Nana, my grandmother, has gotten to the bahhumbug stage of her life. Seventy-nine. Doesn't answer the door for trick or treaters. Damn kids. Christmas? Oh, child, I don't really need anything.
But early in the fourth week of November, she'll take two aspirin for her aches, stick in her teeth, put on her old-lady shoes, bundle up her chubby, little yellow self and, despite the dizzy spells, travel uptown to where the greens are fresh and pretty. Not that supermarket mess, no Honey, not for this grand occasion. "Yes," she'll tell the friend she spots on the way back from shopping, "they'll be coming home."
I have missed only a handful of Thanksgivings at that brick row house that still holds my dolls, a house of wonderful smells where I grew up. Once, when I was living in Atlanta, I opted to come home for Christmas. Once I was having a baby. Two years ago, I attempted to start my own tradition and the family came down to Washington. "Relax. Take it easy," I told Nana. She would not leave my kitchen. Wouldn't stop basting my turkey. So I might as well go home, this Thanksgiving, since I can't be grown in my own house.
It will be a colossal hassle getting there: packing clothes, canceling the paper, finishing off the last deadlines.... The three-hour ride to Philly probably will be bumper-to-bumper. God. On the way, I'll think of places where a plane might have taken me: California, to lie out on Venice Beach with my old roommate. How much does it cost to go to the islands? Any island. I could have hosted a buffet for single parents with a long, low table for the kids. Maybe I could have gotten away with sending my daughter up to Philly with somebody who was going that way while I stayed home and slept for four days. Would they have gone for that?
Everyone doesn't meet up at the old homestead. "I've never been heavy on family," Tony Gittens, a new acquaintance, says thoughtfully. "Even when I was still in New York. This year, my wife and I will gather with friends for a pot luck."
Ethelbert Miller, another friend, admits he won't be going to his family's home either, opting instead for a quiet celebration with his wife and child. "A lot of knowledge of family is passed down at holiday gatherings. Not celebrating together removes me from those traditions," Miller says.
Even Nana makes regular attempts at rebelling, declaring during the second week of each November: "I'm not doing all that cooking. This year, we're going to a restaurant." We've never done that.
As a child, I'd wake up sniffing the excitement in the turkey juices that hissed and bubbled in Nana's kitchen. It wasn't Christmas, but the day called for early rising and hyperactivity. May mother would give me a job putting ice in the water glasses. My cousin Michael would pour the water. We'd fuss and giggle until we broke or spilled something, confirming our banishment. Then we'd watch the parade on television or go into the kitchen where one of us would engage Nana in casual conversation while the other would grab handfuls of warm stuffing from the turkey that sat on top of the oven. Mostly, though, we hopped up and down waiting for the people to arrive.
Clara, my mother's best friend, the only adult whose first name we could use without benefit of title, would come first. Her boyfriend, Uncle Sunny, would put a bottle of cream sherry on the kitchen table and Nana would smile at him and the bottle, saying, "Heeeeelllo" with an accent that, translated, meant "Thanks for top shelf, Baby." I would not stop bouncing until I heard my father's horn and Uncle Sunny had heave-hoed Daddy's heavy wheelchair up the front steps and moved two chairs aside for him at the table. The late arrivals would be Aunt Ruth, Michael's mother, and her boyfriend.
Just when the smells seemed as though they were going to burst from the kitchen, Nana would call us all to the table and someone would elaborately bless it. The first few minutes of eating would be quiet, but once reassured that all the food wasn't going to somehow escape, everyone would start talking at once. Current events. Politics. Everything. Nana inevitably would bring up old times, bad times, good times, the things she did and lived through to raise her three girls. "I was on welfare for a hot minute. I got me a scrub brush and bucket and got offa that mess."
It was all just grown-up talk to me then, and it got louder as the evening spun on, words mixing with turkey bones, cigar smoke, the clatter of dishes being stacked, the papery slap of pinochle cards flung down in jubilation. "Moving in for a head rub." That was my father's line, and he'd reach over and rub my head. By late evening the sherry would have made Aunt Ruth silly and kissy and she'd lean over me, spilling either "Toujours Moi" or "Danger," alluring, sophisticated scents, from her bosom to my chest.
Later, Aunt Ruth's elegant girlfriends would drop by, bringing exotic scents and more laughter. I'd stare at their long, brilliant fingernails, their fur coats. The doorbell would ring again and my Uncle Norvel and my real Uncle Sonny, from the side of the family I so rarely got to see, would come accompanied by their plump wives, hugging everyone. As the night got louder and louder, arms would reach out and pull everyone closer and closer. What in the world were they trying to squeeze into me?
"So what do you want for Thanksgiving?" Nana called to ask two weeks ago. I pondered that one, but not long.
I want to wake up and be excited by smells that hang in the air. I want to doorbell to ring all day long. I wish Uncle Norvel and Uncle Sonny would come by and tell funny, funny jokes so I could watch Nana's face get young again. I'd like my beautiful aunt back, just as I remember her, talking silly and rubbing sophistication off on me. I want somebody strong to pull my father up the front stair and get him a pinochle deck and an ashtray. I want all the empty chairs filled.
My mother is pragmatic. "You lose some, you gain some," she says quietly. And that is true. New faces have drifted to our table: my in-laws, a young minister, different friends. New traditions have emerged. Last year after dinner, I visited an old friend. We sat at her mother's kitchen table and celebrated the things we've done right so far. We will do that again this year. The loudness and the laughter are waiting for me.
"Of course, you're gonna have greens, girl," Nana says.
I need good greens bad. I'll spear especially hard at the bits of pork scattered about, floating on top of the pot liquor. I don't eat pork much anymore. Greens are sure to be acrid in some places, like the thick, hefty stalks, and sweet, oh, so sweet where the leaves are fresh and tender. I will slowly stuff myself, savoring all the flavors. Every season doesn't promise good greens.
I'll be content with the lace tablecloth with red wine spots from long ago and for the remaining people who gather round close. Sitting across from me will be two strong little women who helped bring me through. Next to me will be my Thanksgiving baby, Maia, pretty, smart, her dazzling road stretched out before her. Many grandmothers, many grandfathers, scrubbed that road clean: I will squeeze that into my child. "Lord, make us truly thankful...."