Friday, March 04, 2011

In between

Note:  This post is part of a larger writing project, "Dad Stuff," about, as you might imagine, dad stuff.  To read more posts related to this project, see posts with the "dad stuff" tag.

We spend this Thanksgiving as we traditionally have — that is to say with each other at our own table and with way too much food. Since it’s just the four of us, we really don’t need to cook the full-on meal, but we’ve ingested enough tradition over the years that we find ourselves making lists and standing with over-full baskets in long lines. Besides, Thanksgiving has grown into an all-family thing in our house. We now trust The Boy with a real knife, and as a result, he has become the emperor of stuffing. He’ll cube as many loaves as you put in front of him until all the bread in the house mounds in the silver bowl next to his cutting board. Q loves to do just about anything in the kitchen, loves the mysterious alchemy of cooking, particularly now that she nearly doesn’t need the step stool to reach the stand mixer. She and I make the machine make the pumpkin pie; she and my lovely wife whip the cream for the top. All of us eat it after we've eaten too much already.

For much of my childhood, tradition required that we spend Thanksgiving in Southeast Kansas* with my father’s side of the family. The five-hour-plus drive from our house in southwest Kansas** always seemed covered-wagon long, mainly because my brother and I disputed property lines in the Buick back seat the entire way. All of us we were happy, then, to see the end of the trip and everyone who inhabited it. And there were lots of inhabitants to see. My father and his brother were essentially raised by their grandparents, brought up working the farm alongside their own children (my father’s aunts and uncles, my great aunts and uncles), nine of them counting my father’s mother, as brothers and sisters. It’s as confusing as it sounds, made more so by my father’s referring to his grandfather, Luther, and grandmother, Lucy, as “dad” and “mom,” and to his own mother as “mother.” (My father almost never called his father anything — at least in front of me. Pretty much everything I think and know of my paternal grandfather I’ve pulled from and put into two unbendable black-and-white photographs: a handsome man in a hat relaxed against a boxy car; an older but still handsome man in a high-backed chair with kids just off the arms.)

The aunts and uncles who were brothers and sisters to my father made for a colorful collection of people. I knew them at these Thanksgivings more or less like I know them now, which is to say by their nicknames and natures. The youngest, Larry, was just a eight months older than my father and was called “Lute” by everyone. He flew huge C-5 cargo planes for the military, the biggest they have, so I suppose it was fitting that he piloted those big meals. Thanksgiving was usually held at his family’s grand, historically registered house, the one with the built-in intercom system that it actually needed. (My same-age cousin Joe and I would be up in his room on the fourth floor, building or breaking something, until we were conscripted into chores through the intercom; that thing always seemed to be for receiving orders, and we were forever being called to the front.) Peg, whose real name, Margaret, I didn’t learn until well into high school, ran a company in Hutchinson for years that ran power lines up and down the state. Tom was usually there, moving smoothly about like someone in the FBI, which he pretty much was. He favored mirror aviator sunglasses, which I suppose he should given his line of work. I later discovered that he was a Cold War style expert in Russian. Tom’s nickname was “Black” because of his complexion, but I don’t remember anyone actually calling him that. I do remember everyone calling Alice “Ree Ree,” including me, because of trouble my brother and I had pronouncing her name years before when we were new to talking.*** Growing up, her brothers and sisters called her “Injun,” again due to appearances. She had and has a huge laugh, a powerful lever able to lift anyone who hears it. Donald — Doc, Docky — had a similar-sized laugh and spirit as Ree Ree, but everything about him was shot through with craziness. He dusted crops in his plane and drank fairly heavily, and more than once at the same time. He would brag to us about all varieties of strange meats he was busy curing in his home-built smokehouse, and though now I’m as likely to concoct stories for kids’ delectation as much as anyone, I still believe that Doc may have been telling something like the truth. There was Jerry, whom my father called “Cruit,” as in “recruit,” the word clipped as short as Jerry’s hair. Jerry still lived and worked the farm where they all grew up — he and his wife Beverly, herself an official Master Gardener, who could grow anything. I remember Grandma Jane, my father’s mother, was there for many years with her cigarettes and lovely mysteriousness, then she was someone we missed. And there were all sorts of affiliated husbands and wives and cousins filling out the various geometries of the house. My father had been the anchor of the group in many ways and for many years, and it was a marvel to see why it was needed, to glimpse how they could drift when left to themselves.

Tradition had it that after everyone was too full, the women gathered in one part of the house, cleaning up and talking to each other in ways they would recount bitterly for years. The men, left to themselves, played cards. Eventually being invited into these yearly games meant a great deal to me. The money exchanged in these events stayed exchanged, which meant they were for real, adult. The pots often became sizable, certainly more money than I’d ever seen, and this was when money was a thing you could see often enough. Dad was a good poker player, and he could and would usually disabuse players of whatever they brought to the table, including my brother and me. And dad never returned our kid-sized stake with some parental lesson about fools and their money. Nope — the lesson was in the losing and the staying lost.

We played dealer’s choice, and along with the studs and the draw pokers we would play “in between.” It was a simple game, but one high in drama and stakes. After everyone anted up, the dealer would take turns giving each player a run at the pot by dealing him two cards. The player then decided how much to bet that the next card dealt would fall in between his first two. If the card was between, the player took the amount bet from the pot; otherwise the pot grew. The round ended when someone bet the pot and won. Every now and then, a player would be dealt a pair, which meant doubled chances for luck and loss. Often enough (particularly several Schlitz into the evening) someone would feel like gambling and bet the pot on a tight spread — an 8 and a Queen, say — and the whole table would tighten and lean in, anxious for luck in one valence or another, then snap back into laughs when the dealer turned over a deuce. I loved that I could participate in that kind of adult attention, even direct it somewhat when the deck came around to me.

The food we make for ourselves is good. As we eat, the four of us take turns saying what we’re thankful for. It turns out that we’re thankful for family, for each other, for books, and for LEGOs.

After we package leftovers, we go for a walk to give ourselves a reason for pie. November evening in New York still counts as fall, even this late into it, and it’s cold but not unpleasantly so. Though older now, the kids still marvel at the park at night when the familiar edges to everything get redrawn by the dark. My wife and I wish that we could make Thanksgiving back into a day with family, and it’s time that Q and The Boy learned how to properly shuffle a deck. But work and school and distance make quick trips tough, at least for now. In the meantime, we play what we’re dealt, in between traditions.

*Yes, Southeast Kansas, capital letters and all. It's its own place, one where tradition requires that you curse as you cross the Bourbon County line. And, yes, Bourbon County.
**A place undeserving of special caps.
***Don't ask me how "Alice" could be ever be pronounced "Ree Ree."

1 comment:

teahouse said...

It's beautiful how every family has its own unique Thanksgiving traditions. In my family it's all pulled together from a hodgepodge of many sources - Asian traditions, stuff I got from my best friend's WASPy New England traditions, and all sorts of sources.