Monday, November 19, 2012

Weighing In Before Thanksgiving Dinner

It used to be that my brother would step on the scale before and after Thanksgiving dinner to see how many pounds he’d gained in one sitting. While I’d never dream of doing the same, we all got a good laugh. One year he tipped the scale to an excess of seven newly packed-on pounds – a record. We chalked it up to a particularly tasty Thanksgiving, one where my mom had cooked not only the turkey but also her traditional side of sweet potatoes and cranberries, homemade stuffing, gravy, buttered carrots, any number of sweetbreads, and of course, her signature pumpkin pie.
When we were young, we’d try to circle around the table, everyone saying what they were thankful for, before someone snuck a piece of turkey. There were homemade place cards, placemats, and some years lopsided construction paper turkeys. Eventually childhood enthusiasms gave way to a new tradition of the Turkey Trot run; my dad and brother would brave the frigid Wisconsin temperatures to pound out three and a half miles before dinner. Later, when my brother and I left for college and I stayed out East, our family Thanksgivings spent around the table together became less and less frequent. More often than not, the phone was our welcome connector across the miles.

The past few years, I’ve tried to emulate some of our traditions within my own family. I make my mom’s sweet potato/cranberry recipe; our family watches the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade; one year my son and I cut out construction paper turkeys, the imprints of our hands decorated with colorful feathers. The fact that he pronounced to his dad that he’d just finished making his “chicken” did little to dull my spirits.
But this year, like last, there will be someone missing around our proverbial table: my dad. And while I know the passing of a year should make a difference, know that the actual Thanksgivings I spent with him had grown few and far between, it doesn’t make his absence any less felt. It’s something that I know more than a few friends have had to struggle with in recent years, this realizing that we’ve come of an age where no one, not even our parents, is invincible. A reluctant recognition that the shape of family changes, even if those for whom we’re grateful does not.

My dad would have been the first to remind us how lucky we are, how much we have to be thankful for. He was an easy mark for any charity, always willing to lend a few extra dollars. I can’t count how many times an old-fashioned letter would arrive in the mail from him, penned on a piece of complimentary stationery he’d received for his donation to the Salvation Army, Unicef, a local food bank. He could find many problems with the world, but really, his heart was made of gold.
I suspect this year, when it came to his turn at the table, he would have said he was grateful for our family, small and large, for the blessings of the food before us, the roof over our heads, the kindness of friends. It was the little things. He would have made a comment about how glad he was to have Obama in the White House but would have asked God to help our President help those who need it most.

And when I look around the dinner table this Thanksgiving, hosted by my in-laws in the historic town of Plymouth, I’ll surely think of my whole family and all that I’m grateful for. But most especially, I’ll think of my dad and how the holiday this year is both heavier and lighter because of him. I won't need the scale to tell me.

Monday, November 12, 2012

How a Five-Year-Old Put Me in My Place

Yesterday afternoon, one election and one hurricane later, my son and I enjoyed an unexpected blast of summer at the park. Like so many other families, we kicked around the soccer ball, played hide-and-seek, tag, anything that allowed us to linger a bit longer in the sunshine. You could tell that there was a collective sigh of gratitude among the parents: for our kids’ safety, for the balm of a New England fall day, for having weathered the storms of the past weeks.

Nicholas and I gulped in the warm air, wiped our sweaty brows, and stopped for heavy swigs from our water bottles after a marathon soccer game. Eventually, a few of his friends joined in and I retreated to the sidelines to chat with other parents, comparing notes on the recent high winds and flooding. When the kids tired of the game and gathered around the monkey bars, they, too, began to trade stories of what had mattered most to them in the wake of our collective storms: Halloween candy. I listened as one boy boasted he got one hundred pieces, another seventy-five. Nicholas himself had scored forty-five pieces, which he’d proudly lined up on our window seat. As the Halloween tales made their way around the circle, one cagey five-year-old stopped and looked at me. “Hey, we came to your house for trick-or-treat,” he said.
I was secretly pleased to be remembered. I must be one of the “cool” moms, I thought with a warm smile. I felt a surge of love for this little boy. Already I was mentally arranging a play date for him at our house.

“Yeah,” he continued. “You gave us licorice.” His voice carried a slightly accusatory tone.
“Oh?” I said. “That could be. We gave out lots of stuff. Kit Kats, Butterfingers, M&Ms, licorice.”

He shook his head, as if about to call me out as a liar right in front of his now curious pals. “No, I’m pretty sure it was licorice.” Big, wondering eyes looked up at me.
“Could be.” I tried for diplomacy; I really did. “Lots of times I like to throw in licorice with another treat.”

He stared at me. “Just licorice.” His disappointment was palpable. I felt the need to defend myself, if not for my sake, for my son’s.  Surely we gave out plenty of good stuff. Maybe not whole candy bars like some of our neighbors, but we didn’t shirk when it came to Halloween.
“And isn’t licorice delicious?” I tried again. “I love the red kind. But some people really like black licorice.” The kids eyed me skeptically.

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve loved red licorice, all kinds. The tried-and-true Twizzlers that you can peel off with a satisfactory tug, the longer whips that you can curl and twist onto your tongue, even licorice pipes held a place in my heart. They seemed so grown-up and whimsical at the same time. So maybe I harbored my own little addiction to the red stuff. Perhaps it played a role in my decision-making in the candy aisle, but what parent doesn’t let his or her own preferences influence the final pick?
Still, it never occurred to me that we might get a black mark on our house for handing out this particular treat on Halloween. I assumed such scorn was reserved for folks who gave out home-made popcorn or a single lollipop or, even worse, toothbrushes! Dispensing licorice with an assortment of other choices didn’t seem like such a travesty. But then again, I hadn’t been five in a long time. What did I know?

When we were walking back from the park, I asked Nicholas if he liked licorice. “Yeah,” he said, then ran off ahead of me. Once home, I pulled out the tub of week-old candy, determined to prove my theory once and for all: kids still liked licorice. I unwrapped a miniature three-pronged Twizzlers and handed it to him. He took a bite, then gave the rest to me. “I think I’ll have the M&Ms instead,” he said.
And there, writ large in his chocolate-smudged face, was the truth: I’d become the mom who hands out old-fashioned trick-or-treat candy, the kind that no kid really likes.

Next fall, with the election and the hurricane a distant memory, I’ll remember this tall truth as I cruise the aisles in October. I’ll stuff my cart with treats of the chocolate variety. But don’t be surprised if a bag of Twizzlers gets tucked in underneath.
This time, though, it will be just for me.