Thursday, November 24, 2016

Over The River And Through The Potatoes

Thanksgiving afternoon, 1961, Apt. 2 South, 1582 York Avenue.

Around one o’clock on the same day that Deborah spilled the beans about Santa and the Easter Bunny, Dad and I arrived at his family’s apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. Dad’s mom and his stepdad, John Rode (also called Nan and Pop, just like our other grandparents) always cooked our bird. Mom’s parents did the Easter lamb roast. At the kitchen table, Mom and Nan Rode were snapping the ends off a few pounds of string beans and throwing them into a spaghetti pot. Rory and Pop were in the living room watching Babes in Toyland, starring Laurel and Hardy. 

“Hi, all,” Dad said. “I thought we were eating at one?”

“The bird’s got a way to go – maybe another hour,” Nan said.

Mom gave Dad a silent “No way.”

Dad went over to the oven and opened the front.

“Jesus Christ, who are you feeding?”

“Shut your mouth,” Nan said.

“That prehistoric beast is the same size as Rory,” Dad said.

“Mind your business.”

“Did the tribe bring him down with a spear or a net?” Dad said.

Mom whispered to me, “Rory is smaller.”

“We’ll eat tomorrow,” Dad said.

“Another hour -- go inside and be useful,” Nan said, waving Dad away. “Get two folding chairs and bring me my bag. I forgot something and need you to go to the store.”

Dad eyed me up and down. He wanted to send me to the store but he thought I was getting sick. Resigned, he exhaled loudly, ensuring that everyone in the balcony knew he was leaving the stage.

I was glum after my encounter with Deborah, but being at Nan’s was cheering me up. Everything was big. She was big. Pop was big. The coffee cups were big. At her house, I could drink anything I wanted when I wanted.

Dad returned from the front room to the kitchen with Nan’s pocketbook. I could see his arm muscles working hard, lifting the heavy bag.

“Here you go. What do you need?” Dad said.

“Go down to Parker’s and get me a pound of butter.”

Dad walked to the fridge, opened the door and stuck his head in it. “You have a full pound.”

“I need six sticks for the mashed potatoes.”

“We’re six people! That’s a quarter pound of butter per person. Are you trying to stop our hearts with a single meal?”

“I’m making mashed potatoes for the week and it’s none of your business. Get the butter.”

“And the thirty-pound bird? I suppose that’s part of your long-term meal plan?”

“Don’t exaggerate. It’s twenty-six pounds.”

“Oh, only twenty-six pounds. Let’s see, at more than four pounds per person that should cover our meat provision on our Easter Island sea voyage.”

I was curious: Would Nan slap him or not? I was pulling for a slap. She seemed real close. Instead, she stared him down. He wisely took the money and went to the grocery store.

About an hour after his return he said to Nan, “I’m starving. How much longer?”

“I’ll take a look.”

I watched through the doorway. Nan opened the oven and took the turkey out, firmly hanging on to both pan handles. From behind, she looked like a Russian Olympic weightlifter. She placed the pan on the counter and checked the thermometer. Dad was right behind her.

“What does it say?” Dad said.

“135 degrees,” Nan said.

“Forget it, put it back in.”

“No, it’s done.”

“You’re nuts.”

“It’s fine. Look.”

Nan sliced into the meat. It was pink as a flower.

“Meat is supposed to be 175 degrees before you eat it,” Dad said. “That bird just stopped breathing.”

“That’s it, let’s go,” Nan said and moved the enormous pan toward the table. Dad met her halfway and began guiding her back toward the oven. They both had their hands on the pan’s small handles.

A turkey dance!

“Give it to me,” Dad said.

“Leave me alone,” Nan said. “Start mashing the potatoes.”

“Give it to me!”

He tugged. She tugged. The pan didn’t know what to do.

So it flipped over. The bird leaped to its death with all its natural juices, landing on Dad’s new dress shoes with the little pinholes all over the leather. Stunned, Nan and Dad stared down at the linoleum and the bird for a long time. Nan spoke first. 

“Ah shit, I’m lying down.” And she did.

She passed through the living room. I was frozen in the doorway and Pop had Rory on his lap. They watched like two largemouth bass. Then Mom joined Rory watching TV and Pop went to the kitchen and began to help Dad. They put the bird back in the pan with a couple of cups of water to replace the lost gravy. Then they put the pan back in the oven. Dad’s clothes were splattered with turkey juice, so Pop gave him one of his extra-large T-shirts. None of Pop’s pants fit Dad, so he gave Dad a pair of boxer shorts. Dad wore Pop’s boxers over his own boxers – all in all a nice picture with his dark socks and skinny legs. I saw Mom peek in and start to laugh.

Sometime much later, Pop announced, “OK, everything is ready.”

He went into the front room and brought Nan back. She returned to the kitchen and took over as if nothing had happened.

“Bob, carve the meat.”

Dad grabbed the knife and did as he was told. This relieved everyone. The table comfortably sat six people yet with the large amount of food on it, it was hard to see each other. Everyone was scary polite. Late in the meal, Dad looked at the bucket of mashed potatoes and said, “You know from this angle, I believe I can see a couple of goats circling the top of Potato Mountain.”

We all laughed except Nan. But she didn’t hit him. The storm passed and Rory and I started looking forward to our favorite Thanksgiving ritual – Pop watching. He was a gentle bear and never yelled at us. After the meal, he drank two short glasses of Ballantine Ale, wiped his mouth carefully with his linen napkin, and said, “Thank you, and excuse me.”

He lifted himself from the table, and walked from his kitchen chair to his living room chair. Once Rory and I heard “Swoosh,” Pop’s bottom sinking into the plastic, we started counting backward, “10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1…”

We peeked into the living room. Pop was asleep. Rory and I stared at him.

Then a cartoon came on about two poor kids who go to bed with nothing to eat. They dream, people come and bring them goodies, and music starts to play. Rory and I stood behind Pop’s chair on each side of his head and sang quietly into his ears along with the cartoon song:

Meet me tonight in dreamland, under the silvery moon.
Meet me tonight in dreamland, where love’s sweet roses bloom.
Come with the love light gleaming, in your dear eyes of blue.
Meet me in dreamland, sweet dreamy dreamland,
There let my dreams come true.

Our singing didn’t wake him. Pop had a stretched-out snore with three different sounds. And Nan had a toy piano with eight color-coded keys. You could play a full octave of tones. The piano came with a color-coded music book with classics like “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “Roll Out the Barrel,” and “This Old Man.” Rory was pretty good on the thing – he played “Jingle Bells” with ease – and soon he went over to it. In between Pop’s snores he’d hit a key. He played around a bit until he located a couple of notes that harmonized with Pop’s snoring. Not wanting to be left out, and not having Rory’s natural musical talent, I improvised. Nan’s toilet door made a creaking sound, so I opened it a smidge to see if I could somehow join the band. I found a funky “eek” noise and added it to the mix. Leaning over, looking back into the living room, I could see Rory. Once we made eye contact, it was easy to find our rhythm. We riffed, “Snore, piano key, eek; snore, piano key, eek.”

“Our song had a hook,” as Dad liked to say. Mom, who had moved into the kitchen, threw a sponge at my head. I ducked. The band played on. Sponge two was in the air. I avoided it by doing the cha-cha.

“I will kill you both,” she said. “Keep it up, I’ll kill you both.”

Noticing Mom had run out of sponges, and the next airborne item could be a spoon or fork, Rory and I left the airwaves. Dad moved to the sink area to join Mom. I sat on the washing machine right next to them. Mom picked up a dish and started scrubbing. Dad squeezed too much dish soap into the water, and then started playing with the faucet’s screws.

“Let’s get this over with,” Mom said. “You’re moping.”

“Not true, the secret is a long hot soak,” Dad said. “Then the grease slides itself off.” He continued to play with the faucet.

“The secret is you’re full of shit and have a bony ass,” Mom said.

Do you like old New York City photos and street life stories? Then check out my 1960s memoir,
"I Hate the Dallas Cowboys - tales of a scrappy New York boyhood."Available at Logos Book Store and online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

The book has 121 Amazon five star reviews out of 121 total reviews posted. We're pitching a perfect game. My old world echoes TV's "The Wonder Years" ~ just add taverns, subways and Checker cabs.

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