Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Hurrah for the Fun! Is the Pudding Done? Here's a Punch in the Face!

Yesterday I read the newspaper for sight-impaired people over Lighthouse for the Blind Minnesota Radio. What struck me was the number of articles on how to survive Thanksgiving with your dysfunctional family, crazy ex, rude in-laws, bratty children, people angry about political issues, clueless cousins, etc. We may hope for a happy Thanksgiving devoted to being grateful for our blessings, but apparently some people wind up wanting to punch out the other people at the table instead.

Admittedly, my family never came close to fisticuffs, but I remember the two topics that predictably often spurred arguments at the holiday table, no matter what holiday it was: politics and religion. My mother was usually the instigator. She and her sister Helen sparred over the Catholic Church. One Christmas--when I was blissfully not in attendance-- Mum and Helen wound up in a bitter dispute about some of the Pope's pronouncements (Mum, anti; Helen, pro). It was reportedly so bad that Helen's husband Joe blew up and stalked away from the table. Mum and some of my dad's relatives sparred over the Clintons and sundry other liberal-conservative bones of contention. One time when we were visiting the anti-Clinton relatives, I said to Mum, "Whatever you do, don't bring up Hillary." We weren't in the house five minutes when Mum brought up Hillary. You couldn't stop her from enjoying a good fight.

Mum and Helen, partying. They loved each other--and a good dinner dispute.

When I look back on Thanksgivings past, I recall a number of different kinds of gatherings. Fortunately, I can't recall one brouhaha that took place at these.

In my youth I remember the big turkey feast at Uncle Eddie's house just around the bend on Watchill Road in Munhall. The adults sat at the formal dining table, while the kids ate at card tables in the living room. Because I was the eldest cousin, when I reached high school age, I was invited to sit at the big table. Used to growing up over the store and having to return to work in a hurry after dinner, the Katiliuses ate fast. My dad and I would be only halfway through the stuffing when Mum's relatives would be tucking into pumpkin pie. One dinner stands out, the one when Uncle Eddie cooked the turkey in their new microwave oven. Eddie, always the innovator, couldn't resist a new invention. I can't say that the turkey was a total culinary success, but you can't blame him for trying.

Pumpkin pie from a family recipe.

In college days the McConnell family invited the out-of-state students who sang in the choir at St. Stephen's Lutheran Church to their beautiful home for dinner. It was always a wonderful, southern-style meal with cornbread stuffing and pecan pie. One of these students was Robert Gates, of Secretary of Defense fame, who in those days was just Bob, baritone. There were always a lot of hi-jinx, especially puns. One time I remember being tipped backwards and carried around the house in a ladder-back chair as punishment (reward?) for a particularly bad (good?) pun. The good-natured McConnells not only put up with it, but invited us back the next year.

Thanksgiving at the Weldon-Wynnes in Montclair, NJ, 2015. That year was memorable because my daughter and I, stuck in traffic anarchy in the South Bronx, almost didn't make it. Dave and Danny got delayed in gridlock traffic on Canal Street coming from Brooklyn and had to reroute over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Just another NYC style Thanksgiving.

The most unique Thanksgiving was the one some English grad students organized in Athens, Ohio. I'm not sure how many people were there, but the fog of time makes it seem like there were scores crammed in the downstairs rental unit of a big old house. Half were couples, some were singles, and several couples had young children. It was a very robust, very literary feast. The variety and quantity of food brought by the celebrants was impressive. So many family and ethnic traditions came together to make this a remarkable meal. We took turns eating because there weren't enough tables for all to sit down together. It was warm enough outside that the little kids ran in and out of house laughing and squealing and some of the adults stood outside talking. It was undoubtedly the most energetic holiday gathering I've ever been a part of.
Ex-pat Thanksgiving, Toronto 2017

During the years when my kids were growing up, we would sometimes be at the house in Minneapolis, with U of Minnesota students often added as guests, or we would be at one of the grandma's houses, either in Duluth or Pittsburgh. When my daughter Ceridwen and her husband acquired a house, the Thanksgiving meal shifted to their place. Friends who stayed in town, students from the U, family members--these were the guests. I ironed my Grandma Busch's linen tablecloth for the occasion. No football. No politics--unless we were agreeing with each other.

Thanksgiving at Ceridwen's house 2010
Since we built our cabin in Grand Marais, Thanksgiving dinners have been moved up to the North Woods. With a wood stove heating the place, we gather around the old table from my parents' house in Pittsburgh and give thanks for the our many blessings--not the least of which is the cabin itself, our getaway from the routine of city living. Our dogs--Viggo and Vera--may be the ones that enjoy it most, the day they may get some really, really good table scraps.

Vera and Viggo snoozing at the cabin.

So, while I read the articles about coping with holiday tension and squabbles, I gave thanks that they did not apply to my family--not that there isn't stress involved in any holiday gathering. However, whenever I see these annual articles about coping and hear horror stories from friends about nightmare holiday experiences, my thoughts always go back to a book I read long ago, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. For me, the scene at the Christmas dinner with guests battling over politics is the ultimate holiday clash. It's 1916 Ireland, and Mr Casey, a supporter of the late nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, and the protagonist Stephen's governess, Dante Riordan, a devout Catholic, in the course of the meal slowly work up to the conclusion of a no-holds-barred battle of invective.

--Blasphemer! Devil!! screamed Dante, starting to her feet and almost spitting in his face.
  Uncle Charles and Mr Dedalus pulled Mr Casey back into his chair again, talking to him from both sides reasonably. He stared before him out of his dark, flaming eyes, repeating:
--Away with God, I say!
   Dante shoved her chair violently aside and left the table, upsetting her napkinring which rolled slowly along the carpet. . .At the door Dante turned round violently and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage:
--Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!
   The door slammed behind her.
   Mr Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on his hands with a sob of pain.
--Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king!
   He sobbed loudly and bitterly.
  Stephen, raising his terrorstricken face, saw that his father's eyes were full of tears.

May your holiday be happy, may the feast be wonderful, and may all present enjoy each other's company in peace and love. And may you never, ever be part of a holiday dinner like the one Stephen experienced.

                                                            Happy Thanksgiving