For me, there are no greater sensory memories than those of Thanksgiving on Artesian Avenue when I was a child. We lived a half block from Chicago’s Kennedy Park, and Thanksgiving morning meant no school, great smells, a busy mom who wanted nothing to do with me, and football with my friend Laura, my brother Danny, the Griffins and Cronins and lots of other random neighborhood kids. Everyone was welcome to play in those organically created variations of football.
I loved St. Cajetan, but the day off on Thanksgiving meant everyone was home. In the 60’s, we were free to play, but Thanksgiving meant that the adored “big” kids would also particpate because all of their moms didn’t want them around either. I look back, and my sister Eileen did not experience my freedom because she has always been a great help in the kitchen. To this day, she is an amazing Bon Appetit cook. I, on the other hand, was in the way, or at least that’s how I perceived my mom’s strange preoccupation with basting the turkey all morning. I couldn’t reach the oven, and the belief that I am useless in the kitchen has stuck with me ever since.
I’d wake to wafts of roasted turkey and gravy because my mom started early. I mean really early. The weekend before Thanksgiving, I often helped set the table with my mom’s delicate rosebud China, beautiful silver and gorgeous Irish linen napkins. I was not trusted with the Waterford crystal. My mom is smart. She knows who to count on to not shatter those precious glasses. I learned at the age of five or six that the fork goes on the left, and the spoon and butter knife go on the right. We didn’t mess with salad forks, dessert spoons, or bread plates. It was all we could do to fit what was needed for twelve or more around the dining room table. We only ate in the dining room on Thanksgiving. Otherwise, that room, along with the living room, was off limits until Christmas.
I could sense rising tension as meal preparation escalated. Like my mom, I’m smart, so I would find Danny and scram. We’d bundle up in old hooded sweatshirts, jeans, gym shoes, hats, and mittens, grab a football, and head to the park. My friend Laura would inevitably meet us there, and I believe we continued this routine until about 7th grade when we realized with sadness that the boys started treating us like girls.
One particularly chilly, wet Thanksgiving, Danny and I trudged home, first stopping to run our fingers along the chain link fence on the corner at 114th Street. The motion of my reverberating fingers seemed like magic as they blurred with the speed of our arms. Danny and I opened the side door of our house just as someone was heading to the basement to get yet another gallon of milk. This someone exclaimed, and my dad poked his head around the door at the top of the stairs. He let out a squeal of delight and a laugh and said, “Eileen, come see this.” Danny and I stood there, frozen both from cold and from fear, and my mom told us to peel off our clothes right there on the landing and get in the basement shower. Danny and I missed the memo that we were covered in mud. We just knew we just played the best best round of mall ball ever . . . until the next time.
I remember sitting at the “kids table,” a card table set up for those of us ousted by our birth dates. I never minded because it meant we could go down to the basement sooner to play at “the bar.” The bar consisted of two stools and a tall table. We’d play bartender until it was our turn to play ping pong or pool, whatever table was set up that year.
In 1972, my McCue cousins came over, and the older cousins opted to watch television in the “TV room”, a main floor bedroom converted to a family room when some of the older kids moved out. They asked if we wanted to watch Home for the Holidays. It absolutely terrified me. I blame that film on my complete intolerance for anything scary, including an unexpected person rounding the corner in the hallway at work. My fear for anything not anticipated began at the age of ten with Sally Field in the lead role. I could barely watch The Flying Nun after that.
My Grandpa Sullivan was still alive then, and my memory is that he was not much of a talker. Turns out it is because his language of preference was Irish. I only knew how to say the Sign of the Cross and kiss my ass in Irish, so I just looked upon him as one of the gentlest, humblest people in the world. And it amazed me that he liked peas. I hated them and clandestinely dropped them under the table. Whenever my mom served peas, I offered to sweep.
My olfactory sense wasn’t the only one triggered on Thanksgiving. Murmurs of older brothers so full that they moved with a slight moan, the snoring from my dad’s chair, the white noise of television football games, and the chatter of my older sisters cleaning up filled the house. I remember holding a damp dish towel as someone taller handed me dishes to wipe. I thought, “Now I get it. Mom and Dad had me so I could dry.” We all had jobs, so I figured that my parents had kids to make sure everything got done.
My mom’s Thanksgiving meal is to this day the very best meal I have ever had. Nothing will ever top it because nothing will ever include the memories of that full house. After dinner, all ten of us pulled names for the annual Christmas gift exchange. Once I could write, I was in charge of making sure everyone pulled a name out of the hat which was really a bowl, but we called it a hat.
The excitement of thinking about the person whose name I pulled stayed with me all the way to Christmas Eve when the gifts were opened. The older kids may have tired of the tradition, but to me, the grab bag was one of the only times where I could participate as an equal to siblings two to fourteen years older than me. I loved thinking about whatever brother or sister I picked.
This year, my daughter Bethy and her husband Danny are hosting Thanksgiving, and although not all of our kids participate in the Christmas grab bag, those that do get to conjur up thoughts of a loving gift for a brother or sister all month. Some years, we call it a “no gift” Christmas, and a song, poem, drawing or craft is enough to thrill the receiver. It’s all in the thought. I just love that.