We spend this Thanksgiving as we have the past several, with each other at our own table and with way too much food. Since it’s just the four of us, we don’t need to cook the full-on meal, but we’ve ingested enough tradition over the years that we find ourselves making lists and standing in long lines with over-full baskets. Besides, Thanksgiving has grown into an all-family thing in our house. We now trust my son M with a real knife, and he has become the emperor of stuffing. He will cube as many loaves as you put in front of him until all the bread in the house mounds in the big silver bowl next to his cutting board. My daughter Q loves to do just about anything in the kitchen, loves the mysterious alchemy of cooking, particularly now that she doesn’t need the step stool to reach the stand mixer. She and I use the machine to make the pumpkin pie; she and my lovely wife whip the cream for the top. All of us eat it after we’ve eaten too much already.
For much of my childhood, tradition required that we spend Thanksgiving in Southeast Kansas with my father’s side of the family. The five-hour-plus drive from our house in southwest Kansas always seemed covered-wagon long, mainly because my brother and I disputed property lines in the Buick’s back seat the entire way. We were all happy, then, to see the end of the trip and everyone who inhabited it. And there were lots of inhabitants to see. My father and his brother were essentially raised by their grandparents, brought up working the farm alongside their aunts and uncles, my great aunts and uncles, nine of them counting my father’s mother, as brothers and sisters. It’s as confusing as it sounds, made more so by my father’s referring to his grandfather, Luther, and grandmother, Lucy, as “dad” and “mom,” and to his own mother as “mother.” (My father almost never called his father anything — at least in front of me. Pretty much everything I know about my paternal grandfather I’ve pulled from and put into two unbendable black-and-white photographs: a handsome man in a felt hat relaxed against a boxy car; an older but still handsome man in a high-backed chair with kids hanging off the arms.)
The aunts and uncles who were brothers and sisters to my father made for a colorful collection of people. I knew them at these Thanksgivings more or less like I know them now, which is to say by their nicknames and broad natures. The youngest, Larry, is just eight months older than my father and is called “Lute” by everyone. He flew huge C-5 cargo planes for the military, the biggest they have, so I suppose it was fitting that he piloted those big meals. Thanksgiving was usually held at his family’s grand, historically registered house, the one with the built-in intercom system that it actually needed. (My same-age cousin Joe and I would be up in his room on the fourth floor, building or breaking something, until we were conscripted into chores through the intercom. That thing always seemed to be for receiving orders, and we were forever being called to the front.) Peg, whose real name, Margaret, I didn’t consider as a possibility until well into high school, ran a company in Hutchinson for years that strung power lines up and down the state. Tom was usually there, moving smoothly about like someone in the FBI, which he was. He favored silence and mirror aviator sunglasses, which I suppose he should given his line of work. I later discovered that he was a Cold War style expert in Russian. My father once told me that Tom’s nickname was “Black” because of his complexion, but I don’t remember anyone actually calling him that. I do remember everyone calling Alice “Ree Ree,” including me, because of trouble my brother and I had pronouncing her name when we were new to talking. Growing up, her brothers and sisters called her “Injun,” again due to appearances. She had a huge laugh, a powerful lever able to lift anyone who heard it. Donald — Doc, Docky — had a similar-sized laugh and spirit as Ree Ree, but everything about him was amplified with recklessness. He dusted crops in his plane and drank heavily, more than once at the same time. He would brag to us about all varieties of strange meats he was busy curing in his home-built smokehouse, and though now I’m as likely as anyone to concoct stories that widen kids’ eyes, I still believe that Doc may have been telling us something like the truth. There was Jerry, whom my father called “Cruit,” as in “recruit,” the word clipped as short as Jerry’s hair. Jerry still lives at and works the farm where they all grew up — he and his wife Beverly, herself an official Master Gardener, who could grow anything until she herself was welcomed back into the earth. I remember Grandma Jane, my father’s mother, present for many meals with her cigarettes and lovely self-possession, then she was someone we missed. And all sorts of affiliated husbands and wives and cousins filled out the copious geometry of the house. When the family got together like this I could see how they ended up settling into a kind of comfortable recklessness, something I wanted to be a part of, and I understood why my father had become the responsible one, a necessary anchor.
Tradition had it that after everyone was too full, the women gathered in the kitchen, cleaning up and talking to each other in ways they would recount bitterly to their spouses for years. The men, left to themselves, played cards. Being invited into these yearly games meant a great deal to me. The money exchanged stayed exchanged, which meant they were for real, adult. The pots often became sizable, certainly more money than I’d ever seen, and this was when money was a thing you could see often enough. Dad was a good poker player, and he could and would disabuse players of whatever they brought to the table, including my brother and me. And dad never returned our kid-sized stake with some parental lesson about fools and their money. Nope — the lesson was in the losing.
We played dealer’s choice, and along with the studs and the draw pokers, someone would choose “In Between.” It was a simple game, but one high in drama and stakes. After everyone anted up, the dealer would take turns giving each player a run at the pot by dealing him two cards. The player then decided how much to bet that the next card would fall in between his first two. If the card was between, the player took the amount bet from the pot; otherwise the pot grew. The round ended when someone bet the pot and won. Every now and then, a player would be dealt a pair, which meant doubled chances for luck and loss. Often enough (particularly several Schlitz into the evening) someone would feel like gambling and bet the pot on a tight spread — an eight and a Queen, say — and the whole table would tighten and lean in, anxious for luck in one valence or another, then snap back into laughs when the dealer turned over a deuce. I loved that I could participate in that kind of adult attention, even command it somewhat, when the deck and choice came around to me.
The food the four of us make for ourselves is good. As we eat, we take turns saying what we’re thankful for. It turns out that we’re thankful for family, for each other, for books, for LEGOs, and for the moon.
After we put away more leftover food than we ate, we go for a walk to give ourselves a reason for pie. November evening in New York still counts as fall, even this late into it, and it’s cold but not unpleasantly so. Though older now, the kids still marvel at the park at night when its familiar edges get redrawn by the dark. My wife and I wish that we could make Thanksgiving back into a day with family, and it’s time that M and Q learned how to properly shuffle a deck. But work and school and distance make quick trips to the tables of family tough. In the meantime, we play what we’re dealt, in between traditions.