Our family was unusual in that we had no relatives within a few hundred miles. My father being from Virginia and my mother from North Carolina we were not going to have a lot of relatives making that drive to spend Tnksgiving with us. Given the fact that well into my teens Jim Crow was still the law of the land in the South, travel by blacks was problematic. Despite the existence of the Green Book, which could be out of date, one never knew where you could eat, buy gasoline or use the restroom. On most of our trips South my father would pull over in a deserted part of the road ( easy since most of them were not big highways) and go into the bushes to relieve himself. The same was suggested for us.
So our Thanksgivings usually had an odd assortment of people who were without a place to go for Thanksgiving that did not want to go to one of the charities. Generally speaking they were not poor people, just older people with no remaining family, or students from Wilberforce who could not afford to go home. We had a fair number of African guests over the years.
Dinner preparations began early in the week. We had to wash the goblets from the china closet to make sure they were not dusty, polish the silverware which was only used at Thanksgiving and Christmas and had, therefore, not been polished since the year before. Fortunately the polish we used, which was probably toxic, was sufficiently strong that no tarnish dared show its face before Christmas, so this was the fall polishing if you will, no need to repeat in December. This was my job and one of the wonderful challenges, if you have never polished silver, is to get the polish out of the design of the piece. My mother favored flowers in her silver design and it is a wonder I don’t hate roses considering the time I spent with a toothpick wrapped around a piece of tissue trying to extract the last clump of the noxious polish so that the silver could pass muster.
My sister, Barbara was responsible for ironing the damask tablecloth. She was a champion ironer, but the tablecloth was a Hurculean task. It had to be washed, because it had not been used since Christmas, and then rolled up damp ( we had a wringer washer so it got pretty well wrung out) and then ironed, first on one side then the other. If you are not familiar with damask I can tell you that when it was wet she had to have some help carrying it and that it took her literally hours to iron it until it was dry and the shiny part was shiny and the non-shiny part was unwrinkled. Damask has an uneven surface, parts of it are glossy , parts are not. There were, of course, matching damask napkins which had to be ironed and folded and ironed again.
My brother, Robert’s job was to buff the hardwood floors with the buffer borrowed from Ben’s Cleaners, where my father’s tailor shop was in Fairborn, Ohio. He and my dad put down Johnson’s paste wax on the floors and then ran the buffer over it until it looked like brown glass.
My mother’s job was to cook and cook and bake and cook some more. She sent my dad to Geniven’s ( sp?) butchers, the place which was built over a creek down on Second Street and where the blood from the poultry they had killed ran down into a drain which emptied into the creek. Many women refused to go into Gineven’s because of the bloody stuff hanging up there, but the food was as fresh as it can get without you having it in the backyard and killing it yourself. I would accompany my father sometimes, fascinated by the smells of blood and burnt feathers, and the drain, but it was always an adventure and sometimes I did not want to invest that kind of time. My father knew a lot of people and he liked to talk. I think the white people liked to talk to him because he was not only intelligent, he was fun and his vocabulary was very extensive. I think most of them considered him a model negro. At least I never saw anything but cordial and familiar exchanges between him and the mysterious ( to me) white folks. I, of course, viewed them as an alien species that we peacefully shared the town with. The only white person I knew was Mary Langan the Public Health nurse who came to give us shots at Lincoln Elementary School.
As Thursday grew nearer we swung into high gear. The tablecloth was put on the table and the table set on Wednesday, we would be eating in the kitchen until after Thanksgiving, and the various dishes set out. The relish tray made of heavy glass with separate compartments for celery sticks, carrot sticks and pickles of various types. The jam server, a green glass bowl that sat in a footed silver holder with a handle ( I hated that piece the sides were open lattice and hell to polish) . The candlestick holders, the flower vase with its frog ( if you do not know what a frog is when it comes to flower arranging you are under 50) ready for its bouquet which was in the refrigerator, and the turkey platter which had a scene with a turkey in it, but only in bas relief, the platter was white. The good dishes, my mother claimed they were a wedding present, but I had my doubts, I think my mother and father had a very small, modest wedding, and the goblets, of which she was particularly proud since they had been a gift from Mrs. Wagstaff, her godmother, who said that they came from Paris. ( One of these still exists and is used on state occasions at my house now)
On Thanksgiving my mother rose around five AM to start dinner. I do not know why it seemed that in those days turkeys had to cook for 12 hours or something but it surely is nothing like we cook them now. I doubt most cooks these days rise much before 7 or 8. Of course, I do not think my mother’s generation trusted refrigerators all that much, so she would not have thought of cooking anything the day before and just warming it up. Even the pies were made only one day in advance. And she did make her own cranberry sauce.
Finally we had to all get dressed like we were going to church. Ties for the men, Sunday dresses for the women and girls. That meant the night before I had to polish my patent leather shoes with Vaseline, not one one of my favorite chores. Before dinner the adults had cocktails ( I drink my oj out of one of my father’s cocktail glasses each morning and remember him) and we had either orange juice or cranberry juice. Someone would give what seemed to be an excessively long prayer and then even though our mouths were watering we had to go around the table and say what we were grateful for. Finally it was time to eat and boy did we eat! I remember people literally unbuttoning pants at the end of the meal to allow themselves to breathe.
We did not have much pomp and circumstance after the meal, more like retire to the living room while my mother and sister did the dishes. I was not trusted with the beloved dishes and goblets so I escaped scullery duty. There was smoking by my father, some record playing by my brother and some playing with whatever animal we had at the time by me. The women would join us eventually and we would all sit around and talk about how nice it was and visit with the guests that were still there and talk about the ones who had left.
Nothing like family events to frame your childhood. I hope you have a great, fun, family filled, no damask table cloths, ( I actually will be using my mother’s but I am not ironing it!) no crises having Thanksgiving where the only one who suffered is the turkey! 🙂