A family holiday story, told with relish
“Who the hell made this crap?”
For the record, because I’m still one of those old fogies who believes in outdated concepts such as “truth” and “facts” … at that particular moment, my father didn’t say “crap.”
Each year, Thanksgiving rolls around and, each year, the story is shared within the family. It’s as much a holiday tradition as undoing the belt and taking post-dinner naps.
No, again for the record, my father was one of those souls who could sit at the head of the Thanksgiving table and blurt out an immediate, scatological opinion about a side dish of homemade cranberry relish that he’d been handed … and make it sound like a warm embrace.
You’ll have to trust me on that.
The homemade cranberry relish in question came his way during Thanksgiving dinner of 1978 — arriving in an etched crystal dish that belonged to the grandmother of the young woman who, a year later, would be my father’s newest daughter-in-law.
A young woman who was, at that moment, seated to his left.
No, I don’t believe you had to be there. Those of us who are fortunate enough to share holiday dinners with families have their own war stories and battle scars.
Cranberries, you see, were to arrive in a can — from which they would descend in a ribbed, can-shaped gelatinous mass … land on a serving dish with a satisfying thhhwopp … and shimmy like a dashboard figurine of a hula dancer.
It was the same with the array of vegetables that found their way to the table. Peas, corn, carrots and the entire bean family — green, yellow waxed, string and lima — all had a familiar grayish hue and tinny taste.
Every year there was also some sort of creamy succotash concoction that was eaten by only one sibling … and no one talks to him anymore, so the less said, the better.
This canned cornucopia was as traditional at Thanksgiving as the making of my grandmother’s rum-soaked brown bread, which was then lit on fire at the end of the meal.
It was as it ever had been … until The Great Cranberry Relish Disaster of 1978.
He held the etched crystal dish at arm’s length, and eyeballed the relish — were those RAISINS??? — as if fearful that some of it would slop over the side and onto his beloved mashed potatoes.
“Who the hell made this crap?”
When the boom was lowered, there was a pause, and then the table burst into communal laughter. You weren’t a member of the family … at least of our family … until you had found yourself at the end of one of his bon mots … if you’ll excuse my French.
Dinner continued apace with no further interruptions until all belts were loosened and the tablecloth was singed (again) from the blue flames of the brown bread.
More than 40 years have passed, and when memories of that fateful dinner arrived this month, they crept in abashedly through a fog of little cat’s feet.
The details are still clear — who sat where, the matching red of the relish-maker’s Gunne Sax dress, the speed with which the succotash dish sped around the table — but now they seem quaint … sepia-toned nostalgia for something long-lost and hard to find.
These days, when harsh words are launched in public (or around a family dinner table), the edges are sharper and the weight they carry heavier.
All nostalgia carries with it the pangs of sadness. It’s the price we’ve paid for “progress,” when we realize that our forebearers’ hopes that our lives would be better than theirs collide with the flippant cruelty and disinterested meanness of today’s “better” world.
Our dinner table conversations — among those families still able to have them —are careful couch affairs, with attention paid to which topics to skirt or avoid altogether … and which booming bon mots are best kept behind closed lips.
Would that this week we resolve to pick up our dinner forks without also grabbing our pitchforks, and perhaps a day of giving thanks could lead to a week, then a month, and a year.
Who know? Maybe we’d begin to like each other again, or at the least not be so quick to dislike.
As for me, when the etched crystal dish makes its way to our Thanksgiving table Thursday, I resolve to eat around the raisins and resist the urge to tell the story once again.
Let’s just keep this between us, shall we?
“Get Off My Lawn” columnist Robert Galvin saves time and loosens his belt before sitting down at the annual firstname.lastname@example.org feast.