Happy Thanksgivings 113011
A Fringe Overdramafication
Whenever Thanksgiving time comes around I remember fondly a handful of turkey days spent at Grandma’s Farm.
Grandma was not my grandma; she was the matriarch that ruled Thanksgiving for a large family and their attendant in-laws, usually about 45 people. Every year all the genetic kin and their outsider spouses would assemble for a kind of lust and blood ritual of the sort as would do proud any savage tribe anywhere. It was their very own Samhna.
Grandma was a leathery old lady about 5’10” between 65 and 85 who, every time I ever saw her, wore cowboy boots, new blue jeans and flannel shirts, especially one which sported pumpkins and turkeys in the blue plaid. I attended a couple of times as a boyfriend, and one year as a fiancé. Grandma only spoke to me a handful of times, the first and probably longest was when she met me I stood before her, holding hands with her pert and beaming granddaughter, and she said “you’re more poetry than piss, ain’t ‘cha.”
The “farm” was 640 acres of rolling meadows and oak trees, most of which was leased as horse pasture, and so was dotted with small barns. There was 80 acres where she raised premium alfalfa hay, “just to keep her hand in the game”. The rich and thriving farm was the plum that brought all the blood kin every Thanksgiving. Grandma enjoyed the attention it brought her.
There were three features of the farm which made Thanksgiving special: the huge old barn, plenty of firearms, and Grandma drank Scotch whisky. She drank three fingers and a shot of coffee in the morning straight through to her “toddy” of whisky and hot water with which she allegedly washed down a fistful of Tylenol at night. The only thing that kept Grandma from being a drunk was the fact her eyes were so bad she couldn’t drive.
As Grandma drank, others were expected to drink, too. In addition to a bottomless bottle of black jacket Johnnie, there was beer and people could bring wine or wine coolers, though once I saw Grandma turn to a cousin holding a wine cooler and say “aren’t you going to have something to drink?” One important lesson I took from Grandma: strong drink is absolutely essential to a memorable family holiday.
I was a very junior in-law as a boyfriend, and couldn’t be considered an old-timer because I wasn’t there for the “Betsy and Jesse incident”. There was a tendency for the cousins to hang together, and the in-laws to bunch together. The cars were all parked in the circular dirt front drive, and in-laws would escape there to listen to music or smoke pot in their cars. Being a devout alcoholic, Grandma didn’t tolerate pot. When there were doings inside, the in-laws tended to hang together in the kitchen, where Maria, Grandma’s cook, driver and hired hand worked. Maria was a solid Mexican woman who had worked under the table for Grandma for nearly 40 years. She used to joke that she didn’t exist, because there were no records for her in Mexico or the United States. She had one son, who she’d had with “The Mister” before he died; the son was living in Houston, Texas, and could technically have come, but since he wasn’t getting any of the farm it wasn’t mandatory for him, so he didn’t.
The in-laws got together one year and asked Grandma to at least unload the guns that were within easy reach. That would be the double 12 gauge by the front door, the .45 hog leg on the side table in the parlor, and the “thuty-thuty” lever action by the back door. The lever action, a Winchester model 94, looked pretty easy to use, but one year, which I wasn’t there for, an angry in-law took all he could take from a hulking, slope browed cousin name Dougal, and reached in the back door and grabbed the rifle and screwed up, working the lever and ejecting a round, then getting so flustered at the tumbling cartridge he jammed the next round. Grandma stepped forward and cracked him behind the ear with her fist and cold-cocked him “for his own good.” It was a good laugh for the cousins, since all he had to do was pull the hammer back and pull the trigger to send Dougal to hell, and he screwed it up. The year the in-laws banded to ask that the guns be unloaded I stood in their number, though I personally would have had the skill to gut-shoot cousin Dougal. I was only two people back in the little group and heard Grandma say, “what the hell good is an unloaded gun? You keep a car with no gas in it?”
A hog leg, Colt .45 Peacemaker Copyright unknown
The barn was a massive wooden structure, dark inside and rippled with light from between the boards in the wall. There were tack rooms, and a room with sacks of grain, and long rows of high-boarded horse stalls, there was a loft with loose straw. It smelled of horse manure, hay, and raw, amoral sex. It was a wonderland in day or night, and had enough secluded spaces for all 45 cousins and in-laws to have discrete and illicit sex at once. Usually, there were only a few couples at a time in the barn.
“Betsy and Jesse” were cousins who went out to the barn to “feed the horses”. As the story goes, by Valentine’s Day Betsy had babbled out the news that Jesse had sure enough inflated her. Needless to say, the family freaked out, and eventually Jesse’s Mom had to come forward, to alleviate family fears of a little cousin with three eyes, and admit Jesse wasn’t his Dad’s kid, that she’d cheated on him with an in-law at a Thanksgiving 16 years before. She didn’t actually have Indian blood, she admitted, that isn’t why Jesse was a little dark.
At the news, the couples broke up, and the mom and dad cousins ran away to Montreal, Canada together, where, as far as I know, they had a little cousin with three eyes. That left the in-laws to bring Betsy and Jesse and the other little cousins to Thanksgiving by themselves. Grandma insisted.
It was also, according to legend, in the barn where a 33 year old cousin named Charlie had his heretofore undescended testicle descend. They said the noise could be heard in the house.
The traditional Thanksgiving at Grandma’s farm was a three day, two night affair, since some cousins came from distant lands. People would start showing up Wednesday, and dinner that night was always barbequed ribs and baked apples and Scotch whisky. Some people brought trailers or motorhomes, some stayed with Grandma in one of the main house’s six bedrooms. Kid cousins slept on the floor in the large front room, and the parents in the nearest bedroom had to keep their door open to make sure the kids didn’t get too loud, or too quiet. Overflow stayed down the road with cousins Daniel and Elizabeth, but they were devout and nobody wanted to stay with them.
Thanksgiving was the main day, and it started with flapjacks and kippers, prepared in the outdoor kitchen, if possible. More experienced cousins started drinking then. Two huge turkeys were barbequed, along with a lamb roast and a 50 pound bag of potatoes. Iceberg lettuce in a huge bowl graced each of 5 long tables. Grandma’s table was crosswise to the rest, so people ate looking past each other at the four tables. It was Grandma’s Thanksgiving. Also sitting at the main table were the possible heirs. Grandma’s kids and their spouses, and Little Deanne, a granddaughter whose mother died leaving her an only child to be raised by Aunt Colleen, who had died when Little Deanne was 17. Little Deanne was working in Las Vegas but no one said doing what. She was 24 when I met her, and seriously scary. She was heroin thin and her hair was Highland red. On her sinewy arm instead of a tattoo, she had razor cut scars forming a dove with barbed wire through its heart. She and Grandma got along like sisters.
During dinner, Grandma would make toasts to various cousins and their offspring. “Here’s to Beth, who graduated from Community College and can now take blood from people, a job she’ll do real well at, which is good since she has two little kids and her husband Fred hasn’t worked in two years, bad back he calls it.”
“Lift a glass to Ben! Since his last accident two years ago and all those weeks in a 12 step program, he hasn’t had a drop, have you, Ben. Ben? There he is, help him sit up a little. Here’s to you, Ben! I knew you could do it.”
During one Thanksgiving dinner my fiancé held up the enormous cubic zirconium I gave her and said, “Look, Grandma, we’re engaged!” Grandma raised her glass and said, “here’s to Lassie just being engaged, and not knocked up.”
By the end of dinner, Grandma’s toasts were so slurred and filled with inside jokes they didn’t make any sense to most of us, but the drunken and the hopeful heirs still laughed uproariously.
After dinner it was an afternoon of drinking and fighting and sneaking out to the barn until dark, when the bonfire was lighted.
The bonfire was set up in the center of the large back yard. It was made from anything wood, and cousins actually brought furniture and other flammables to throw on the bon fire. The main structure was pine poles fifteen feet tall set up like a teepee. Beneath it were offerings including, for some reason I never figured out, a plain pine coffin, empty, as far as I knew, though there were rumors among the in-laws that once in the 1960s an abusive in-law husband disappeared one Thanksgiving. Having attended a few, I assume he came to his senses and ran off.
At full dark, with most adults in a drunken euphoria and the children completely without supervision, the bonfire was lighted, and the cousins and even some in-laws, would line up behind Grandma to stand before the fire and throw in the flames folded pieces of paper, containing things the thrower intended to be forgiven for, or forgotten. When every last misdeed was curled black and swirling into the night air, Grandma would signal Cousin Douglas and his band, the Cousin Douglas Band and they would play a variety of Celtic songs, and people would dance and make merry. Maria, dressed in a white gown with autumn leaves stuck in her hair and a sash of animal skin passed through the crowd handing out small oak branches to throw in the fire. One year she told me, “you should have seen me thirty years ago; I was so beautiful The Mister took me to the barn.”
These were the hours were no one was responsible. The bonfire light seemed to make people crazy, and sometimes two men would start fighting and in an effort to stop them half a dozen other cousins would fight, too. Occasionally cousins would dance together, but if they danced too close others would yell, “Hey, take it to the Barn!” It was a little joke. One in-law said to me on my last Thanksgiving at the farm, “this is the night their spirits shuck their baptism and they run around like the savages they are.” Later that night she and I sneaked out to use someone’s van in the parking lot. I figured, what the hell, it clearly wasn’t going to work out for me and this family anyway.
As the night wore on, the good children were playing feel ‘em in the dark and the bad children were carefully learning from their elders and snitching short shots from glasses on the table. Those who could went until the night was exhausted and the pine poles had fallen into the fire and burned, and the dawn peered down to see who was still living.
In the morning, after a couple of shots to ward off a headache, Grandma would get her suture kit out and stitch up whoever needed stitching. No one remembered how they got hurt, it was an unspoken rule.
And then breakfast of bacon and eggs and white bread toast. Anyone who didn’t show up to breakfast and eat all their bacon was a lightweight.
After breakfast sullen couples gathered their luggage, and kid cousins sneaked one last kiss, and as Maria stacked trash bags of empty bottles by the gate and put blankets out on the fence to air, Grandma said goodbye to every car load, and got their promise to come back next Thanksgiving.
To me, she just said, “goodbye, jughead.”
I’ve had many Thanksgivings since those days, but those are the ones I remember. Happy Thanksgiving, Grandma, you tough old bitch.