Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Magic*

Granny on the far right, Daddy behind.
In pink, cousin Shaina, her brother Troy then
their Mom Jackie, my 1st cousin, in back.
Slowly, I stirred from sleep. My sister and I had rolled to the centre of the bed, the old mattress having given up a long time ago. The Green Room of my Grandmother's house was still mostly dark, the slight hint of crisp autumn light diffused through the carefully appointed curtains of a woman who lived through the Great Depression. It wasn't a green room like behind the scenes of The Late Show or the Really Late Show or the Extremely Late Show. Everything was green, and all the furniture belonged to a matching set. There against the wall was my Pawpaw's desk, filled with wonderful treasures that captivate me even now that I'm a fully-grown, travelled adult. Nestled in the neat middle drawer that in modern desks now houses keyboards: his Police Department cuff links, his brother's Purple Heart, his sunglasses, and the faintest whiff of him. The side drawers were crammed with other memories and old calendars. The bed frame was the same green, a shade from the 1950s or 60s, it looked like peas and you could see brush strokes on its surface. The side tables too. The only closet in the room was filled with my Granny's off-season clothes, old coats and a simple suitcase she used on the rare occasions she travelled. Crammed on the top shelf were Christmas decorations and sitting there, staring at you every time you opened the door, was the vintage light-up Santa, waist high, his beaming face more Norman Rockwell than Stephen King. 

Today the Green Room was also the getting ready room, as its name would suggest. We were lulled out of the deep, safe sleep of children by the scent of things baking and roasting in the kitchen down the hallway. My Granny would have her apron on, her grey, permed hair sprayed to almost scientific levels of perfection - she'd be wearing her best Thanksgiving outfit. Like everything she touched, neat as a pin. My Uncle Joe was already up, humming to himself - usually a gospel hymnal - while he strolled about. My Aunt Bobbie was probably in the kitchen, helping Granny or out on the porch drinking coffee, watching the sun rise. My Dad might be scrounging around his truck or working on something outside, oil already staining his denim overalls. Uncle John would be late, his clan coming from the great city of Houston to the south. They always brought the pecan pie, my favourite. 

Outside, mist hovered over the lake my Pawpaw built (if that is the way to describe how something like that is made), conjuring memories of the super 8 video of him doing it. I couldn't gaze out over the modest body of water without thinking of that snickety imagery rolling through the ancient film projector, the staccato movements of my dearly departed Grandfather and that excavator that seemed as big as a dinosaur to me. A black and white fantasy, overlayed and intermingled with any present view of Bagwell Lake. 

"Come on, get up lil' biddies" my Granny said, as she - hunched over and creeping comically - approached us. We giggled under the covers. She somehow gathered us up in a hug, her soft face pressed against the bits of ours that stuck out. She smelled like lightly perfumed face cream and body powder, hairspray and love. I don't remember what we did to actually 'get ready'. We were wild, country born kids. My best guess is that we wandered out in our hand-me-down, too big pajamas, wiping sleep from our eyes, our bare feet on the brown, shag carpet, to be presented with breakfast. We were well looked after. How my Granny did all that, cooked for a huge extended family - starting even weeks in advance - and kept smiling, kept laughing, looking beautiful...well it's a lesson I never learned from her. I know very few who could accomplish the things she did, with an almost unswayable positivity. She was the most happy, vivacious and caring spirit I will ever know. And everything she did was magic.

The dining table was a round, dark brown and shiny prize that my Granny kept polished - up close it smelled like lemon Pledge. A chunky central column supported the table top and created an entire world underneath for my sister and I who would play, colour, annoy feet or legs, and sometimes even nap. That day, as all days, the glossy surface was covered with a clean tablecloth. In the middle were culinary delights of all sorts, and people took turns sitting around it, talking, laughing and between bites, praising what was before them. The kitchen, visible from the dining table, was long and all the counter tops were covered with food and serving utensils. Sitting in front of the fireplace on the brick hearth, at folding TV tables all over the living room, even outside in the chilly fall air, were people I loved coveting paper plates stacked high. The only time we were all together at once, was to pray just before we ate. In Texas, you always pray. 

I have so many great memories of Thanksgiving in Flat Prairie, East Texas. My Mom would show up late morning and begin debating with my Uncle John almost immediately while his wife, Anne - a dear and gentle soul - would be assisting Granny with the incoming onslaught of taste sensations. My sister and I would be outside, playing games with cousins. So many cousins. There would be football on the TV, people napping intermittently, voices drifting here and there - my Granny's siblings who lived nearby would pop in and say hello, giving us those soft, yet strong, cuddles that seemed to be a staple of the Bagwell family. All the while we ate. There were roast meats, vegetables, country dishes, things only grown ups enjoyed (cranberry sauce, yuck) and desserts like you wouldn't believe. We ate, and we ate, and we ate some more. 

Sweet Anne and Aunt Bobbie in front,
cousin John T and Uncle Joe in back
This was completing a ritual, a family tradition held for generations. It was a gathering to celebrate times that were plentiful, because we all had times that weren't. 

My Granny picked cotton when she was young. She would get up before the sun and come home after it had switched shifts with the moon. It was back breaking work, the proceeds of which went to the family to keep them all fed and clothed, to keep bill collectors at bay. There were 13 mouths to feed all up, and everyone contributed. After she died in 2011, I helped clean her house and I found many of her rainy-day caches. Milk bottle caps, ziploc bags that had been washed for re-use, buttons, toothbrushes and best of all, mostly-used soap which she used to collect, melt down and make into marbled bars of new soap - nothing wasted. As a family, we knew the value of a good meal, and we had to celebrate and give thanks for what we did have, when we had it. 

I haven't been home for Thanksgiving in 17 years, favouring the summer months to venture back to Texas. The only time I get truly, achingly homesick, is the last Thursday of November. It's not the only time I miss my Granny, I miss her every day. But I miss my family in Texas and that house, the house my Pawpaw built, full of memories and so much affection, so much rich, deep, warm love. My Aunt Bobbie is gone, her daughter Tracy, my father - but they all exist still in that house on Bagwell Lake. And amongst the living who go there to eat and reminisce, the dead put their hands on shoulders, press their lips to foreheads and welcome family home. 

When Tracy's brother Quentin posted online that it was snowing at Granny's this year, I thought how tickled she would be if she could see it. But then, of course, she had. 

*Apologies for another post NOT about movies.