Thanksgiving managed to be wonderful, in spite of the poor Child having managed to contract both warts and chicken pox in the same week, and the Godchild to have hatched a sore throat the morning of the feast. Godchild and family are our "family of intention," and so our 10-year tradition went forward, gathering in the kitchen of the CrazyStable for truly superlative versions of all the stuff that's supposed to be on a Thanksgiving table. (This year, Best Friend glazed the mince pie crust with bacon fat and then sprinkled it with sugar--that and the jiggers of brandy in the filling, plus RonnyBrook whipped cream, produced something beyond joy.)
The table was a Missing Man Formation, however, due to the absence of Uncle Don, who at age 92 (almost 93) is too old and frail to be exposed to chicken pox and its risk (for him) of the dreaded shingles. This was sad, because Don is the crucial connection to the core of my Thanksgiving obsession. Starting when I was 7, our family always spent Thanksgiving "out at Brookside"--his and my Aunt Louie's country house in Hunterdon County, NJ. Brookside was, to me, like Bilbo's house in the Shire--a fantastic, Hobbit-scaled treasure chest tucked into rocky wooded hill that shadowed a stream-fed valley. It was magical in every regard, filled with Aunt Louie's books, souvenirs, and marvels relating to her fantastic array of interests: homeopathy (bottles of tiny pills and potions everywhere), UFOs, astrology, dowsing. The tiny rooms were crammed with curios, incense burners, owl figurines; there was always a cat or two, and even in winter a rusty wind chime tinkled on the sagging porch. The hill was studded with tiny sheds built to hold even more archives and oddities. Each year, my dad (Don's brother) and I would walk up the hill as dusk fell, kicking up leaves (just a few yellow ones clinging to the dark wet branches), smelling the moss and bark and water, and then we'd duck back into the crowded little kitchen, the one I've etched in my heart as the Ur-kitchen with its spice jars and hanging iron pans, to a steamy cloud of turkey-scent and pie perfume. Sometimes we'd eat with our plates on our knees in front of the fireplace, and then pop popcorn in an old iron grille-thing with a long handle; if I was patient, I could coax Louie into telling me bits of my horoscope, even though she knew my mother would disapprove.
Brookside sank into ruins gradually over the years, its demise accelerated after Louie's death in 1996, and the vast and sad task of dismantling Bilbo's Hobbit-home fell to me...a strange parallel Stable story that lasted for years, and indelibly shaped my understanding of our own house and home and our relationship with it. I may tell this tale in pieces from time to time; it involved some fascinating things, like contact with the friendly dead through a gilt-edged Book of Common Prayer, and vintage Volkswagen beetle almost entirely eaten by mice.
But, getting back to Thankgiving, we transferred the feast to the Crazy Stable many years ago, when Don and Louie became too frail to host. Louie would always bring my beloved creamed onions in a casserole, and Don (our family photographer) would take a picture of everyone about to dig in. Here is my favorite shot, from 1993, which could be titled, "We Don't Call it Crazy Stable for Nothing." Or perhaps: "The Survivors." Starting from front left and going counterclockwise we see: my mother (with pill bottle at the ready), her recently broken and badly healed wrist visible; she had also, that year, broken her hip and her other wrist, and was at that point three months away from an even more devastating break of the psychiatric sort. Even here, she is clearly not a happy camper. Next to her is Cynthia, her gorgeous and competent home health aide, who held things together on countless occasions through sheer force of will and a strong back. Then comes the Spouse; then Merian, hiding a radiant smile behind her wine glass along with an oxygen cannula (for her story, see "The Second Story Man" somewhere below in an earlier post). Then my adorable father-in-law, his perfect Irish face punctuated by a recent bout with skin cancer surgery; then your humble StableMistress; and finally, Louie, who had recovered the previous spring from a near-fatal abscess and cellulitis of the head and neck. She was mortified about the hair loss (she had a ravishing head of strawberry blonde hair as a young beauty from Alabama), but was game nonetheless. All the old folks except Don, who is behind the camera, are gone now. Cynthia is still in the home health aide business, bless her, and by now those white walls need a paint job, badly.
What do I give thanks for? The ghosts of the table past...the children of yesterday's table, young and vigorous enough to bounce back from chicken pox and sore throats...and the curiously blessed fact that we have entertained these two family parties--the withering branch and the sprouting shoot-- in something of a reverse order from the usual life script. There is nothing like the laughter of children to ease the heartache of memories of infirmity and loss. That, and mince pie with bacon crust...and Best Friend's creamed onions, which she makes for me without fail.