Commentary: Thanksgiving is a time for memories and traditions

The Merced Sun-StarNovember 25, 2009 

Thanksgiving.

My favorite holiday. All you have to do is eat, visit with family, nap, watch football, nap and eat leftovers that night.

No pressure for presents, as at Christmas. No fireworks, but no chiggers and 90 percent humidity, as on the Fourth of July in Kansas. No deciding whether to be Early Elvis or a cowboy, as on Halloween. No tears or what-they-might-have-become, as on Memorial Day.

Just turkey, Mama's homemade dressing, cranberry sauce, candied sweet potatoes, Aunt Dorothy's and cousin Mary's ambrosia, green beans, mashed potatoes, Coors for the grownups, milk for us boys.

And gravy. Mama, a Democrat from west Texas, and Papa, a Republican from Iowa, battled over whether to stir it with a fork or a wooden spoon. She usually won.

Once she popped at 24-pound turkey into the oven. When she pulled out the roasting pan to check on it, the big bird slid all the way out and onto the kitchen floor. She just grabbed another stained potholder, scooped up the rascal with both hands and the 4-foot-11-inch onetime circus trapeze artist lifted the main course back into the pan and shoved it in to finish cooking.

No one dared say a word.

Mama took in strays. Dogs, cats, people. Always somebody not in the family, at a loose end, joined us for the blessing and the feast.

When we were little, Grandpa Bert and Grandma Ora drove to Topeka from Winfield for the day. Grandpa and his three boys had owned a grocery store in the southeast Kansas town. It went belly-up in '31 after the oil field customers in Oklahoma couldn't pay for all the stuff they'd bought on credit.

He went to work as a traveling salesman for Newton Manufacturing Co., Red Oak, Iowa. Never again drew a salary -- only commissions. Arrived every year in a new Oldsmobile.

He liked to tell and re-tell brother James and me about the time when he jumped a robber in his house one night. The burglar had a pistol and shot the 6-foot-2, 250-pound man wearing pajamas in the chest.

No problem. Bert beat down the would-be thief and was sitting on him, both men bleeding, when Gus Frommig, the police chief (who later hired my dad) came running into the house.

Bert was laid up a few days. Wore the spent shell on a chain around his neck. James and I never got tired of that tale.

When James and I got older, we too could drink Coors. That's probably what fueled a tense table scene one Thanksgiving when oldest brother Webb and his brood drove up from Fort Worth. Vietnam was raging. James was in Officer Candidate School at Fort Knox, Ky.

I was graduating from college the next spring. Webb had won a Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and two Purple Hearts with the First Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea in 1950.

As we ate leftovers Thursday night, all wearing silly hats (a rack of two dozen or more hung on the kitchen wall), I told the table I thought the Vietnam War was immoral. If drafted, I would not go.

"Then you'll never set foot in my house again," Webb said in his Texas drawl.

Papa poured more Coors over the fratricidal flames. And, when drafted out of Notre Dame Law School in 1969, I went.

That was the only negatory-good-buddy moment I remember from our family Thanksgivings.

Most times, the Old Man would tell us yarn after yarn about his side of the family. About being a railroad bull for the Santa Fe. We'd heard 'em all before, but Thanksgiving always issued a pass to storytellers.

(Maybe that's why I got into the business of storytelling.)

Once in a great while, as she put it, Mama would tell circus stories. As a trapeze artist with her dad and brothers Tuff and Tudie, she hit 46 of the then 48 states by the time she was 20. She rode horses and elephants.

She let us imagine what it must have felt like to hang from the top of the tent, in the blue spotlight, performing the Iron Jaw, clenching a leather strap between her teeth.

We all knew the tale of when she once fell, so she didn't dwell on the time when she flew through the air with the greatest of ease -- and missed her brother's hold. They were working without a net. She broke her pelvis.

She never performed again -- not because of the injury, but because Americans ran out of cash to see the Big Top during the Depression. The circus folded.

Sister Jeannine and husband Bud, an Okie petroleum engineer, made the 15-hour trek from Texas for several Thanksgivings. Each year a new nephew or niece would share the kids' table in the family room with James, youngest brother John and me.

Older brother Steve and wife Paula lived in Southern California -- too far to drive in those pre-interstate days. Plus they kept adding to the family roster: boy, boy, girl, twin boy and girl.

We splurged and called them long distance -- long distance! -- to let them know we were thinking about them. One white phone on the kitchen wall with a six-foot-long cord got passed from ear to ear.

Thanksgiving.

This year son Nao and daughter Dylann and I will drive to Steve and Paula's in Sacramento. Their kids -- four in Oregon, one in Turlock -- will be there too for a surprise 75th birthday luau party for Paula.

Don't tell her.

Grandpa, Grandma, Papa, Mama, Aunt Dorothy, Webb, Jeannine, Bud and James are all gone now. We'll sing the "Hooray" song for them and for all of us come next weekend. Webb started the tradition at a family reunion we staged in Durango, Colo., in 1970 after I got out of the Army and Vietnam. (In fact, we now call reunions "Hoorays.")

Webb and Steve strummed their guitars back then. This year, Nao will do the pickin'.

(Publisher Hank, please grant me a little leeway in honor of Thanksgiving.)

The song goes like this:

"Hooray for Paula

Hooray at last!

Hooray for Paula

She's a horse's ass!"

Happy Thanksgiving.

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