MY COUSIN DUKE called me one day last week when I was in the middle of something, but I swiveled my chair back and put my feet up on the windowsill and we talked for half an hour, which was good. My relatives never call me anymore since I moved to New York because they imagine I'm busy, and when they do call, they say, "Did I catch you at a bad time? Are you busy? You're busy, aren't you? I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bother you. I can call you back later. Sorry. Bye."
This was a more normal conversation. She said it was snowing in Minnesota and was still deer-hunting season, so she was staying indoors and away from windows. She had arrived in Lake Wobegon on Halloween from Seattle where she lives, taking a month's leave to see her mother, my aunt Lois, who is ailing, though you wouldn't know this from talking to my aunt, who is no complainer. "How are you, Mary Ann?" I asked. It's hard to think of her as Mary Ann, having known her as Duke since she was tiny, but she left her Dukedom to become a Mary Ann in Seattle, I guess, and we must honor that.
She said she is thinking of quitting her social worker job. "I'm getting so extremely tired of poor people and their problems," she said, which warmed my heart: A horrible thing like that, you only dare confess to someone you love. "They're angry and sick and abusive, and I don't blame them, I'm just tired of them," she said. This reminded us both of the Halloween when we were small when the powers that be decided that, instead of trick-or-treating, children should go door to door and collect money to give to UNICEF to help little starving children in foreign lands. So we did. We hated it and we despised those starving children for making it necessary. (This experience so embittered my classmates that they later voted Republican, and, in 1981, Mr. Reagan came to Washington to tell America that it's okay to get as many Milky Ways as you want and to keep them all for yourself and that little starving children are really ballet dancers. But I am still a liberal. I keep my Milky Ways but I give licorice whips to the poor.)
She said she was thinking about opening a hardware store for women. She is sick of old hardware guys treating her like a small damp child. The store would have an all-women staff. "If you had a hardware store that wouldn't humiliate people who don't know the names of things, you'd really have a gold mine," she said. She wanted me to invest in it. She said, "We could make it a combination hardware-bookstore. It might work." I'm sure it would. Ten years from now, I'll read somewhere that the hardware-bookstore was the hot idea of the'90s, but I don't care. I bought a New York apartment in 1988 when the market was it its height and now, according to the paper, my apartment has lost 25 percent of its value, and I'm not sure I believe in capitalism anymore.
"Oh well," she said. She was in a good mood. She was sitting in the kitchen of her childhood home, and the sight of snow made her cheerful, but her family always was cheerful. Aunt Lois inherited it from my grandma, who spent her last years baking good bread and whistling and thinking highly of her grandchildren. Duke said, "You know something? This month, it will be 25 years since the last time I vomited."
I asked her how she planned to celebrate the anniversary, and she said she wasn't sure. I said, "I sure remember the event." So did she, vividly. Mary Ann is a slight woman, like Lois, and elegant, even in jeans and a sweatshirt, and she would rather lie very still for days on a couch than throw up. She never rides the ferris wheel, is leery of airplanes and doesn't drink more than one glass of wine per dinner. Other people in our family, if they feel a little queasy, think nothing of heading for the bathroom and taking matters into their own hands, but Mary Ann would rather lie very still in a dark room with a cold compress on her forehead. The day Duke threw up was Thanksgiving Day, 1965. It was the last year our whole family, aunts and uncles and cousins, were together at Al and Flo's house in Lake Wobegon. The next year we rented the Sons of Knute temple, and after that we broke apart into separate single-family Thanksgivings. There were simply too many of us, about 60, for that three-bedroom bungalow. There were cardtables upstairs, in the basement and in the living room. The men wedged themselves along the blue sofa and on the floor and watched football on Al's snowy TV set. Upstairs, little kids played with Lincoln logs and plastic cowboys, quietly, after Uncle Jack threatened to lock them in the garage. Sun poured in the front window, the radiators steamed, and steam drifted out from the kitchen, which was packed with aunts.
I stood by the kitchen door, next to the praying-hands plaque, talking to Aunt Marie, who wasn't allowed in the kitchen because she dropped things. My fiancee stood beside me; it was her first encounter with the family, who were trying not to look at her, and she was trying to catch my eye; she was bored to tears and needed a cigarette. "Let's go for a walk," she whispered. But it wasn't easy to escape. Poor Marie was clinging to us for dear life. She kept asking me about school, about our wedding, about anything at all -- we were her life raft. She couldn't sit on the sofa, go upstairs, or enter the kitchen.
My aunts were powerful women caught up in a crusade to create vast quantities of food and stuff us with it and stuff the rest into Tupperware dishes and stuff them into the refrigerator. Marie, who married into the family, was a weak reed. She was unsure of recipes and worried about measuring accurately. My aunts stood shoulder to shoulder and whacked at things and whipped and chopped and slapped dinner together. "I have to get out of here right now," my fiancee whispered. I felt the same way, but how do you get out of your own family? "Your writing!" Marie cried. "Tell me about your writing!"
We extracted ourselves from her and put on our coats, and the moment we got out the door, I felt buoyant. We walked down the street and, free of the family, I could speak up, I could say what I thought, be vulgar, have great opinions, be original, and when I turned the corner, we could smoke a cigarette. Pall Malls. "Did you really grow up here?" my fiance asked. I could see her point. A guy like me coming from such a dismal little town, little frame houses with dumb lawn ornaments and the people inside cooking the exact same dinners and saying the same things: Yes, I grew up here, but of course, even as a child, I had looked to distant horizons. And I regretted that my family was not more colorful. I wished we were Italians. Italians had ethnic customs. We didn't. We just had turkey for Thanksgiving. Italians had big flagons of red wine. We had pitchers of ice water. We were Sanctified Brethren.
In 1986, for my new Danish wife and stepchildren, who wanted an authentic American Thanksgiving, I fixed the traditional barbecued spareribs and the customary Thanksgiving linguini with garlic sauce on the side, and we enjoyed the old-fashioned Thanksgiving Scotch and soda. But at Thanksgiving 1965, there was no alcohol. Not a drop. My fiancee's family in Minneapolis, who were fallen Methodists, were knocking down some Manhattans, I knew, and keeping them nice and fresh, and I wished we were there, instead of among the Brethren.
Thanksgiving is better when you're with somebody else's family and can enjoy their little fights. Her mother and father sparred constantly, over silly things like money, whereas my parents fought with me and fought for blood, over ultimate truths and matters of faith. That day, walking back to Al and Flo's, I knew that Vietnam was bound to come up at dinner. I could imagine my Uncle Jack saying, "Ya, well, I don't know about these protesters and this draft-card burning, but if it was up to me I'd throw them out of college and put them to work if they don't want to go in the Army." And then I would say something about our tragic mistakes in Southeast Asia, and a few minutes later, my beloved uncles would lean forward and hiss at me and my dear aunts would purse their lips and glare and my mother would run weeping to the bathroom. But when we got back, something else had happened, something unpleasant, everybody was very thin-lipped about it. "It's nothing," my mother said. "Don't bring it up." "What is it?" I said. "It doesn't concern you," she said. It concerned Uncle Jack and Aunt Dee. I gathered that he had gotten up from the football game and come to the kitchen for a drink of water and she said something and he said something back, something mean, just teasing, and she threw something at him, playfully, which happened to be a paring knife, and it made a deep scratch down his cheek.
Jack returned to the couch and resumed watching TV, bleeding profusely, shrugging off first aid. Aunt Lois ran for a washcloth, Uncle Al dabbed at him with a hanky. "It's nothing," he said. He bled all down the front of his new white shirt. Aunt Dee went down to the basement and cried and came back mad. The basement had reminded her of things in the past, of her historic struggle with Jack. "He's always saying things like that," she said. "He hasn't changed since he was nine years old." Jack would not look at her or anybody else. "I'm not mad," he said. "If the rest of you want to make a federal case out of it, go ahead. I'm just fine."
The food was portioned out to all the cardboard tables and everyone sat down in a thoughtful mood. In the kitchen, Dee and Aunt Mary were still muttering at each other: "Well, he started it." "Yes, but you could have had the decency to apologize for throwing a knife at him." "I see no point in discussing it," said Dee, "You've always taken his side and you always will." Aunt Mary lowered the boom. "You never cared a bit for this family. You didn't go visit Mother before she died and nobody was a bit surprised. You've always gone your own way. And now you're ruining this Thanksgiving." Dee fled back down the basement. We could hear her long musical sobs. Mary sat down with us in the dining room, breathing hard. Vietnam seemed like a small distant event compared to this, and if I had mentioned the war, it might've come as a great relief.
Then Uncle Al dinged his glass. "We're going to return thanks now," he said, and called up the hot air vent to the diners upstairs, "Time for grace now!" He must have been awfully upset, too upset to pray, because he said, "Carl, would you return thanks," and Uncle Carl stood up and cleared his throat.
Uncle Carl was the last person you'd ask to pray, ever. For one thing, he prayed longer than anybody else; in the Sanctified Brethren, where prayers tended to cover a lot of theological ground and touch on all the main points of faith, Carl was endless. Scripture said, "Pray without ceasing," and he almost succeeded. He could pray until food got moldy. And, what was worse, when Carl came to the part of the prayer where he thanked God for sending His only begotten Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross as a propitiation for our sins, he always wept.
Carl had wept in prayer for many years. Either he never got over Jesus's death, the way the rest of us had, or else it was just a bad habit he couldn't stop. He always stood and cried, helpless, his shoulders shaking. He was a sweet man with tidy gray hair, oiled, with comb tracks in it, a dapper dresser who favored bow ties -- a good uncle, and it was painful to sit and listen to him cry.
He stood, and we stirred in our seats uneasily. I peeked at my fiancee, and saw she had already put a big dab of squash on her plate. She was not accustomed to table grace. I couldn't imagine she'd be ready for Uncle Carl.
Carl spoke in a clear voice toward the heating vent so the people upstairs could hear, thanking God for the food, for each other, for this day, and then for sending His only-begotten son Jesus to die on Calvary's cross, and he started to sob, such a wrenching sound, his awful weeping, especially because he tried to keep talking about Jesus, and the words would hardly come out. He stopped and blew his nose and we all, one by one, started to get weepy. My fiancee wept, I cried, we all cried. I don't think we wept for Jesus so much as from exhaustion. Families can wear you out sometimes. Down the basement, somebody was bawling. And right there, as Carl wiped his nose and everyone around the dining room table sniffled, my cousin Duke leaned forward and tossed her cookies. Everyone had their eyes closed, and believe me, it's more vivid when you only hear it. Radio is a powerful medium. She vomited twice and gagged twice, two longs and two shorts, and staggered for the bathroom. There was some sympathetic gagging among the other children, and some men got up suddenly, even before Carl's amen, and went outdoors and leaned against the house. My aunts leaped into action and cleared the table and whipped off the tablecloth and mopped up the floor, and dinner was put back in the oven while our heads settled and our appetites returned. This took about half an hour. Some people took walks, others simply stood looking out windows. Dishes were washed, the room aired out, the table reset, and eventually we came back. I felt good: Someone had vomited at the table before a meal and it was not me.
There was some question of whether to repray or not, whether the previous blessing was still in effect, and Uncle Al said a brief grace, thanking God for His mercy. We ate. Tentatively at first, but we hit our stride and finished up strong, with pumpkin pie. Duke was so mortified she began her long career of not vomiting. Twenty-five years of relative calm. Uncle Jack died a few years later, and Aunt Dee followed in 1982. May they rest in peace. Happy Thanksgiving. Life is good. Even when it is lousy, it is still good, and thank God for it.
Garrison Keillor is creator and host of "American Radio Company." This article is adapted from a recent program.