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The first Thanksgiving I can remember was in 1949, a year before Mom, Dad and I moved to Wisconsin. It was the Thanksgiving we had rabbit and French fries.
The entire Lorain, Ohio branch of the Crehore family was there. Grandpa and Grandma, Mom and Dad, three aunts, three uncles, three cousins and myself gathered at Uncle Charlie's and Aunt Betty's apartment that day, a grand total of 12 adults and four small boys. Aunt Betty, a home economics teacher, had volunteered to prepare the entire dinner; its centerpiece was to be a 20-pound turkey. At least, that was the plan.
The day started early with a family Thanksgiving tradition – a mass rabbit hunt on the original Crehore homestead farm, led by Grandpa, with Dad and my four uncles serving as guns and dog handlers. The hunters were supposed to hit the briar patches at 6 a.m. and be home by 11. Then they would clean up, change, and arrive at Charlie and Betty's around noon, with wives and kids in tow.
The rabbit hunt was a success. The farm was only a couple of miles away on the outskirts of town, and it was hunted only by relatives. That day, the six men collected a total of 20 cottontails, and they even got home on time.
But then the best-laid plans began to fall apart. First of all, it was harder than Betty had figured to fit 12 adults and four small boys into the apartment. Uncle George lived just around the corner, so he went home to fetch some extra chairs. But once that problem was solved, a bigger one surfaced. The bouquet of roasting fowl, which should have filled the apartment by then, was conspicuously absent. We sat shoulder to shoulder in the living room, and sniffed, and wondered.
Before long the truth came out. Betty, who had been slaving away for hours, opened the kitchen door about an inch and summoned her husband. "Charlie," she called, in a high-pitched and slightly quavering voice, "Charlie, would you come here, please?"
Charlie forced a nervous laugh and went into the kitchen, closing the door behind him. We could hear whispers. After about a minute Charlie reappeared, his face as red as his hair. He smiled sheepishly.
"There will be a slight delay," he said. "The little woman forgot to light the oven."
It was at this point that I learned something about forbearance, and leadership, too. Grandpa and Grandma were the senior people present, so everyone turned to them for guidance. Grandma put a hand over her mouth, but her thin little shoulders were shaking and it was clear she was laughing. Grandpa was fighting laughter too. Finally he assumed a straight face and turned to Grandma.
"Such is life," he said. "A 20-pound turkey will take about five hours, won't it, Anna?"
"At least," Grandma said. She pointed at me and my cousins. "The little fellas can't wait that long to eat," she said. "Why don't we fry up the rabbits – you said you had 20 of them, didn't you – and we could make fried potatoes, and there's a big colander of string beans at home, we could cook them up with some bacon. Run home and get the beans, and the big cast-iron skillets, and my boning knife, and a pound of bacon, and the oil."
"No sooner said than done," Grandpa said. "Boys, go get your rabbits."
We all lived within a mile or two of each other, so within a half-hour the kitchen table was covered with cottontails, beans, bacon and potatoes. Grandma put her arm around Aunt Betty to comfort her.
"Don't worry, Betty," Grandma said. "Everyone makes mistakes. Remember that root beer I made for the holidays last year, and every single bottle of it exploded on Christmas Eve? Well, that just goes to show you."
"Now," she said, "let's make dinner. Dave and Charlie, fry up the bacon and boil the beans. Betty, slice the potatoes. George and Jack, take the rabbits outside and dress them. I'll fry them. Charlotte, could you make some biscuits?" And within about an hour we were sitting down to rabbit fried crisp in coconut oil, patates frites made Quebec style, crunchy green beans with bacon and biscuits full of melted butter.
Before I could stick a fork into my first piece of rabbit, Grandpa cleared his throat and stood up.
"It's customary to say a word of thanks before Thanksgiving dinner," he said. "I am particularly thankful for two people – my wife and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, may God rest his soul. Amen."
"Amen!" we all said, and started to eat. The turkey, meanwhile, sat lonely and unloved in the Frigidaire. Betty roasted it the next day, and the legend is that Charlie ate turkey sandwiches for 17 consecutive days.
After we moved to Manitowoc in 1950, our Ohio relatives were 500 miles away. That was a two-day drive in those days, so for our first six Manitowoc years, Thanksgiving dinner was shared only by our nuclear family and its two orbiting beagles. The beagles panted impatiently under the table while we ate, but after we finished our pie, we filled their bowls with dark meat and turkey skin. They ate ravenously and competitively, and it was a joy to watch them. Then they would lie distended on the back porch and be sick. But they didn't mind, because that gave them a chance to pick through everything, find the best stuff and eat it again.
When I got into my teens, the new tradition was interrupted. In 1955, Mom and Dad joined a group of four couples, including a doctor and a dentist and their wives, who dined together about once a month. In the fall of 1956, when I turned 15, it was decided that the group would have Thanksgiving dinner at the home of the dentist. His wife would bake the pies and act as hostess, with the other couples bringing the turkey, potatoes, cranberries and side dishes.
This division of labor was good in theory. The doctor's wife was a marvelous cook and Mom was no slouch either. But it failed in practice, because the dentist's wife had baked green apple pies without sugar. They were inedible; even the women who daintily asked for "just a sliver" could not finish their slivers, and the dentist's wife was miffed.
But not as miffed as the doctor, who was nothing like the gaunt and trendy doctors so common today, doctors who run a marathon before breakfast. No, this doctor was an old-fashioned family MD who made house calls, and would give you a shot of penicillin right through the seat of your pajamas if you were shy about disrobing. This doctor lived for pie and had been saving room for it. He was known for his perfect frankness and inability to whisper, and when the dentist's wife overheard him using a medical term to describe the pie – "quinine," I believe it was – the atmosphere at the dentist's got distinctly chilly.
Besides the sour pie, there was another drawback to Thanksgiving at the dentist's: the nearness of Mary, who lived just around the corner and down the block.
Mary was the person for whom the term "nice girl" had been coined, and Mom was interested in getting us together. For weeks she prodded me into asking Mary out on a date Thanksgiving night. "It will be so convenient for both of you," Mom said, as though that mattered. Finally, one day after school I cornered Mary and summoned the nerve to ask her, and she accepted. It was to be my first unsupervised, un-chaperoned actual date with a girl, and in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I should have felt a pleasant anticipation.
What I actually felt was dread and discomfort. For a first date, I would have preferred an ordinary, undemanding girl who wouldn't expect much. Instead, I had Mary, who was superior to me in every respect. At fifteen, she was beautiful, talented, a straight-A student and a gifted athlete with an IQ of about 200. In addition to "nice girl," other terms that might have been invented to describe Mary were Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude.
But a deal was a deal, and when Thanksgiving dinner was finally over, I walked leaden-footed to Mary's. She was ready and waiting, all smiles and wearing a fetching white duffle coat with a fur-trimmed hood – a snow princess. Standing on the porch with her before we started our long march downtown, I felt relieved about one thing: if nothing else, I stood about a half-inch taller than she, even with the fur trim.
The plan was to walk the three miles to the Mikado Theater, take in a movie, go somewhere for a Coke afterwards, and walk the three miles home. It was just a few degrees above freezing, but as we walked along I found myself yawning and stumbling over my own feet as we shuffled through the fallen leaves. I suppressed the yawns so that Mary wouldn't think I was bored, but post-turkey lassitude had me in its thrall. And once I had flopped into a comfortable seat in the dark, overheated Mikado, I was down for the count. Soon I was snoring, belching turkey and onion fumes, and, I strongly suspect, breaking wind as well – I can't say for sure, because I was asleep.
During the first reel, Mary poked me from time to time in an attempt to quiet me down, but after a while I guess she just gave up and waited for it to be over. We never saw much of each other after that, mostly because I was too embarrassed to face her. I distinctly remember a Friday night later that winter when I saw Mary coming my way down the sidewalk on Eighth Street. I crossed over in mid-block and pretended to look at a Rolex watch in Rummele's window until she was out of sight.
From time to time I have wondered what might have happened if I had kept on seeing Mary – assuming, of course, that Mary would have kept on seeing me. Probably nothing; once you have exposed a nice girl to the full after-effects of a heavy Thanksgiving dinner, a line has been crossed and things are never the same.
After 1960, I was in college, the Navy, and then college again. I made it home for Thanksgiving all but two of those years. My first Thanksgiving dinner away from home was at a fraternity house in Indiana. By vote of the brothers, we had shrimp for dinner – shrimp so foul that, to this day, I have never been able to eat another. I quit the fraternity, too.
My second Thanksgiving away from home was spent aboard a ship rolling her guts out in the Pacific. The motion of the ship slopped the yams into the cranberry sauce and sent the peas rolling into the ice cream, creating a sweet-sour stew that we ate only because we were homesick. Except for those who were seasick – they ate nothing at all.
Thanksgiving started being fun again after I got married. My family was strictly Yankee, so we ate sage and onion dressing, rutabagas, mince and pecan pie. My wife's relatives, on the other hand, were Germans and Norwegians who preferred bland and mild-mannered foods. My first Thanksgiving dinner at the in-laws was a shock; I found I had married into a family that stuffed the turkey with apples and raisins, ate potato dumplings, and regarded mince pie with grave suspicion. And as for pecan pie – well, Lutherans did not eat pecan pie. There were compensations, though: Aunt Ruth's dumplings turned out to be chubby little poems, and my mother-in-law's apple pies weren't better than Mom's, but in the ballpark.
The best part was that my wife's relatives ate Thanksgiving dinner at suppertime, while my parents – who had given up the society of the dentist – always served holiday meals at 1:00. So not only had I gained a wife, I had also gained a second Thanksgiving dinner, which, with due restraint ... but I was never good at restraint.
Well, that was then. Today, the greatest generation of the Crehores and Heckers and Sorensons is no longer with us, and those of us who were young in the 1950s have combined the family traditions. We have sage dressing and potato dumplings, mince and apple and pecan pies, and pretty much eat all day and well into the evening.
Because, let's be honest. The best part of the whole Thanksgiving ritual is the chance to slip into the kitchen about 10:30 or so, slice off some cold turkey, make a sandwich – heavy on the salt and mayonnaise – warm up a dumpling and some dressing and gravy in the microwave, take a dollop of cranberry sauce out of the fridge, pour a glass of cold milk, and consume. Doesn't the contrast between the cranberry and the milk just get you where you live? If you still have room, a piece of pecan pie and a little maple syrup will go down nicely.
And because everyone else in the house is asleep, you can break wind with abandon. Only you and the dog will know, and the dog will probably like it.
Dave Crehore hosts Thanksgiving dinner at the family home in Green Bay.