ONE OF MY BIGGEST moves in life was when I was whisked from the "childrens' table" to the "adult table" on Thanksgiving Day 1965. In one swift move my mother picked up my plate and silverware and moved it from one table to another, thus announcing silently that I was no longer a 12-year-old girl, but had become a 12-year-old woman.
In all of my recollections of Thanksgiving at Grannie's, there is the memory of two tables: one for the children and one for the adults. The children's table was smaller. It was a card table, usually pushed against one end of the large dining-room table. But it was shorter than the real dining-room table and we children always felt like dwarfs sitting there.
Although my mother covered it with a white lace cloth, none of us were fooled: It was still the card table on which the grown-ups played Pokeno, and countless glasses of bourbon had been spilled on its top.
So when I, the oldest of the children, finally moved to the big table, my sisters cut their eyes at me and sighed with envy. They were also relieved, though. Before that day it never occurred to any of us that we would be able to sit at that table, at least not before we married and bore children. There had been no precedent. My move gave hope to everyone at the "children's" table.
For me, it meant I was nearly grown and didn't even know it. I wondered: If being grown could sneak up on you, could being old creep up on you, also?
My sister Shelia was definitely still young -- five years younger than I to be exact. She looked to me for wisdom, and every Thanksgiving she asked me the same question. "Why does Grannie cook so much food?" she'd whisper.
She wasn't being ungrateful. It was true. There was food everywhere we looked: down the table to the left, down the table to the right. To a child it looked like an airport runway laden with turkey, ham, rabbit in gravy, collards, string beans, potato salad, candied yams, rice, macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce and breads, cakes, pies and beverages.
We would leave for home with bags of food tucked under our arms. But we would also be eating turkey salad, turkey sandwiches, turkey and gravy, turkey and anything-my-mother-could-come-up-with for the next couple of weeks.
Before I was grown I did not take Shelia's question seriously. But after my move to the adult table I felt I owed her an answer. I repeated the question to my mother, and she shared with me a little story.
Your grandmother has not forgotten her poor times," she said.
"She has to always have too much, just so she'll feel that she has enough. Understand?"
Sounded like adult gibberish to me. But I nodded yes and encouraged her to continue. "We were poor when I was little," she said. "But your grandmother always made sure I ate and had clean clothes. Then one Christmas she was sick and couldn't work. There wasn't any money, but I didn't know it. I woke up and ran to see what Santa Claus had brought. All I found was some fruit.
"I didn't believe that was all I had gotten, so I kept searching the house. I figured your grandmother had hidden the toys and I had to find them. All the time your grandmother was crying and crying, trying to tell me that there was nothing else. I searched until I started crying, too. Then I stopped and we cried together."
That story made me older. It marked the first time I realized that people did things for reasons -- that they didn't behave a certain way simply because they wanted to. I put this knowledge in my walk and my talk and wore it as proof of my maturity. I am the oldest child and therefore, I reasoned, I should be the smartest.
The next time Shelia asked, "Why does Grannie fix so much food?" I told her the story. But she was not grown yet and she did not understand what Christmas had to do with Thanksgiving, or toys had to do with food. She agreed, though, that it was a sad story, and I noticed the next year that she didn't ask the question.
By 1981 I was used to looking through what people did, to search for the "why." When my grandmother did not cook Thanksgiving dinner that year, I was not surprised. I had recognized an omen a month earlier. It was an omen that had to do with biscuits.
I had been living in Miami, and whenever I came home to Washington, Grannie would fix me long pans of perfect, flaky biscuits that melted in my mouth. I ate them with molasses, with homemade crab-apple jelly, with butter or just right out of the pan. She loved to watch me, and I gave her a good show.
I once got out my pad and pencil and asked her how to make the biscuits. She couldn't tell me. I led her into the kitchen so she could show me. She started pouring the flour into a bowl without measuring it.
"How can you tell when you have the right amount?" I asked.
She picked up the bowl in her hands and shook the flour around so she could feel its weight in the bowl. I gave up.
In 1981 I moved back to Washington a month before Thanksgiving. I asked Grannie for two things: "a pan of biscuits and a lemon cake."
"I'm too old to fix biscuits," she said, looking me straight in the eyes, daring me to disagree.
"I never heard of anything so ridiculous," I said. I have her spunk.
But she didn't fix the biscuits and she didn't fix the cake either. I was devastated, not for myself but for her. It was the omen. "Any woman too old to fix biscuits," I reasoned, "is ready to die."
There was no Thanksgiving dinner at Grannie's that year. We all had Thanksgiving at my parents' house in Glenarden, where there was no "children's" table. We have had dinner at my parents' every Thanksgiving since then. There are only a few children now, and they are my grandmother's great-grandchildren. At my parents' house, these new children, including my daughter, sit at the breakfast bar that faces the dining room table. (They actually sit higher than the adults.)
In May of 1982 my grandmother had a stroke. She has had two more strokes since that time. She is confined to a wheelchair and partially paralyzed. When I visit her it seems absurd to think of such small things, but I look at her hands and I think about those biscuits.
Age has crept up on us both. I am old enough to have my own recipes, and I do have a good recipe for yeast rolls. On every Thanksgiving since 1981 my family has eaten my yeast rolls. We will eat them this Thanksgiving. They are good rolls. My grandmother comes to most of the dinners and she even eats my rolls. But as I chew them I think: These are not biscuits; the biscuits are gone.