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Gathering Leaves

November 26th, 2013 at 11:59 am

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.

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columns, life on the ground, seasons

  1. Kris H.
    November 26th, 2013 at 12:57 | #1

    Ah, the flood of memories. Not only the amazing abundance of the dinner and the lively talk between bites, but the aftermath–the women in the kitchen cleaning up, packaging up, putting away any leftovers, maybe picking on a bit of the turkey if anyone still had any room. And talking. The men in the living room with a ball game on TV, smoking and drinking beer and telling dirty jokes, were not nearly as interesting to my young psyche as the room full of women talking. Talking about babies and illnesses and houses and gardens and little-known bits of family lore. And talking, of course, about the men. I venture to guess I got a better sex education in that kitchen at a tender age than I would subsequently get in school. Every once in a while my attempts at invisibility would fail, and one aunt would “shush” another when I was noticed, but I was clearly in the most interesting spot.

    Thank you, Cheryl, and may your happy memories increase.

  2. Connie Hocking
    November 26th, 2013 at 15:00 | #2

    Thanks, Cheryl – So many good memories of dinners at the farm near Chase. I’m making Grandma’s date pinwheel cookies because it just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without them. I, too, wish I had asked more questions or maybe just paid attention a little better. There will only be 8 of us on Thursday but probably enough food for 28. One of the things I miss most is having my sister there to help do the dishes. Those holiday meals when all 3 of us would visit while cleaning up provided a lot of wonderful memories.

    For another view of Thanksgiving dinner – read the letter below!


  3. Anna Keller
    November 26th, 2013 at 15:07 | #3

    Great column Cheryl, it brings back memories of my own childhood Thanksgivings. I remember being relegated to the “children’s table” too. But we didn’t mind! And I love your suggestion to ask questions of the older folks, wish I’d asked a lot more about my family history when they were all still around. Most people don’t think to do that until it’s too late! Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  4. ginger porter
    November 26th, 2013 at 17:56 | #4

    Another Beauty! Thank you for that!

  5. November 26th, 2013 at 22:28 | #5

    Even more great stuff.

  6. November 27th, 2013 at 22:21 | #6

    Your writing about food is allmost unbearable.