Until they were wiped out in the Depression, my grandparents were the hidden force behind the Vermont maple sugar industry. Real Yankees like Hiram and Caleb were there all right, tapping the trees when the sap was ripe. But they were just the hired help.
All the profits went to my grandparents, just a generation off the boat from Eastern Europe. They wintered at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, summered on a 200-acre Vermont farm right outside Putney and gave generously to B'nai B'rith.
By the time I was a child, memories were all that were left from these glory days. Grandpa had gone to that great shtetl in the sky and gramdma was trying to keep up appearances in the old farm house with its peeling paint and sagging floors.
But once a year, at Thanksgiving, the old days emerged from the mist, just like Brigadoon.
My parents always dreaded the 10-hour train ride to Putney. But my sister and I knew that Caleb would be there at the station to meet us in the two-horse sleigh that grandma rented for the occasion.
Never was there a Thanksgiving to rival those bygone days in Vermont. Not only was there turkey and stuffing, but duck and goose, as well. The farmhouse was filled with the competing smells of pumpkin, mince, apple and cherry pies.
Sometimes, after dinner, we got a special treat. Robert Frost, who had once worked summers tapping trees for grandpa, would come by and read "Death of a Hired Man." The great poet had grown early with age and fame. He would snarl at my sister and me when we would start giggling in the middle of a boring line. But I can still hear him say, "Home is where they have to take you in," while the wood fire crackled in the background.
After grandma died during the great hurricane of 1955, my family fell on hard times. My father found it hard to get work as a carnival barker and took to drink. He disappeared from our ramshackle tenement for months at a time, leaving my mother distraught and penniless. Only my earnings as a newsboy kept the family going.
It must have been Thanksgiving Day in 1959 or 1960, when we got word that Dad had been found in a Salvation Army shelter in Darien, Conn.
We arrived shivering in our light-weight summer outfits, the only clean clothes we owned. But inside it was warm. There, amid the smell of disinfectant and stale breath, we sat down to the most unforgettable Thanksgiving dinner of my life.
The turkey was turkey loaf and the stuffing was dry, but that didn't matter.
It was the emotion and the gratitude that I remember. An old wino named Hank, a drifter like my father, put what we were all feeling into words. n"I reckon we've got a lot to be thankful for," he said. "We're inside where it's warm, our bellies are full and muscatel still costs just 89 cents a bottle."
These are the kind of Thanksgiving stories that can still bring a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat.
There's only one trouble -- everything you've read so far is a complete and total lie.
I made it up because I found it impossible to write a true Thanksgiving story. How can I romanticize a boyhood growing up in an affluent Connecticut suburb? How can I interest you in our turkey from the supermarket, our family Scrabble games and the joy of playing "My Fair Lady" on the stereo?
I love Thanksgiving. But you won't believe me because I never got to go "over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house." My grandmother lived in a declining residential hotel at 104th and Broadway in a Manhatten neighborhood that was being engulfed by Spanish Harlem.
So I made up a few lies to get your attention. Is that a crime? Every great writer has to embellish a bit. My grandparents could have been in the maple sugar business. My father could have been a carnival barker instead of a city planner. Why is fate so cruel? Why didn't I have the kind of colorful childhood that reads like it was lifted from a Dickens' novel?
My passion for Thanksgiving is real. Let others count the shopping days to Christmas and worry about getting a date for New Year's Eve. For me, the old year peaks on the last Thursday in November and everything else is just stuffing and cranberry sauce.
I'm sure there is an explanation for this idiosyncratic enthusiasm for Thanksgiving lurking in my subconscious. Perhaps a turkey drumstick symbolizes masculine virlity and the overstuffed feeling after Thanksgiving dinner replicates life in the womb.
Then there are, for the sociologists in the audience, the cultural explanations.
I grew up in New England where elementary school teachers tend to place a disproportionate emphasis on the charms and the "joie de vie" of the Pilgrims.
Ours is a small family. I would not recognize most of my cousins in a crowded elevator. As a result, I tend to wax sentimental over the few family traditions that we have developed over the years.
I am vaguely Jewish and, while my family has always celebrated Christmas, deep down inside I have always felt ambivalent about this rival cold-weather holiday which, to us, is a secular event revolving around department stores and greed.
But such psychological and sociological speculations lead to blind alleys. I'm a sucker for Thanksgiving because . . . well . . . because it's just a superior holiday.
Everyone prattles on about how the American family is an endangered species. But no one has come up with a better way than Thanksgiving to bring families together without the lure of anything more tangible than a good dinner.
Thanksgiving dinner is when even Weight Watchers and compulsive joggers hoist the white flag. While Stove-Top Stuffing and instant mashed potatoes may be making inroads, it is still the finest hour of the native American culinary tradition. For one day, the Cuisinarts are blessedly silent and no one is doing Julia Child imitations in the kitchen. It is just an orgy of wholesome, simple, fattening American food.
It's hard to make a buck off of Thanksgiving. Sure, Swift packages turkeys and Ocean Spray dominates the cranberry bogs in Massachusetts. But Thanksgiving has managed to keep this crass commercialism at bay. Hallmark has never gotten much mileage out of Thanksgiving cards, Frank Perdue has yet to corner the turkey market and even the florists prefer to peddle their wilted chrysanthemums on ersatz holidays like Mothers-in-Law Day.
Politicians rarely try to upstage Thanksgiving. Election Day has passed and that means that no simpering politico is grinning and waving in the middle of the Macy's parade. Even when Congress began tampering with the calendar to create artificial three-day weekends around second-rate holidays like Columbus Day, no one had the guts to propose moving Thanksgiving from a Thursday.
Television has never gotten a handle on Thanksgiving, either. Instead of dominating lives, it merely broadcasts quaint events like department store parades and football games.
Thanksgiving is a holiday with patriotic roots commemorating one of the few times that the early settlers treated the Indians with something akin to civility and respect. No one died on the first Thanksgiving; no one even got rich trading valuable oil lands for firewater.
The underlying simplicity of Thanksgiving is touching. Any schoolchild can tell you that it is a time to be grateful for what we have. That's not a terribly subtle notion perhaps, but a welcome antidote to the self-pity that seems to be the dominant American emotion of the 1980s.
Think for a minute.
Did you honestly believe that you would be making this much money without getting your hands dirty or doing anything tangible?
Did you really think that your children, who were living on a commune in 1968, would grow up to be stockbrokers and attorneys for Covington & Burling?
Did you actually expect to make this kind of killing in Washington real estate?
Did you ever think that mankind, thanks to dumb luck, could go 35 years without blundering into a nuclear war?
What do you mean you have nothing to be thankful for? Ingrates are to Thanksgiving what Scrooge is to Christmas.
On Thanksgiving I will be at my parents' home in Connecticut. It is a tradition that I have religiously followed with just three exceptions, since I first went away to the University of Michigan.
Each of the three exceptions represented a crossroads in my life. In 1965, after two months in college, I spent Thanksgiving with a high-school chum on his deserted college campus in suburban Chicago. I got to prove my maturity and experience the sadness of eating restaurant Thanksgiving turkey. In 1968, I was too angry over the Vietnam War to go home. Instead, I shared Thanksgiving dinner in an Ann Arbor student coop with an unwed mother, two speed freaks and a group of itinerant Black Panthers. Last year I was in Rochester, N.Y., for Thanksgiving, meeting the parents of the woman I would later marry.
This year Thanksgiving in Connecticut will be a bit different. My sister, who always made the cranberry sauce, has moved to California. A favorite aunt, who hosted alternate Thanksivings in her New York apartment, died three years ago. Meryl and I, in one of those compromises that comes with marriage, have decided to split up for two days and celebrate Thanksgiving with our respective parents.
There will be just four of us in the big house in Connecticut. Myself, my parents, who are still working and thriving at ages when many of their contemporaries have retired to dreary condominiums in Florida, and an uncle who has been the other regular at Thanksgiving since my childhood.
The menu will be the same as always -- turkey, stuffing, real mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, a salad that no one will eat, a vegetable that will be neglected, mince and pumpkin pies. Plates will be emptied, belts will be lossened and comparisons will be made to other turkeys, pies and stuffing.
Someone will tell, in all its fondly remembered detail, the story of the Thanksgiving when the oven failed.
The year was 1967. My sister and I were home from college and my uncle and aunt would be coming out on a 4 o'clock train from New York. The pies were baked, the food was prepared and my mother was about to put the turkey in her new Magic Chef oven when tragedy struck. The oven wouldn't light.
My father, who prides himself on his ability to deal with bureaucracy, took charge. There was the call to the appliance store: No answer. There was the call to the national headquarters of Magic Chef: A recorded message. There was the call to the gas company: "Look, buddy, this is a holiday. If the gas ain't leaking, we ain't coming to fix it."
Historians will long debate who had the inspiration. I dimly recall that it was my mother, but there will be those who will dispute my memory. Suffice it to say that an entire uncooked Thanksgiving dinner was carefully wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in the back seat of our Pontiac for the 75-minute drive to New York.
Doormen in fancy New York apartment buildings are, by nature, a blase bunch. But I will never forget the expression on the doorman's face, in the lobby of my uncle and aunt's building, when the four of us arrived, just a bunch of suburban gypsies searching for a working oven.
A shared mythology like this is an essential party of any healthy, intact family. Thanksgiving is the moment when the joy of the present merges with memories of the past.
The day will someday come when Meryl and I will have to cook our own Thanksgiving dinner. But, for the moment, I am deeply grateful that my parents are happy, healthy and continuing this 30-year-old family tradition.
Only four more days and counting.