As the Bird Turns

Thanksgiving is all about the food -- or is it? We all know that the meal is the excuse for gathering around one table and breathing the same air for about four hours, whether or not we like each other. For some of us, this meal is an annual reunion of relatives, both estranged and strange, the one opportunity every year to stand witness to our DNA and to make small talk with people who may as well be strangers.

With such a heavy premise, the food had better be good -- or what on earth will we talk about? Will we be able to endure the agony of sitting next to a cousin whose politics are radically different from our own? Will we able to keep the lecherous uncle at bay and and smile at his wife while he smiles at your chest? Will we be able to lie once more about our sister-in-law's really bad creamed onion thing that she insists on bringing every year?

The circus, ladies and gents, is in town. And we hope and we might even pray that the meal will get us through the night and make everything alright.

But, as the song goes, you can't get always get what you want.

Thanksgiving, 1990. I was 24, in my second year as a reporter in Philadelphia -- young, eager and although green, very proud of my journalistic endeavors.

Dinner, which was always at five, was at the O'Donnel homestead in nearby Bala Cynwyd. My brothers were high on drugs and had plans that didn't involve turkey and stuffing. We were six at the table: My great aunt, and her companion, Angelo, who has since passed away, my college friend, Richard, who trained in from New York, yours truly, my mother and lastly, her live-in beau, who shall go by the fictitious name of Trouble.

Trouble was a drinker. He liked beer with a whiskey chaser. He would begin his liquid diet sometime in the afternoon so that by the dinner hour, his brain would be nicely marinated. He was a mean drunk who liked to pick fights and run his mouth. I likened him to a bad case of poison ivy that no calamine could soothe.

I was on this kick of stuffing the turkey with whole garlic cloves and flambéing it with cognac as it emerged from the oven. I think we may have graduated from the Stove Top box to homemade stuffing, but my aunt took her time-honored station of manning the gravy drippings, doctoring them up with a few splashes of Kitchen Bouquet and jars of Heinz gravy.

We gather in the dining room with the pink piano and multi-colored wallpaper, and we sit down, Parker House rolls and all, to give thanks.

We pass platters and pile up our plates with the fruits of our labor, and we say "Grace" for a hot minute. I am still on my first helping of turkey when Trouble starts.

As a member of the public relations staff for the office of the Mayor of Philadelphia, Trouble fancied himself a journalist in the know about newspapering and such.

"I read that Welcomat of yours this week," he says, staring at me.

"I work for City Paper, not the Welcomat (a now defunct weekly paper)," I respond quickly to correct him.

But he keeps going, like the rash that won't quit.

"Yeah, there's just nothing good in there to read, may as well use it to line the bird cage."

Richard looks at me, mortified. My aunt moves her mashed potatoes nervously on her plate. And I've got a blood vessel that's about to burst.

There's a pregnant pause. I take a sip of wine, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"How can they call that rag a newspaper anyway...."

I drop my fork into a puddle of gravy, and it clangs against the plate. I stand up, look at Trouble, who continued talking, and scream at the top of my lungs.

"SHUT THE [expleteive] UPPPPPPPPPP!"

My mother, not known for her ability to deal with conflict, immediately stands up and starts clearing the table. Everyone else is stunned into silence, even Trouble. I can hear the sound of the plates being loaded into the dishwasher.

There would be no dessert that Thanksgiving, or leftovers, or idle chit chat about the wishbone. It would be six months before my mother and I would speak again. And Trouble, he eventually left paradise so we could enjoy our Parker House rolls in peace again -- a little thing but one for which we could give thanks.

Check out today's Post Food section for a bevy of holiday recipes and washingtonpost.com's Holiday Guide for more tips and tales.


By Kim ODonnel |  November 14, 2007; 8:26 AM ET Thanksgiving
Previous: An Ode to the Apple | Next: How Do You Do Your Turkey?

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The Holiday you describe sounds similar to the ones at my house for many years.
The meal was at my home each year, because husband refused to eat anywhere but home or at his mothers (and she did not put on a meal, just show up at her house, she would put a plate of spaghetti in front of you. Great lady, not creative or traditional in any manner) So family came to our house. He and my sister would argue
constantly over any subject in the universe
and this would continue throughout the meal and until all guests had gone. Finally, my niece (sister's daughter} refused to attend anymore because of the
conflict. Husband decided not to eat the
meal at home anymore, he went to his mothers and the children and I ate at home.
Ultimately, he passed away. Then younger daughter took up the ruination of Holidays. This ensued until she finished College (she was 11 when he passed), moved to the DC area. The older of my kids
lives in the South. I spend many Holidays alone, but cook the whole tradition on a small scale. Frankly, I enjoy it. There are worse things than being alone.

Posted by: Steubenville | November 14, 2007 9:30 AM

My daughter and I are still wiping the tears from our cheeks from all the laughter. Oh yes, all of us can recognize what happens when we immerse ourselves in the family gene pool! Thanks so much for sharing your tale. Somebody will have to shout a memorial "SHUT THE %#*&@ UP!" at our dinner. All of us think it, but few dare to let it out.
And how I treasure the aside that Trouble was the pr man for the Mayor of Philadelphia!

Posted by: Amanda | November 14, 2007 11:40 AM

Oh, Kim. My sympathies. Our Thanksgiving will be mercifully Trouble-free this year -- but Christmas, oh, Christmas. How I am dreading it.

May the universe give us all the strength to get through it.

Posted by: NC | November 14, 2007 11:48 AM

Thank you for your honest post. You know, it's so easy to romanticize the holidays of years past, to only remember the turkey and not the Trouble that surrounded it. But I know every year there were arguments. And tears. And rude guests who would criticize the cooking/food selection (even through they would otherwise be eating TV dinners). And tantrums. And more tears.

So now I look forward to the holidays ahead, those that I will share with people I love (not necessarily family) - after all, I already lived through the past, I don't have a reason to revisit it.

Posted by: DC | November 14, 2007 12:21 PM

Thanks Kim. Great (and recognizable) story. good for you that you stood up to him.

Posted by: SSMD | November 14, 2007 1:43 PM

Oh, Kim.... thank you for your Trouble treasure. I laughed through most of your tale, knowing all the players involved, conjuring the scene and remembering how I loathed Trouble. It's a wonder the turkey didn't get up and run through the door to avoid being at the same table with him. Fortunately, your mother's discretion improved with age.
The happiest of Thanksgivings to you and Mr. Mighty Appetite.

Posted by: Winnie from Philley | November 14, 2007 3:22 PM

I grew up with an alcoholic father and he and my mother ranged from picking and sniping at each other to all-out shouting. I am an adult now, have a spouse, and choose not to go to their house anymore. There is no rule book that says you need to spend time with toxic people who hurt you, even if they are related to you. Make your own family out of friends and new loved ones. And Kim, I am so sorry your mother essentially chose an abuser over you. She should have told him to shut up and get out on her own.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 14, 2007 3:24 PM

Oh, how I wish that I had the nerve to yell at a family dinner when it was warranted. Kim, you always seem to manage such poise in your postings and your chat that I cannot imagine how badly you'd been abused to finally lose your cool. I'm sorry that it happened, but way to stand your ground, girl!

many many happy wishes for peace and thanksgiving to you and Mr. MA this season.

Posted by: yeah | November 14, 2007 4:32 PM

Thanks for the reality check - it makes me feel better about dreading parts of my own family's celebration. And good for you for standing up to him!

Posted by: Kat with a K | November 15, 2007 9:27 AM

Kim, so sorry for such a dysfunctional family! At our house you can hear each other chewing....you can cut the silence with a knife! No confrontations, no drinking, nobody 'high on drugs.' In fact, one Christmas my sister brought a bottle of wine into the house for Christmas Eve dinner and my mother coldly stated 'Nobody drinks in this house,' so the bottle went back out to the car.

For a reality check, I occasionally watch 'The Lion in Winter' -- another dysfunctional family, and thank God we're the silent types. On anti=depressants. With stomach problems.

Posted by: Not how we live.... | November 15, 2007 11:08 AM

My Thanksgiving memory is of Mom preparing the meal earlier and earlier in the day to cut down on Dad's time to drink.

Thanksgiving brunch, anyone?

Posted by: Anon | November 15, 2007 1:26 PM

One year my mother, stepfather and myself had just settled down to a nice Thanksgiving dinner when the phone rang. I - in middle school at the time - answered the phone to discover it was my mom's somewhat-estranged mother on the end, promptly told me she was calling to hope we had a "G*d damned happy Thanksgiving!" and then hung up. To this day my mother, brother and I all use this to bestow holiday greetings on one-another.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 15, 2007 1:50 PM

Why does God have an asterisk in it but 'damned' is spelled out? Which is the dirty word here?

Posted by: Anonymous | November 15, 2007 4:38 PM

In some religious traditions, the name of God in various forms and languages is never spelled out completely. This is an expression of reverence for the might and majesty of the divine, beyond being compassed by the human mind. The use of asterisks to weaken the appearance of 'dirty' words in print is a much newer invention and entirely different to an expression of piety.

Posted by: Amanda | November 16, 2007 11:35 AM

They start by sending an email; "What time are you thinking of for dinner; you haven't said a word about Thanksgiving!" "They" are the relatives. They invite themselves to my house assuming that I am delighted to host yet again as has become tradition. Usually I am. I have a large table.

Sister brings her impulsive wild dog everywhere. Even to Thanksgiving at my house. It's a huge ball of white fur; the breed is Sammy something. The tail, ever-wagging, is the height of the coffee table. Enough said. The dog brings a gift that keeps on giving; still vacuuming up long strands of white dog hair at new years.

Cousin prides herself on the red and green - no that one is for Christmas... the orange and green Jello in Pyrex dish with the cool whip between layers with jewels of mandarin oranges suspended in the orange layer. I suppose at one time in our magical lives, that sight had us kids marveling, "Aunt Vee!! "How'd ya make the Jello different colors like that!?"

It's all a blur - the year that my good friend hadn't shown up with the main dish, a pork roast, by 8:30 because she had two South Africans in her living room and one of them was immobilized from a chance encounter with a bottle of bourbon. When it became obvious that a few more hours wait would not bring the succulent roast to reality, I heard my sister blurt out, "Well, it's a good thing I brought my marinaded salmon!!" Out to the cooler in her car she goes, in comes a plastic bag full of balsamic vinegar and a salmon fillet. Dripping wet, into the oven it goes. Around 9:00 we are all around the table trying to swallow the bitter, mushie, fish-flavored entrée. Sister thinks it wonderful, of course; has been marinading for THREE days and goes so well with the mashed spuds.

Now we make sure we are out of town on Thanksgiving. It's an idea I got from my pork-roast friend.

Posted by: Karla | November 16, 2007 1:37 PM

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