Thanksgiving is my paternal grandmother’s favorite holiday, and so, when we were young, we usually celebrated it at her ranch-style house on Fetter Road in Lima, Ohio. Grandma had more Thanksgiving decorations than a cornucopia could hold—porcelain turkeys hollowed out to hold hard candies, dancing bear salt and pepper shakers with Pilgrims’ hats, and fall colored cloth napkins and placemats, not to mention the good china that we always dragged out, gravy boats, real silver, the whole deal!
For some reason or other, though, the Thanksgiving that I was in ninth or tenth grade (1990 or 1991), we celebrated at my aunt’s “underground” home built into a hillside in Dayton, Ohio. My aunt and her husband had always owned farms, and this house was no different. As you approached the home from the road, it appeared as a ranch with a level front yard and a driveway which ran to the left of the building. As soon as you neared the house, however, the hill dropped sharply and the driveway curved underneath toward the back door, a floor below the front entryway. Almost everything—the bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and small dining area—was located on this lower floor whose sliding glass door looked out onto the barn behind the house. To the left, a wooden fence laced with chicken wire enclosed an area for the many hens and a rooster or two to scratch. Although gooseberry bushes lining the fence hid the area a bit, you could still see and hear the chickens going at one another most of the time. I never looked at serene paintings of chickens in the yard and thought of them as anything other than a lie after that. To the right stretched a wooded area where we roamed with our cousins and various dogs—theirs and ours.
The gathering that year was quite large—my aunt, uncle, and her two boys, my grandparents, the five members of my immediate family, and my uncle’s family of four. Quite simply, we had outgrown the small dining area of the lower floor. This turn of events didn’t bother my aunt in the slightest, however, she and my uncle had just redone a portion of the upper floor. A large rec room now had restaurant style booths with white tables and red padded seats lining the far right wall. That year, the turkey and all the trimmings lined the counter and table in the kitchen where we plopped them on Chinette plates and then turned and climbed the stairs to find a booth to sit in. I had always enjoyed the long Thanksgiving supper table and the threads of conversation which wove over and under one another as family members chose not to speak to their neighbors but rather to converse with others across the table. Limited seating to clusters of four or five effectively unraveled this tapestry of shared dialogue—although perhaps I shouldn’t blame the seating. Shortly after we sat down, I did hear family members calling to one another over the seatbacks.
“What do you think of the turkey?” my aunt asked.
“Oh, it’s just fine,” my grandmother said. My grandmother has always been an if-you-can’t-say-something-nice-say-nothing kind of person, so this was her expected response, even if the beast had been nothing but ashes.
“It should be,” my aunt responded. “Fred was such a good bird. I knew he’d make a fine Thanksgiving turkey. I thought about it every time he greeted my car on the driveway.”
My aunt continued to tell stories about Fred, and, while I know that the food I eat comes from animals and I had seen chickens’ necks snapped before without much issue and I fully understood that these animals are raised to be eaten, that they would not be well-fed or well-housed if, in fact, people were not planning to eat them, it seemed awfully difficult to choke down an animal we were remembering. Dinner was strangely silent that year, and I remember that the stuffing, marshmallow sweet potatoes, and Grandma’s famous Jell-O molds went very well, even if the turkey did not.