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The Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past

Evenings get chillier. Days get shorter. Thanksgiving arrives, which is always a special holiday at our house. This is the happiest one I will ever have. Waking up to pancakes, the kitchen is already holiday humid from boiling potatoes. The turkey is roasting in Mom’s enameled Nessco oven. The pies my grandpa sent over are waiting on the Formica counter. We have so much tradition going that there should be a fiddler on our roof.

After the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, on which I will someday work, Mom bundles me up in my new coat with the shearling collar. Just before Art and I walk out the side door, she says, “Wait! I almost forgot. Grandma Fiore made something for you boys!” She quickly returns with a small box. An old lady cologne of spicy lavender joins the cornucopia of Thanksgiving scents already filling the kitchen, getting stronger as each layer of tissue paper is peeled away.

From the box, she pulls two knit caps. The grown-up-sized one for Art is shaped like a roasted turkey, with drumsticks popping out from his temples. Mine, the kid-sized cap, has a colorful cascade of knit turkey feathers fanning out across the back. The gift is completed with matching mittens for me and gloves for Art. Fun and more playful than I think of my grandma ever being.

When I’m an adult, I will pull these from the same box and wear them with Art’s kids. As I push the hats onto their tiny, perfect heads, I’ll tell them all about the best aspects of their Great-grandma Emma, who would’ve loved them very much.

For some reason, our little house is the one everyone comes to for the holidays. As such, Art and I climb into his car to pick up all the widows and spinsters - a word which we have yet to learn is diminishing to women choosing not to marry. I try not to use that word, even though I am using it now, in the historical context.

Our first stop is to the home of Great-Aunt Louise. She’s a firecracker. Aunt Louise has buried three husbands so far, one of whom was named Bunny. How and why was a grown man named Bunny? How I wish I’d asked.

We listen to “Alice’s Restaurant” on WHA, which will become another tradition. We will listen to it each Thanksgiving we’re together while making the widow run.

I have the chorus memorized and begin to sing along with it.

“You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant … “

It’s a long song. We collect Aunt Louise well before it’s over. She sings along in her sharp, church lady soprano. After the song ends, she puts her hand on Art’s shoulder, sneaks up behind us from the backseat, and says, “What a foolish war.”

“By the way, boys,” she adds. “I love your hats. I’d recognize Emma’s needlework anywhere.” Holding up her own gnarled, arthritic hands, she looks a little wistful. “Oh well. Still so much to be thankful for – happy Thanksgiving!”

When we get home with Aunts Louise, Judy, Judy, Addie, and Gladys, the nice lady who works at Grandpa’s bakery, our house is bursting at the seams. Art's girlfriend Nancy is passing out trayed appetizers she made herself. Canapes, I think they’re called. Boy is her family fancier than ours. My sister Suzy is here with, “A long-haired hippie type,” according to my Uncle Philip who is here from Minneapolis. Both grandmas are helping Mom cook in a friendly alpha matriarch competition.

My Grandma Triggs. Tiny. Birdlike. Always well dressed in a dotty, older British lady way. She desperately loves my grandpa, which explains the blonde rinse she puts in her hair once a month. Thick glasses exaggerate her expressive eyes. She is perhaps the most family-oriented person I will ever know. I love her so much. How I’ll miss her when she passes away in ten years.

She and my grandpa met when she was a dance hall singer in London during World War I. As I understand it from others, she never would have told me herself; she was also a model. I have a beautiful photo of her wrapped in furs which was sold as a postcard all over England. Doughboy soldiers carried Phyllis Tinkum Triggs into fox holes throughout Europe. As an adult I'll keep my copy next to the souvenirs she brought home from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

Grandma and Grandpa married in England. They moved to America after their second son, my dad, was born. In total, they had six boys. Phyllis Triggs was the only woman in the household. Perhaps that’s why she always seems just a little bit nervous. Keeping them all in line had to be draining.

Her fourth son, Gregory, is drafted into service during the Korean War when he’s nineteen-years old. He’s the first soldier from Wisconsin to be killed. His young body will never be recovered. She will spend the rest of her life combing newspaper obituaries so she can attend the funerals of soldiers who died in battle. She needs to see for herself that the other bodies come home, I suppose. Who knows? Grief isn’t rational.

Keeping a list of the fallen, she prays for them while clutching her well-worn rosary.

When my grandfather passes away, six years and four months from now, she will be sad in a way that will never end. She’ll stop visiting the bakery. She will wear his robe to bed. She will cry each time his name is mentioned, so much so that, for a while we will stop talking about him. When she realizes what we’re doing, she will say, “Please don’t do that. I don’t want the world to forget my Billy.”

Afterward, her heart will be a little lighter – not for herself, for her family, and to hear his name said by someone other than herself.

A converted Catholic, she will suffer a major stroke while attending church the Monday after her final Mother’s Day. Her last words will be to a priest administering last rites.

“Don’t worry about me, Father. I’m going to be just fine.”

Her funeral will be led by my Great-uncle Father Francis. My two Great-aunts, Sisters Alma Rita and Mary Rita, will play their guitars. Butch will accidentally say, “Pray their guitars.” They’ll be thrilled and say it that way for the rest of their lives.

Service families will be standing at the back of a packed church.

I will be a pallbearer. For weeks afterward, I’ll wonder if I did a good enough job for her body to have been laid to rest perfectly, as she deserved.

That is years from now. Today she’s sneaking a little more salt into Mom’s corn casserole. She’s mad at Grandpa because he’s at the bakery making sure people can pick up their last-minute orders. “I said, ‘Billy, how many family holidays are you going to miss’?”

Aunt Louise, three times a widow, solemnly nods.


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