Monday, November 19, 2012

Reaching for Dad in the Thanksgiving sky

The turkey was my father’s bailiwick, his self-assigned, by-default duty Thanksgiving morning. I'm pretty certain he'd have rather conjured up one of what we called his "concoctions" -- an artistic jumble of whatever he found in the refrigerator. But our family's Thanksgiving dishes tended to be more basic than he'd care to tackle: green beans; mashed potatoes; dates stuffed with walnuts and rolled in sugar.

So post-sunrise found him contemplating the bird, still frozen in a sink full of water, its neck stinkily simmering on the stove. At some point during the next few hours, it thawed, or thawed enough, for Dad to cook it one of two ways: He either popped a lemon, lime and orange into its gross-the-kids-out cavity and baked it in a pre-heated oven. Or he'd put the stuffing-less turkey into a cold oven, crank up the temperature for a few minutes, then turn it off for hours.

Either way, it came out moist and delicious. Not that Dad had an opinion on the finished product. He wouldn't eat turkey, or chicken, or anything with feathers. The story goes that when he was a boy, growing up poor in San Antonio, he plucked so many feathers off his family's supper-bound chickens that he vowed once he grew up he would never eat another. Nor pluck one, for that matter. Nor, if he had his druthers, smell one.

But on Thanksgiving, he never questioned the turkey's presence -- or his role in its being there -- on the table. 

This year, for the first time in more than a half-century, we won't have Dad's turkey on our table. And though each other's presence will be palpable, all of us won't be together in the shoulder-touching way that's as ingrained into our lives as gravy stains on Nana's white tablecloth. 

Mom leaves for Maryland on Tuesday to spend Thanksgiving week with my brother Ben, his wife Meg, and her parents. My sister Jeanne will be hosting dinner at their lake house for her immediate family and her son-in-law's parents and sister. My little group will be at my sister Susan's house. 

We won't have turkey; last I heard, my brother-in-law is grilling fish. I'm fine with the no-turkey aspect of it; really I am. I prefer fish to turkey anyway. Jeanne's having turkey, but I'll wager none of our respective Thanksgiving menus will include the ubiquitous creamed onions or mashed turnips -- staples that few but Dad devoured. The couple who always baked Dad a much-ballyhooed mincemeat pie isn't coming this year.

Thanksgiving will mark one day short of four months since our precious father died. Last November, he wasn't in the best of health, and two years ago we all brought him Thanksgiving dinner at his latest rehab facility. Still, as dad to five of us and grandfather to nine, he was the patriarch, the one who made everyone feel welcome; the generous host who said the blessing until he got too choked up to continue, and then one of us would step in. 

The closer we get to Thursday, the more I am getting too choked up to continue. As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, I can almost visualize, and all but feel the constants we've counted on for more five decades being tossed into the air from our collective cupped hands. 

Some will drift down like snowflakes,  landing in pretty much the same spot they always did. A few will catch a breeze and be scattered to the horizon of our memories. Others will return next year, falling like glitter onto shoulders.

And the rest? Sprinkled like stars which, if we stand on tiptoes, we can almost reach up and snatch from the sky.