Thanksgiving from the 60s to the 90s: Highballs, cigars & candle-lighting love

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I grew up a product of the Betty Crocker generation. My mother was a full-time nurse who often worked weekends training and teaching, and my father worked the swing shift at Allied Chemical, so most everything came out of a can or a box unless my father cooked liver and onions or macaroni and cheese. Thanksgiving followed that stress-free method. Holidays in my house in Syracuse, New York were pretty traditional experiences with the requisite turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and French’s canned Fried Onions on top (makes me a little ill to think of it today), jellied cranberry from the can with the ridges carefully in tact, then cut precisely, stuffing, and yam casserole. Mrs. Smith’s Pumpkin and Apple pies and Folgers coffee with Irish Whisky for dessert.

What I hold more dear than the food are the people who surrounded me during the holidays. I was born when my parents were in their 40s; my brother and sister are eleven and twelve years older and I honestly don’t remember them being there. I do remember quietly observing, from the living room doorway or my space on the floor, and feeling safe and accepted by these elders. I was shy and it suited me to sit and watch almost meditatively the culture and habits of the 1960s and 70s all exhibited in my living room. I was mesmerized by the smoke from cigarettes pushed out of the nostrils of the men like dragons and watching how long the ash could get on a cigar before it fell into the giant, glass amber ashtray on the table in the corner of the room. 

Then there were the colors and constant tinkling of ice in the highball or old fashioned glasses. The mysterious “butler” inside the front door held the spirits that filled those glasses. Twice a year, it was emptied of its contents and brought to the side table where they stood like soldiers next to a gold, soft-sided ice-bucket. It was all so fancy. The booze that was offered graciously at first, first one mixed by Dad as if he demonstrated how much to add to each glass. Then it was assumed to be self-serve. And when the self-serve time was up, one or two bottles disappeared into the kitchen cabinet above the refrigerator for the remainder of the evening. This was usually in response to my father acting as a sort of peacekeeper. I always knew he’d had enough when he’d say, looking primarily at my mother, “Oh, we’ll have none of the Troubles here now Betty.” I learned years later that Ireland and Northern Ireland had married each other and I was their child.

As I grew into my teens, my circle of friends often gravitated to my house after their own boisterous festivities to soak in the peace my parents created. Two of my friends adored conversation about current events with my mother while my father and the rest of us retired to a quieter part of the house to discuss matters of importance to us such as summer jobs, girlfriends, and boyfriends.

My father died in 1995 and Thanksgiving feasts were never to be the same. Soon, it was our turn to host Thanksgiving dinner for the extended family. I was never a nervous party host and 16 people felt like fun for our little nuclear family of three. I cooked the turkey and accidentally left the giblets inside. I haven’t heard the end of it yet. The next year, the ladies played a joke by stuffing my turkey with a tiny Cornish hen just before serving it exclaiming that I’d “forgotten to take out the baby” before cooking it. I have a history of naiveté that makes pranking a lot of fun at my expense.

Joking aside, I wanted to make us feel especially grateful that year and wanted to welcome some new, extended family members to the clan. I gathered 16 taper candles in different stages of used up, and handed them out in little aluminum foil cups to all but the baby. Just before dinner was served, we stood in a circle and I gave instructions for each person to choose one person in the circle and light their candle. As they lit that person’s candle, they were to say one thing (quick and meaningful) they were grateful for about that person. I intended it to be spontaneous in hopes that it would elicit a more honest thought. I had no idea what my intention would produce.

My candlelight gratitude was one of the most moving spiritual experiences of my life. It took about eight minutes, and I was astonished at who chose whom and what was said. People harbor the most lovely thoughts about others in their hearts, and when we speak those words in the presence of others, it consecrates all who hear them.

Most expressions were simple, profound, and drew tears of joy and surprise and sometimes a laugh and a snort. Every one, pleasing and appropriate. These words of love changed the atmosphere of the room enough to open a level of vulnerability that lasted the whole evening. It was nothing short of magical.