Pumpkin Pie and Aunt Mary

Adapted from a chapter in my book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns.”Thank_01.png.jpeg

I love Thanksgiving. Growing up, I looked forward to the quiet holiday tucked between my birthday and Christmas because I could eat all I wanted — an unusual occurrence when competing on a daily basis with six hungry and determined siblings. I discovered Thanksgiving meant more to me than abundant food, however, when I celebrated it with a college friend and her family.

I remember sitting with careful posture at a crowded table, wondering what I would talk about with these people who didn’t ask a blessing on the food and argued about the Viet Nam war while passing the gravy. I felt like a water balloon, full of bottled-up tears, ready to burst.

Then, unannounced, Aunt Mary, whom I adored, danced into my head. I smelled her perfume and saw her flushed cheeks as she kicked off her shoes after Thanksgiving dinner and performed a Charleston to music on my cousin’s transistor radio. Just a flash of memory, then she was gone; and the truth hit me: I was homesick.

Every Thanksgiving my family drove from Lake Shore to Provo in a bulging sedan, balancing foil-covered pans of dinner rolls and newspaper-wrapped casseroles, to gather in a church recreation hall with Mom’s family.

It was a large and raucous group: grandma, aunts, uncles, and too many cousins to count, ranging from college students striving to appear intellectual to babies being passed around. Grandma, Mom and my aunts ruled the kitchen, laughing and working in a precise choreography only they understood and shooing away interlopers looking for a taste of turkey.

A volleyball game with fluid teams ebbed and flowed at one end of the gym. Toddlers, playing tag, ran through the court, disrupting play, dodging between the legs of the players. Uncle Norley’s laugh boomed as he and Dad swapped hunting stories; Mr. Potato Head pieces crunched underfoot; and marbles from the Chinese checkers game bounced off the board. In a corner, teenagers clustered to pose and share insider information, banning younger siblings from their circle.

When Aunt Arlene didn’t finish lining the tables with butcher paper and later wondered why anyone would put walnuts in fruit salad, we noticed. But we reserved judgment; she was from Oregon, after all, and new to the clan.

During the meal, familiar stories were repeated; cousins compared ballooning bellies; and the cooks were applauded. Everyone agreed it was the best meal yet and that Grandpa would have loved it. Then Grandma prepared packets of food for each family to take home and hugged us to her as we left.

Being thankful is easily done when surrounded by loved ones.

Over the years, my definition of family has  expanded and now includes the dear friends and new relatives who have brightened my favorite holiday.

Still, at some point during the happiness of Thanksgiving, a moment arrives when my mind rushes back to a family-filled gym where I see the smile of my still-young mom and enjoy the antics of her kin.

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36 thoughts on “Pumpkin Pie and Aunt Mary

  1. I am tearing up…Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the calendar year. And these many years since becoming an adult Thanksgiving has not been quite the same. My parents moved to Phoenix the year I got married. Our small family of 4 that would swell to 20+ for Thanksgiving (including neighbors, family and close friends), is spread all over the country. We haven’t shared a Thanksgiving dinner like the ones we shared when I was young in 20 years. And yet, each year as I sit at the table I feel like you (a water balloon), tears close and feeling my grandmas rose perfume wander into my nose and the smell of the tripoli mat unfolding from the pennies jar after a year in the cupboard. Our BBQ’ed turkey smelling up the neighborhood was the best smell and watching our dinning room transform from a table of 6 into somewhere we sat up to 25 people one year was magic. Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories. I was there, enjoying your memories as much as I enjoy visiting mine.

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  2. You really got me! Wiping my face as I write..My family consisted of six sisters and one brother. We were all spread out in ages, as families were in that era, so the bulk of the cooking went to my older sister, me, my younger sister and of course, my still-young mother (as you have so aptly described). My best memories are of the incredible pastry we made; apple pies, mince tarts, raspberry filled thimble cookies (remember those?). Thanks for bringing this to us, so we can remember with you!

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    • Thank you for this detailed comment. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I like hearing that others share my love of Thanksgivings past. Your pastries sound delicious.Do you still bake? I remember the raspberry filled thimble cookies fondly. They seemed like such a dainty delicacy.

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  3. Now I understand the quiet sadness of my mother during the holidays. She had a large, multi-generation family so far away and without the means to join them. Just now, with the sharing of your heart warming memories do I realize what she missed. I only remember quiet holidays with my brother, mother and father, and didn’t know another way to celebrate. It puts some of my memories into perspective.

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    • At times, Mercy, I used to look at the chaos around me, especially as a snooty teenager, and envy the quiet Thanksgivings some of my friends had. I like the loving empathy you expressed for your mom and the reason she might have seemed sad during the holidays. There is much we didn’t understand as children. Often, when I think of my parents in different moments, I wish I had been more empathetic and supportive. But we were young, so young.

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  4. Oh yes. The balm of family. Even when they can sometimes drive us nuts:). I’m with mine now and realize how much it means to me this holiday. Hoping you are continuing your traditions and looking forward to a happy holiday . . .

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    • I like the phrase, “balm of family,” Kay, and agree that sometimes they drive us nuts. My siblings and I live many miles apart now, as do our cousins, so we no longer gather as a large group. Perhaps that is why the memory of doing so when young is so sweet.

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  5. Our is a month or so before yours, and my favorite holiday. When I worked up north in a camp, the river was four miles wide where our staff house was, linemen, very hard workers were climbing hydro towers on the far side, it was bitterly cold, the fellows reported they could smell the turkeys roasting so far away. We were all thankful for good food and company. Think of those guys when I smell turkey to this day. Pity there were beets…cheers.

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    • Really, there were beets for Thanksgiving? I quite like beets, mind you, unlike Godfrey, but have never had them with Thanksgiving dinner. Are we missing something here in the USA? I love the visual of linemen on towers sniffing the air, smelling Thanksgiving turkeys.

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  6. Thanksgiving is the day I miss my mother the most. I haven’t had a good Thanksgiving meal sense she died. She always went all out cooking for that day, making the house feel cozy with all the smells. She somehow made it happen, even when we didn’t have much. It wasn’t until much later that I realized it was mostly to make childhood memories for me. So I honer her by remembering. Happy Thanksgiving, Janet.

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    • I will have a happy Thanksgiving, Rob, and I hope yours is happy as well. It sounds to me like you won the lottery with the mother you had. As did I. “She somehow made it happen, even when we didn’t have much.” rings true for me as well.

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  7. Obviously we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here, but I do like the idea of sitting around a table with loved ones eating wah too much and sharing gratitude. The Thanksgiving you describe sounds a lot like our family Christmas’s, fills with people, love, laughter and way too much food.

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  8. I, unfortunately, did not experience such loving, warm Thanksgiving memories such as these, so I find myself creating them as an adult with my “family of friends” and siblings (when we travel to see each other). Reading about others and their wonderful experiences, though, always gave me reason to “hope” that someday mine, too, would be filled with “aunts laughing and cooking in a kitchen” and an Aunt Mary who danced the Charleston. How wonderful that you remember these times with such clarity and warm expression….you had me “with you” dancing with your Aunt and comparing my Buddha belly with your cousins “ballooning bellies”…… 🙂

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    • I felt so out of place at that Thanksgiving table where both conversation and food were so different from what I had always experienced. Fortunately, that’s the only time I ever wanted to cry tears of misery at Thanksgiving. Thank you for sending me “Blessings and love!”

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  9. What a wonderful post!! Now I know why my mind wonders back to the days of sitting around a Thanksgiving Feast at Grandma & Grandpa’s house. Each year, as I set the table for my family and smell the turkey roasting, memories of watching Grandma’s face as her meal is pronounced “the best yet” warm my heart. Thanksgiving is not the same without family, whether it is memory or reality.

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  10. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays; a time for food, family and friends with no stress about whether or not I’ve bought the perfect gift!

    I love the rich detail and vivid descriptions in this post. As I read, I could see and hear the children running and playing, the aunts cooking and chatting, the men swapping their stories.

    Janet, your writing is the perfect example of what all the writing books mean when they say “show, don’t tell”. Thanks for another thoroughly enjoyable read.

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    • I’m so glad you noticed my efforts to show rather than tell. Now and then I find myself slipping back into general statements of how I felt, but usually catch my error in a rewrite and substitute details instead. I’m glad we both consider Thanksgiving our favorite holiday.I’m much more confident about making pumpkin pie and turkey than I am about buying gifts. As always, I appreciate your comment, Rita.

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