Thanksgiving was a week ago, at least in the United States.
This story sums up my feelings towards Thanksgiving, and is very likely a key to understanding why I do these videos each week. It's my way of putting a sign on a tree in the front yard, inviting total strangers to come in for a meal.
You're always welcome.
Room for one more
I was lucky enough to have 2 grandmothers in my life. One, my Nana, was stereotypical grandmother. Aproned, cookie-baking, indulgent, accepting. I see her standing in her sun-filled, YELLOW kitchen, rolling out lemon whippersnaps that she’d layer into shoeboxes, sheets of wax paper making sure the layers didn’t stick together. I was the dorm-bound recipient of more than one of those boxes, and to this day I can’t see a box of lemon cake mix or a container of cool whip without tasting one of those cookies.
This story is about my other grandmother, a woman born in 1919 who was married (and divorced) three times before 1975. A woman who birthed 5 children, one of which she buried one the year after she buried her mother, and only has 2 grandchildren (that anyone knows about, anyway.) This grandmother took me to my first political march, drank bourbon like it was water, shared her breakfast with her dog, went grocery shopping if the butter supply in her freezer dropped below 4 pounds, and listened to you with her whole body.
My grandmother Marge (and that’s what we called her, always – Marge. “I’m not old enough to be anyone’s grandmother!”) taught me about fierce love and standing up for what you believe in. The importance of letter writing and the chaotic joy of a basket full of photographs instead of an album. “A demain”, the French “until tomorrow”, was how she ended any and all conversations. After all, won’t we see each other in some tomorrow, somewhere?
Thanksgiving was Marge’s favorite holiday. Better than Christmas, by far – the object was family and food, not presents nobody needs and everybody worries about. She’d cast the invitation net far and wide, and the cast of characters around the table included immediate family and extended family and people who might as well have been family.
Let me set the scene for one memorable Thanksgiving.
Dorset, Vermont, is as stereotypical a Norman Rockwell New England town as they come. There’s a manicured village green, ringed with marble curbs crafted from the quarry that’s down the road and complete with a flagpole that went to half mast for a week when my great-grandmother died. There’s an inn. A country store. Sidewalks made from more of that local marble. Every house sits neatly back from the road, shaded with towering maples, painted white with dark shutters. It feels like a town where time has stood still, at least if you drive through it ogling the leaves.
Marge’s house is two down from the store, convenient for the “oh I forgot to buy milk” moments that happen more often than anyone wants to admit. There’s a white picket fence and a doghouse in the backyard. Inside, the threadbare rugs handed down from my great-grandmother cover uneven wide-plank wood floors. A fire crackles in the living room. The kitchen, though, is where the activity is. Marge has been up since way before me, setting the kitchen table with bowls and silverware and cereal and English muffins, chopping apples and onions for stuffing. She’s wearing an ironed white shirt and her pearl clip on earrings, covered with a red apron that says “CHIT CHAT AND CHEW”. Her perfume, Chanel #5, clashes a bit with the rich scent of roasting turkey. When that comes out of the oven, it’ll be my job to make the gravy, but first, we need to set the table.
Silver is used daily in Marge’s house (“What better celebration than dinner?”), and routinely goes through the dishwasher (not the knives. Never the knives.). For an occasion such as this, though, it needs to be polished. Off-white linen napkins, ironed and starched, replace the everyday cotton ones. Wooden place tags with names carved and blackened by pen, created by my uncle Peter one long-ago November and adorned over the years with mostly holiday-appropriate kid stickers, come out from the attic. All three leaves for the table are unearthed from the basement, cleaned off, and put into place. There are tablecloths and pads to be found, ironed, and fussed over until they drape perfectly. We gather every chair in the house and place it around the table, matching place settings with chairs against the guest list and place cards. Then the work comes of figuring out seating. Do we need the card tables? (yes. Almost always yes.) Who sits where, next to whom? Who is in the dining room? Who’s in the living room? Are all the glasses washed and dried so no specks are on them? Is the extra china wiped clean of any dust?
Marge goes back into the kitchen for more prepping, leaving me to the dining room details. Finally it’s all set. A full table in the dining room, and an extra two card tables in the living room. There are forks and plates and glasses and napkins for all. I go around one more time, counting chairs and people. The guest list is 23. There are 24 chairs out. 24 places set. Did I miscount?
“Marge. We’ve got an extra place.”
She pauses from peeling potatoes and comes to check. A slow chuckle comes as she surveys the room. “Go into my room and get a piece of poster board and a pen.”
I do, puzzled, then watch as she block prints as neatly as she can. “Dinner at 5. Room for one more.” She instructs me to pin it to the maple tree on the sidewalk closest to the store, and then goes back to her potatoes as if it were nothing special, as if everyone just invites strangers into their homes for a holiday dinner.
A demain, Marge. I wish you were still here.