There was a large, green two-story house at the end of a well-walked lane in a northern college town in the years following World War 11 that finds a special spot in my heart.
I was yet to be born; but, nonetheless, somehow feel connected with the place and the events. This is especially true at Thanksgiving and happens to be my favorite handed-down story.
I never tire of hearing it and never tire of sharing it during most any Season. For me, this story resonates grace, goodness and grit. However, it is the mixture of patience and humour that bring such poignancy to the message.
This was a New England wooden home somewhat similar to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s whose home was nearby in this picturesque college town of Brunswick, Maine. Built in the 1800’s and divided up into small, furnished apartments, this home had a heritage and a history.
Over the years, mostly married couples with a few professors inhabited the five apartments located on the first two stories of this creaking, often leaking, though well-preserved, large plank structure.
Bowdoin College is the backdrop and provided the needed security and serenity for this wounded veteran and his young wife. This former Indiana farm boy and high school basketball star was not just bright, he was brilliant. Brilliance, in the way of intuitive common sense as well as a remarkable academic aptitude, was seen in this blinded, hearing-impaired young former officer.
Bowdoin was the school to offer a way to learn, grow and succeed in an atmosphere of literary forerunners.
The path was lined with thinkers and a perpetual Yankee ‘can-do’ Spirit. Lifting oneself up by ones bootstrap had always been the norm here and continued to provide an opening of fresh ideas in a doubt-free manner. How else could Nathanial Hawthorne’s beautiful personal story be described except by way of eternal optimistic encouragement?
Nat: “I’ve been fired” (from the ubiquitous counting house).
Nat’s wife: (without skipping a beat) “Wonderful dear, now you’ll have time to pursue writing all of those books you’ve wanted to write.”
And, this leads us into my favorite story. A true Thanksgiving story.
It was Thanksgiving and Julia, Gene’s young bride, had proposed, that since they really had no money to go anywhere for Thanksgiving, the Dean of the College and his wife should be asked over for a complete turkey dinner. Not just an ordinary turkey dinner, mind you, but one reminiscent of the dinner sitting around the Thanksgiving table in Poseyville, Indiana with six siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
Not only would there be a large turkey with Julia’s mother’s oyster stuffing plus cranberry sauce; but, her sweet potato orange cups topped with golden marshmallows and a fresh, large Waldorf salad. And, they certainly could not forget Gene’s mother’s tried and true ambrosia. Nothing would be forgotten on this special day.
The Dean and his wife accepted. Julia bought her first new pair of pumps since the war’s end ( they were red ) and a neighbor provided a nice, nearly-new carpet piece to cover up the warped and rotting hardwood near the kitchen door that became more and more noticeable the closer the day approached.
Julia found a pair of candles in a small drawer beside the stove that former tenants must have left behind. This was a great ‘find’ and Gene and Julia were thrilled and talked about the ambiance the candles would provide.
Julia had notes all over the place. Gene had wisely reminded her to take the turkey out of the icebox at the appropriate time and she had stuffed it with her carefully prepared stuffing. It had gone into the oven at just the proper time and the couple relished the heat and wonderful smells offered them from their tiny kitchen.
They both felt so smart and ‘in synch’ for the upcoming dinner. Julia had name cards for the guests and made new napkins out of material from her grandmother’s old tablecloth. The drapes in the living room/dining room had been carefully washed and ironed and the table was covered with a beautiful damask piece given as a wedding gift.
The table was set and looked lovely. The food was ready and sitting carefully in dishes on top of one another in the outdated icebox provided. Gene and Julia were even dressed and awaiting their guests a whole fifteen minutes early.
They giggled and thought about how good the turkey would be, especially as they had practically starved themselves the last couple of weeks trying to save up for all of the food. Gene tried to test-taste some of the ambrosia but got his hand lovingly slapped and Julia had time to spray on a little bit more of her ‘birthday perfume’.
The Dean and his wife were prompt as Gene could have predicted and Julia was gracious as he knew she would be. Dean Kendrick and his wife brought a much-coveted bottle of white wine and a small jar of homemade blueberry jam. Sitting on the small sofa and two bridge table chairs, the couples spoke of all things New England.
The topic of the weather came up as it always does at this time of the year in Maine. And Gene was able to share his experience of interviewing the founder of LL Bean for his most recent college course. Julia told of typing up Gene’s work on the bathroom sink when Gene’s readers were over at the apartment since the walls were paper thin between the bedroom and the living room.
Gene and Julia both escorted the Kendricks to the rectangular walnut dining table as soon as they heard the wind-up clock alarm coming from the kitchen indicating the biscuits were ready. The turkey sat proudly cooling on the wedding platter given to the couple from Julia’s twin, Frances and her husband, Felix. Parsley, which had been salvaged from a late fall from the tiny garden plot on the sunny side of the house, was strategically placed to garnish this fourteen pound turkey.
Gene knew every inch of the apartment by heart. He had been taught some things while convalescing, but most came by sheer determination and pure instinct. The kitchen ‘swing door’ was one step to the right and two steps ahead from the table. If he was sitting at the chair he could sometimes lean his leg out and push the swing door wide open. That is, if he slumped in the chair. Yes, Gene knew this apartment backwards and forwards.
So, when Julia was bringing the turkey in from the kitchen on this special Thanksgiving Day, Gene was there to open the swing door. She dramatically made her entrance with ‘Tom’, the turkey that Gene had christened much earlier in the week.
“Tah t’da dah! And here we present our turkey………,” Gene began as he announced the turkey’s entrance.
At the very second Julia came through the swinging door, her brand new red pumps met the fringe of the borrowed carpet and the platter heaved a modulated wave while the turkey flew to the floor landing with a loud thud directly in front of Gene’s left foot. “……Mr. Tom”, Gene finished.
No sounds were initially heard, even though the radio was playing the latest ‘Big Band’ tunes and Julia’s heart was thumping a mile a minute. An audible gasp from the guests and then Gene cleared his throat and without missing a beat turned his head toward Julia and said, rather matter of factly, “honey, why don’t you just take that turkey back into the kitchen and bring out the other turkey you cooked? We’ll like it even more.”
It was at that exact moment that Julia understood with her heart that everything was, indeed, going to work out on the long road ahead. You see, humour covers a lot of hardship and makes the waves manageable.
She realized, as did the Dean and his wife, who were to become lifelong friends, that perseverance is great for the long haul; but, it’s so much sweeter with a large dollop of laughter and a sprig of the human touch.
And, isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about?
by DFRaborn BA dfr SDG 22 September 2009
Thank you Diane – St Stephen’s Anglican Church