Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving 1972, Kent Washington

for my mother, Madgel Miranda, 4/16/1935-11/21/2001


I was still in grade school. My mother worked there, at Soos Creek Elementary, as a part-time Playground/Lunchroom Lady. We were on welfare.

Frank, my mom’s boyfriend, lived with us; he was a self-professed “Okie from Muscogee” complete with black beard, curly black hair, and a cowboy hat he wore everywhere, tipped politely at the ladies. He delighted in calling a paper bag a “poke” and kept the radio tuned to real old-school country music by Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. Even-tempered, sweet, illiterate, Frank was the kind of guy who subsisted on day jobs, brute labor, anything that required strength and could be explained orally.

Once my mom sent him to the store to buy something, canned sweet potatoes, maybe. He came back with canned carrots. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Frank’s illiteracy at work, but he was so embarrassed and angry at himself that I remembered it. “I’m so sorry, hon,” he said to Mom, over and over. He called everyone hon, but the way he said it, you could tell he really meant it. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body, and I hated him with all my heart and soul. He’d stolen my mom’s attention, and I was inordinately furious with him most of the time.

I think it was not long after that, Mom started sitting with Frank at the kitchen table at nights, going over the alphabet, spelling out basic words. It was she who named his problem: dyslexia, not just stupid. “He can’t tell a b from a d,” she told me, “that’s a brain problem, not lack of trying.” Still, she kept at it. But as long as I knew him, the only think Frank could write or read was his name. He signed his name in cursive, with a flourish. Someone, somewhere, had made sure he could do that.

So it was Thanksgiving, and we were broke. We were always broke, but this was a bad time, when we counted out dimes and pennies at the grocery store, checked out the price of hamburger at several stores before making our small purchase. But as often happened, someone came through with a small turkey. Perhaps my mother saved up her food stamps, or Frank got a good job for a couple of days. At any rate, we had it defrosting on the counter, a pink, plucked, all-ours turkey. It was early Thanksgiving morning, and my mom hadn’t yet put it in the oven, when we heard someone coming up our long dirt road.

The dogs, Duffy and Elijah, a Bull Mastiff and Weinerheimer respectively (both dumped by former owners), rushed out to greet and defend. My mother followed, curious, wiping her hands on the cloth dishtowel that seemed to be a permanent part of her wardrobe in those days. Her hair was covered with a scarf, her pin curls still setting. She didn’t have any makeup on; she wore a baggy button-up blouse and the 70’s ubiquitous stretch-slacks that were every housewife’s uniform before sweatshirts and sweatpants took over.

Frank hung back – a woman on welfare could lose her benefits if she had a man living with her. We pretended to everyone that he lived with a friend over in Auburn. It made perfect sense to me that a lie to get food stamps was not really a lie.

We weren’t expecting anyone. My older brother Kacey was still at home, a pot-smoking, tender-hearted teenage rebel, always trying to grow out hair that was too curly to be anything but a shaggy mess. Even he stuck his head out of his room down the hall. Kacey probably had his own reasons for being wary of unexpected cars pulling up. He had a little secret garden going in his bedroom closet; our mother hadn’t yet made him choose between his plants and his housing.

As Mom reached the doorway, I heard her intake of breath. “Oh my God. It’s the Thanksgiving Basket people from school.”

Frank, thinking fast, said, “Quick! Cover up the turkey!”

He didn’t have to explain to me why; he was worried that if we already had a turkey, we wouldn’t be eligible for another. And yet another turkey meant another week’s worth of meals.

I raced into the kitchen and tore off a stream of paper towels, draped them over the turkey, and winced at how ridiculous it looked. It didn’t look like anything but a turkey covered up in paper towels – but I didn’t know what else to do, chuck it under the sink?

In the end, it didn’t matter.

The nice people from my school (“maybe one of the teachers put our name on the list,” Mom guessed) handed us a cardboard box right there in the driveway. They still had a lot of deliveries to go, the young man said; no, they couldn’t stop for coffee. The box was thrillingly heavy, full of the necessities: a turkey, wrapped in plastic; a bag of potatoes; a can of cranberry sauce. I don’t remember there being a pumpkin pie or can of pie mix, but at that point, it didn’t matter. We were rich.

We gathered in our small trailer kitchen, the box on our little table, and gloated. “This one will go into the freezer,” Mom decided, “we’ll cook ours this week, that one next week.” She rested a hand on each turkey as she spoke, her scarred skin contrasting with the white towels and white plastic.

“And we have enough potatoes for breakfast tomorrow!” Frank crowed in his rich, Southern tenor. He grinned, as delighted as if he’d laid that turkey himself.

“You bet!” Mom smiled. She sat down like she was exhausted, or dazed, and reached for her pack of Pall Malls. She so rarely smiled, but she and Frank were radiant. I think we all were, reveling in our unexpected bonus.

I was disappointed with Mom’s pronouncement – I’d wanted to cook BOTH turkeys at once, an impossible feat given our small trailer propane oven – but reluctantly conceded the sense of planning for later. At the same time, I just wanted to stand there and stare at both turkeys on the counter, two whole turkeys, never cook them, just have them, forever.

Kacey, leaning over to peer inside the box, asked in his suddenly deep man-voice, “Are there any sweet potatoes?” That was his main criteria for Thanksgiving dinner, canned sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top. His Levis hung low on his skinny hips, and his white T-shirt was wrinkled from sleep.

Frank reached into one corner and pulled out a big can with an orange, glossy picture of sweet potatoes wrapped around it. “You mean these?”

“YES!” Kacey let his cool slide long enough to give a little jump, then grabbed at his loose waistband. We all laughed, at his rare enthusiasm, at our own giddiness.

That’s what I remember. I don’t remember the meal itself. I don’t remember if we had pie, or Cool Whip for the topping. I don’t remember cleaning up, or storing leftovers, or starting the inevitable turkey soup. I just remember that moment of sheer joy when, having started with a spare cupboard for Thanksgiving, we suddenly became the owners of not one but two Tom Turkeys.

What was it we felt that day? Lucky? Remembered?

There was something about those two turkeys, one small, one nice and big, perched in our kitchen like trophies, like membership badges. I think what it was – was that we belonged. We belonged to the American Holiday now, because we had all the right equipment, the trappings, the correct symbols of being American.

We belonged in that Norman Rockwell painting.

We belonged in those Safeway commercials with the gorgeous golden bird in the middle of the table and the family oohing and awing all around.

We weren’t hiding out in our little trailer in the middle of nowhere, scraping by Thanksgiving with our food-stamp turkey and a little bowl of mashed potatoes. We had LOTS. We had TOO MUCH.

We were finally inside Thanksgiving, instead of just peeking over the sill from the outside. We were Americans.

It felt so good.

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