On Thursday, the Thanksgiving meal will be the setting for stories as much as turkey. And those stories no doubt will recall Thanksgivings past in all their memorable warmth, family lore -- and occasional disaster. New York graphic designer and writer Jeffery Rudell gave his live, unscripted story at a Moth Story Slam, which aired on the Moth Radio Hour, presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
So my last Thanksgiving ended at exactly 5 minutes after 5 [p.m.] on the fourth Thursday of November 34 years ago.
Let me explain.
Both of my parents were lower middle class people with upper lower class educations. My father was a foreman in a paper mill; my mother was a bank teller. We lived in a split-level house in a subdivision that went bankrupt shortly after they bought into it. Inexplicably, in January of 1974, my father came home and announced to my mother that he had sold everything and bought a farm 60 miles away.
The farm turned out to be 80 acres of untilled clay, a heap of rusting equipment and two Holstein cows. They argued until my mother agreed to pack up everything and move -- everything, including her prized set of chartreuse colored Russel Wright crystal.
Within a month, my father had built a chicken coop, gotten the tractor fixed and purchased a bull. The bull arrived and went straight to work. Now, the next nine months went as you might expect, which is to say farming is not for amateurs. So any mistakes that could be made were made, beginning with breeding cows in March.
Our first cow went into labor and calved on Thanksgiving at 4 o'clock in the morning. This being Michigan, and a particularly cold season in our unheated barn, it died less than an hour later.
Now, seeing his assets frozen on the barn floor drove my father to take desperate steps to sort of protect his remaining investment. So he covered the floor of our family room with a large plastic tarp, put down a bed of straw and brought the remaining cow into the house to have its calf. By noon, both mother and calf were warm and sleeping in the room next to our kitchen. My father put a bale of straw in front of the doorway between the two rooms to keep them in place.
Now, while we were tending to the calves, my mother was in the kitchen banging pots and pans and muttering about it being a family room, not a maternity ward, sort of thing.
Now, every Thanksgiving it was my mother's custom to remove from her china cabinet one small pale green crystal cordial glass into which she would pour a single jigger of sherry to sip while she cooked. At no other time did my mother drink and to the best of my knowledge no other piece of crystal was ever used. Now, she loved this crystal. She used to brag that that crystal was the only thing she had that wasn't second rate or secondhand.
So. The afternoon goes on. Relatives arrive. My grandmother makes a comment about, "What is that awful smell?" but a sharp glance from my mother is enough to keep her from making it a second time.
At 5 o'clock exactly, turkey is put on the table. We all sit down to dinner and my grandfather says grace. Now, while God is being distracted by my grandfather, a lesser spirit overcomes the calf and it leaps over the bale of straw and comes charging into the kitchen and crashes into the table.
What happens next happens really fast. My mother screams, she grabs her cordial glass, stands up, knocking over her chair in the process. My father, more startled by my mother's screams than anything, sort of half stands, half lunges at the calf, which by now has its nose in his plate.
I will never forget that slow motion look of horror on my mother's face as she watches my father rise a little bit and reach for -- but not quite reach -- equilibrium before falling backward into the china cabinet.
Somehow, my father escaped injury but every single piece of crystal shattered. Everything save the one glass in my mother's hand. Now, for a child watching all of this unfold, it was fantastic. But that was our last Thanksgiving together, and for the remainder of their marriage that glass sat on my mother's dressing room table with her wedding ring in it.
For all the years in-between -- on the 4th Thursday of every November, my mother took great pleasure in preparing a dinner of roasted veal.
The Moth Radio Hour is produced by Jay Allison of Atlantic Public Media and presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.