I don’t like turkey. Perhaps my aversion stems from helping my mother clean the turkey when I was a young girl.
“Pull out the neck,” my mother would say, and I’d reach into the turkey’s cavity and finger the long sinewy neck and slip it out.
“Ew,” I’d say, “that’s gross!”
“Now grab the giblets,” she’d direct.
“Aw, Mom. Can’t you do this?”
“Nope. You have to learn sometime,” she’d insist. “Now, put the giblets and neck in the pot, so I can make the stock.”
Examining the neck, heart, liver, and gizzard, I’d shiver. After this viewing, I considered turkeys to be downright disgusting.
“Yuk,” I thought as I’d dump the giblets in the pot. “Why can’t we have lasagna or pizza?”
Despite my lack of affinity for turkey, I do love Thanksgiving dinners. When I think of my childhood Thanksgivings, I picture two full-length dining room tables set to accommodate about 20 relatives with glistening crystal, elegant china, long candles, and dishes containing buttered sweet yams, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce. My dad would carve the steamy, juicy turkey and place the carvings before us. My mom would say, “Cass, can you say grace for us?” and we’d bow our heads.
“Thank the good Lord for this bountiful meal made by me beautiful bride, Nance, and for me children and all of our loved ones gathered here today,” my dad would say, employing his entertaining Irish brogue.
We’d respond “Amen,” and then, as if on cue, my older brother would stretch over the table to grab a drumstick and the buzz of relatives passing food and chatting would begin.
My aunt would prattle on about her kindergarten students, my uncles about their work as firefighters and linesmen. Grandpa would ramble about his years as a meteorologist, at which point my younger cousins would slip away and ensconce themselves under the table, tug at someone’s pants, or pluck one of my aunt’s stockings. My mom would lean close to my aunt and listen, nodding her head in agreement. “Um hmm,” she’d say. “I totally agree.”
The din was loud and I had absolutely no idea what anyone was talking about. I didn’t like turkey. I didn’t like creamed onions or yams or green bean casserole. I didn’t even like pumpkin pie. Basically, I didn’t like the Thanksgiving meal.
Yet, I was always happy.
For me, even as a kid, it wasn’t about the food. In the company of all these people I felt warm, safe, and at peace. Outside, a few stubborn red maple leaves clung to branches, hanging near our dining room window. Afternoon sun would stream and slant into our room and then, dusk would settle. Beams of chandelier and candlelight would shimmer, shadows of uncles leaning back in their chairs would stretch across the walls and bend into the ceilings.
A faint murmur from the family room’s TV would remind us that football was on. Later, the couches transformed into napping stations for the men who gobbled too much of everything.
In those moments, I knew I was lucky. I knew not everyone had these riches, these plates full of food, these warm and funny people.
For the last 30 years or so, I have been hosting my own Thanksgivings. Some large gatherings like those of my childhood, others smaller. But, always, I begin with the turkey. “Poor thing,” I say as I reach into its cavity and discard its giblets. Then, I mutter, “One of these years I’m making lasagna for Thanksgiving.”
But I don’t.
“Why not?” you ask.
Because when I clean my turkey, I hear my mother’s voice. “You have to learn some time,” she says. What a fabulous refrain! So much to learn — about life, family, and love.
Because when my oldest son carves the turkey, I see my father, humming and grinning to himself as he carves.
Because when my son’s wife, sister, and their parents hold hands with us before the blessing, I see my family extending.
Because when we pray together after the turkey is carved, I see all of us. Loved ones who have passed, loved ones who are here, loved ones who are to come.
Because the tradition of the turkey dinner sustains all these lives, all this love and security and warmth, generation after generation.
Because I know that for this day of Thanksgiving, we gather around good fortune, symbolized in an unlikely creature, the humble turkey. And we do what we should do every day.
Thank God. Thank each other. Look into each other’s eyes for one long moment and realize what life is all about. It’s the people. It’s always the people.