Gratitude is what you feel. Thanksgiving is what you do.
― Tim Keller
I hope your Thanksgiving will be spent with family and friends creating memories that one day will be shared at tables in places that can’t even be imagined now. I also hope that in the course of that busy day, you’ll have momentary thoughts of absent friends who once occupied places at your table and in your heart. Memory is a strange master and we tend to magnify its weight as we get older. I’m of an age where remembrance glows with the brightness of a nova and I’ve learned to surrender to its light. I view memory as a scrapbook whose pages turn when fleeting thoughts trigger reflections of times and places that I’ve known. This year that scrapbook has taken me back to a celebration held in a basement when I was four years old.
My early years were spent in a planned community of townhouses
that were built around central courtyards. There were four buildings per courtyard and each unit in the building had 4 four duplex and 2 garden apartments. A large laundry and storage area separated the garden apartments which were several feet below street level. Hannie and Mrs. Peterson lived in the duplex units to the left of the storage area and my parents and Anita lived in the ones to the right. Both garden apartments were occupied by unmarried nurses who were known in the community as the “unclaimed treasures”. Wartime rationing was severe in 1944 and at some point the group decided to pool ration stamps and have a communal celebration in the basement. As it happened, Thanksgiving that year turned out to be a strictly female affair.
Max, Hannie’s husband, was with in the JAG corp in Washington, Anita’s husband was in the South Pacific, and Paul, Mrs. P’s husband, was training radio operators at nearby Scott Air Force Base. My dad was not in the military, but he was an air raid warden whose duties also included emergency management. It was a commitment my mother never quite understood. She couldn’t picture an air raid in the middle of the country, much less a raid on the south side of Chicago. Her feelings aside, as head of the district he could not absent himself on Thanksgiving Day, so he, too, would miss the feast.
Tasks for the party were pretty much equally divided. Mrs. P, whose house was so clean the neighbors talked about her, was in charge of basement cleanup, and, because she was also the best baker of the bunch, all of the desserts. That meant that several weeks worth of egg, sugar and butter rations were sent her way, but it also meant she had to figure out how to clean the basement and make it appear, if not festive, at least clean. She did it the old-fashioned way and scrubbed the floors on her hands and knees till the place smelled like Murphy’s Oil soap. Paper decorations were out of the question, so she rehung the clothes lines and used sheets to cover the unsightly walls. She also made sure the old starch stove was functioning and would be able to keep the food warm. In addition to cleaning, she managed to make a huge tray of apple slices, a pumpkin pie, a Swedish butter cake and spiced cupcakes for the children. I got to spoon batter into the cupcake pans.
Hannie was in charge of bread and rolls and making stuffing for the bird. She sent the stuffing on to Anita who actually roasted the turkey. Back in the day, birds were stuffed and dressing on the side was unheard of. To this day, the thought of Hannie’s bread brings tears to my eyes. Save for my mom, whose forte was not the kitchen, I grew up surrounded by wonderful cooks, and the ventilation in our complex directed all cooking odors to the basement. On Thanksgiving Day, the co-mingled aromas of turkey, yeast, apples and cinnamon would make even Lucullas weep. Hannie made her famous potato bread, as well as cloverleaf rolls and cinnamon buns for our dinner. I got to help knead the bread.
Anita’s turkey was delicious and I was especially proud of it because I had picked it out. We had a poultry store that kept live birds and slaughtered them on demand. The place was rank and you could smell it a mile away. Anita took me with her to buy the bird and taught me how to remove pin feathers once we were home. I also got to put Hannie’s stuffing into the turkey and couldn’t help but think how lucky these grown-ups were to have me around. There obviously would be no feast without my help.
My mother was in charge of the vegetables and sundry sides. This was trickier than you might think. Fresh vegetables, save for carrots and celery, were not generally available and you had to be pretty clever to disguise the taste of the stuff that came in a can. Mom made scalloped corn, braised celery and mashed potatoes. I helped make the scalloped corn and got to peel a few of the potatoes. A first!
Bridge tables and an assortment of chairs were moved to the basement early on Thanksgiving morning. Thanks to Mrs. P, they had starched tablecloths and were properly set for a party. I spent the morning going from one kitchen to another to see what was going on and generally getting underfoot. We ate in the early afternoon and it was a wonderful day. Not just because of the food. These women supported each other throughout the war and formed a band that was incredibly tight. They were the the first single moms and they made do, even producing an odd miracle every now and then. They certainly mastered the art of making something from nothing and they did it with grace and humor and set an example that I have never forgotten. I am thankful that these women have been part of my life and I hope that wherever they are, they know they have become a part of me. A Happy Thanksgiving to them and to all of you. I hope your memories are as sweet as mine.