For the first year in five, the lovely Catherine and I will not be driving a sack of sweet potatoes, a cooler with a thawing turkey buried under dozens of adult beverages and a jar of sauerkraut to Washington D.C. for Thanksgiving with The Heirs.
Instead, we’ll be slicing a bird and playing euchre at my brother’s home near St. Louis. It will be a 350-mile day rather than a 2,000-mile holiday.
Outside the mandatory sauerkraut, our Thanksgivings are like that; they bump along in four- or five-year phases rather than glide for decades in one direction.
For example, cows kept us home most Thanksgivings on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth.
In fact, the first real memory I have of any Thanksgiving is the year my mother baked two Canada geese, donated by the hired man’s poacher-brother, for us and good friends who had nearly as many cows and kids as my parents.
The first goose
Two events made that day memorable. First was the main dish. My mother — someone who could have taught Julia Child a thing or two about great cooking — was flying blind with those geese and none of ‘em made a good landing.
The goose was, well, cooked. Let’s just say you have shoes with softer leather than the meat those two birds wore that day.
The second event was equally spectacular: It snowed. Snowfall in southern Illinois was common, sure, but never on Thanksgiving and never so beautiful. The flakes were as big as our wide eyes and they danced and drifted to a symphony we could see but not hear. It was, yes, unforgettable.
A half decade later, when my brothers and I were of sufficient size and age to help Howard the Herdsman in the dairy, all my family but the designated dairy boy left the farm each Thanksgiving for some aunt or grandma’s in-town feast.
I often volunteered to be the milk martyr because the downside, missing Grandma’s chocolate meringue pie, never matched my personal upside — six or seven hours watching football while not having to be around my brothers. I mean, come on.
Thanksgivings during my college years are a bit of a blur.
I do, however, remember one time — it was one of the three Thanksgivings I was a freshman or sophomore (what?!) — that my now life-long college friend Jim and I traveled to my family’s farm in his square-rigged prairie schooner.
OK, it was in his unheated, Eisenhower-era IH pick-up whose top gear got us hurtling down the interstate at, maybe, 50 miles an hour. We were two frozen turkeys when we finally made it home.
Returning to Champaign was easy, though; we followed the rust trail the truck had laid down four days earlier.
Big family holidays. When Catherine and I moved into the Big House in her hometown in 1986, we began a long run of Thanksgivings at our home. Each seemed to welcome almost everyone west of Pittsburgh for an annual four- and five-day blowout.
The revelry began the night before each holiday with a soup supper for guests, parents and college kids who had traveled the farthest. The next day’s turkey dinner often brought 40 to 50 people to our home and many stayed for a fish fry my mother and father sponsored Friday evening for neighbors and friends.
Since we were just amateur gluttons, though, we reserved Saturday for digestion and good-byes and then, on Sunday, Catherine and I always counted the silver.
This year feels like the beginning of another run of Thanksgivings different than all the others. Whatever is in store, I am very thankful for my family and the memories.
And, like every year since 1962, I’m really, really thankful Mom isn’t cooking a goose.
‘Course that doesn’t mean I won’t cook my own.