member of several improv and comedy troupes (including the Frisco Improv Players), she has been seen on stages throughout the D/FW area.