Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
Thanksgiving is a time to gather the leaves: table leaves – and maybe leaves of a different sort.
My dad and Uncle Laramie always performed the table-stretching maneuver at Grandma’s farmhouse when we arrived for Thanksgiving Dinner. They retrieved the leaves from the bedroom closet and pulled apart the table to make more room.
Still everyone couldn’t fit, or maybe the adults just didn’t enjoy our company. When we were young, my brother and cousins and I sat at the card table, where we would spill our water glasses and giggle over childish, inappropriate mealtime conversations.
The difficult part was the pre-meal waiting. I was fidgety, weakened by the heavenly aromas of turkey, dressing and gravy and would practically faint of hunger right there in front of the accumulating table of bounty – that we could see but not touch.
Although we grandchildren were hollow from hunger, we’d help set the table. Eventually, finally, the rolls came out of the oven. “Amen” was the sound of the starter’s pistol.
Sweet potatoes bubbled under singed marshmallows; mashed potatoes were heaped over the top of their bowl. Every holiday meal had Grandma’s orange Jello with the grated carrots on top. My mother’s cranberry salad added a zing of flavor to the plate and made a colorful splash next to the white turkey which was drizzled with light brown gravy.
Each meal was pretty much the same, the experience predictable, from the menu to the conversation.
Uncle Herman talked about government or taxes. Dad told corny jokes. Aunt Juletha found something to tease us kids about. Aunt Merle tried to convince Grandma to wear pantsuits. And Grandma asked, “Are you sure you’re full?”
I always enjoyed those family gatherings; I got to hang out with my cousins, eat all the mashed potatoes and gravy I wanted – and have pumpkin pie.
Many people eagerly anticipate holiday dinners, but others face them with reluctance. Some families laugh their way through the meal, telling stories and jokes. In other families there’s an underlying tension; sometimes there’s just too much of the same DNA in one room.
Whenever I’m at a family gathering, my family or someone else’s, I like to observe the interactions between people; it can be instructive to observe who pushes whose buttons and why. Watching family dynamics can be more entertaining than watching football. And, if we care to think about it, those dynamics explain a lot about our own selves, how we became the people we are.
At any rate, these dinners are a good opportunity to learn more about family by observation – and they give us a chance to ask questions about family history.
I wish that I had asked more questions, learned the stories of my grandfather who died when I was 6. I wished I’d had the forethought back then to ask Grandma more about her childhood days on the Kansas prairie in the early 1900s.
If you’re someone who always wanted to know more about your family history, then on Thanksgiving Day when you notice that Aunt Ruth standing alone, spreading pickles and olives on the relish tray, take a moment to ask her where Uncle Jack fought during World War II; did he serve in Europe or in The Philippines? Or maybe she’d be willing to share the story about how she and Jack met.
Perhaps someone could tell you more about Grandpa Fred who once raced motorcycles, or about your Aunt Edith who smoked cigars and was something of a card shark. Ask to hear the stories now – or forever hold your peace; as time goes on, the keepers of these stories will disappear.
If you’re one of the elder family members, you could offer up your own memories and experiences. And perhaps everyone at the table, young and old, can take a turn and tell a story from his or her childhood, making it a holiday to remember.
As we look at our family tree, the branches represent people. And the leaves, well those are stories. Gather those leaves, those stories – perhaps on video or on paper, document them, write them down – before they blow away.
Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh
This Thanksgiving column was first published in The Emporia Gazette in November, 2009.
Do you need the perfect hostess gift? Do you need a gift for someone who loves Kansas or who has left Kansas? Consider giving them the book - Flyover People: Life on the Ground in a Rectangular State.
And, if your gift recipient loves thrillers, how about this one set mostly in Kansas? Dog of the Afterworld by Leon Unruh.