By Heather Poulin
Thanksgiving meant burgundy tablecloths and polished silver; it meant everything fresh and nothing from a can; it meant Grandma was up early to start the turkey while Gramps was out in the garden, picking rosemary that hadn’t yet died and pulling sprouted potatoes out of the ground. The herbs and potatoes would be joined later by fresh butternut squash and spinach purchased from the farmer’s market. There’d be paper bags full of blueberries and blackberries Gramps collected for making pies, and loaves of pumpernickel and sourdough bought from the bakery just up the road.
There’d be whiskey and wine in decanters on the counter, golden-glittered pinecones lining the porch, the soft melody of classical music playing through the speakers of the Bose home entertainment system, and a small glass bowl of Hershey’s Hugs and Kisses resting on the window sill. Thanksgiving meant my mom and dad would be in the same room and no one would yell. It meant that Gramps and Grandma could show off all the nice things they owned. It meant that I could finally wear the new sweater Mom bought me from JC Penney. It meant that we could eat as much as we wanted. Thanksgiving meant we could be normal for a few hours, one day, every year.
In those days, there were a lot of us who made the journey to Grandma and Gramps’. It was a long, four-hour drive, especially back in the 90’s, when all we had to be entertained was Mom’s Elton John cassette (Princess Diana had died just months before, so now “Candle in the Wind” was her favorite song) and forced conversations.
My dad also made the journey—a short, thirty-minute drive for him. His being there thrilled my sister and me. My mom, not so much. She smiled through it, though, as she always did. Dad also brought around his girlfriend—the one he cheated on Mom with—along with the girlfriend’s two kids, one of which we still, to this day, think is my dad’s.
At dinner, after we said what we were all thankful for, we passed around the food. The girlfriend passed my mom the green bean amandine, and they would smile tightly at each other. My dad would pass my sister the whipped potatoes—the one’s Grandma said tasted best when a whole stick, not a half stick, of butter was added. One of the girlfriend’s daughters would pass me the gravy, and I would pass it right to Grandma. Gramps would serve himself last. And at the end of the meal, like he did every year, he’d proclaim, “Well, I’m just about as stuffed as the turkey,” and we’d all laugh.
Each year after that specific Thanksgiving in 1998, the dinners got less populated. In 2000, Dad and the girlfriend broke up, so that year it was just Grandma, Gramps, Mom, Dad, my sister and me. Gramps, though, still delivered his turkey line, and I still laughed—too much probably—but it made him smile, and that’s what mattered.
In 2003, Thanksgiving was even smaller because Mom didn’t want to go, since Dad was bringing his new girlfriend—a stripper named Brenda. So, that year it was just Gramps, Dad, my sister and me. Grandma was there, but said she didn’t feel good and wanted to eat alone in her room. I knew it was because of Brenda, and Dad knew it, too, but no one said anything. The only thing that felt normal that year was the end of the meal, when like clockwork Gramps delivered his turkey line, the one that still made me laugh.
I was the only one who laughed that year.
In 2005, I got my license and didn’t want to go up for Thanksgiving. My mom and sister went to see my grandparents without me. That year it just the two of them. Dad got back together with Pam—the first girlfriend—and they had their own holiday that year. I still called Gramps, though, and he repeated my favorite line. I made sure to laugh louder this time because I could tell his hearing was going.
I didn’t see my grandparents again for the next ten Thanksgivings. Even though I always intended to. But it was always something: I had plans; the weather was bad; I didn’t feel like going. Excuses.
I went back one last time in 2015. My mom and sister had plans—I don’t remember what they were—so I went alone. On the long drive up, I tried to mentally prepare for how much older my grandparents would look.
When I pulled into the driveway, I almost didn’t recognize their house. It looked smaller than I remembered. The paint was chipping. The yard wasn’t raked. The garden where Gramps used to grow food was covered in a thick, dark dirt. There were no welcome pinecones, just pine needles that had fallen from a too-tall tree.
And they did look older. They somehow appeared shorter than I’d remembered. They didn’t stand with the same regality as they had when I was a child, like the passage of time had weighed heavily on them.
Inside, the house felt different. Colder. The dining room table had been turned into a catchall for clothes and paperwork. The decanters were behind a glass bureau, untouched for years. There were no Hershey’s kisses. The Bose speakers had been replaced with a flat-screen tv, still in its box.
“The food’s in the fridge, dear. Could you throw each in for a couple minutes?” Gramps asked. I was confused, but upon looking in the refrigerator I saw what he was talking about. There were three Styrofoam containers that lined the bottom shelf, right under the cranberry juice cocktail, next to an old box of girl scout Samoas.
I unpacked the three containers, each contained a turkey breast and leg, an ice-cream scoop of white potatoes, and a gelatinous cube of cranberry sauce. I did as I was told, putting each in the microwave for a few minutes. While the dinners rotated, I pulled out the three sets of plastic silverware and a couple packets of salt and pepper that were still in the bottom of the delivery bag. Gramps told me he’d ordered the food yesterday.
We sat on the couch, three in a row, three tv trays parked in front of us.
“It’s so nice to be here. I know it’s been a while.” I said. I poked the plastic knife through the cellophane wrapper.
“It surely is,” Gramps agreed, turkey leg waving in his hand as he spoke. His eyes were cloudier than I’d remembered.
We ate our microwaved meal in silence. After we finished eating, I waited for the turkey line, but it didn't come. Instead, Gramps stood and gathered up the empty Styrofoam containers and started for the kitchen.
“Gramps?” I asked, puzzled.
He paused. “Yes, dear?”
“I’m just about as stuffed as the turkey!” I said.
He stared at me, baffled, unsure of how to respond.
“That’s too bad,” he answered, finally. “We have some ice cream in the freezer."