The ingredients for the perfect Leventry Thanksgiving meal are as follows: Loads of family, plenty of fattening food, clean spoons for hanging from our faces and lots of laughter. Mix it all up at Grandma's house in Ohio and you have one terrific turkey day.
In 1995, that recipe changed.
In October, my Grandmother suffered a stroke. It wasn't all that severe, but still a jarring reminder to us that the family matriarch--the woman who had survived the death of a child and her husband, not to mention raising my father--was not made of steel. A feisty, petite, life-long Republican whose favorite cuss word was shinny, Betty Bush Leventry was the embodiment of grace under pressure and the bond that held the family together. Her recovery was rapid and the speech therapist was impressed with her swift recall of language. She would tire easily, but Betty "No Problem" Leventry refused to slow down too much.
When we arrived at Grandma's that Thanksgiving Eve, everything was as it should be: Reader's Digest and Guideposts in the bathroom, vegetable soup cooking on the stove and turkey-shaped salt and pepper shakers on the table. Grandma seemed more frail than usual, but full of good cheer. There was nothing to stop the usual descent into silliness that occurred when my family gathered together. Not even the omnipresent shadow of grandma's recent stroke.
Almost the entire clan was present--Aunt Jane and uncle Bob, cousin Beth and her husband at the time, my brother Rick, his wife Tracy and their daughter Kate, and my rarely seen cousin Bill and his girlfriend Elaine. It was a full house, except for my parents who were in Ecuador working for the Peace Corps.
That morning started out like any other Thanksgiving morning, a flurry of cooking mixed with moments of watching the Macy's parade. We practically had to tie grandma to a comfy chair to keep her from bustling about organizing things. As it turned out, we needed her help.
We had forgotten to defrost the turkey.
Sure, we probably had 40 years of combined cooking experience in that household, if not more, but somehow that big bird had slipped our minds.
We tried desperately to defrost it, probably using every method considered unacceptable by any food safety organization. Eventually, we were reduced to having my brother ice pick away at the insides so we could remove the neck and giblets. My grandmother was terribly amused. As was her neighbor, Peggy Caughlin who couldn't believe the ineptitude collected in that kitchen when she stopped by that morning.
We hadn't even bought a turkey pan. Luckily, Peggy's daughter had an extra.
The rest of the meal went off in typical Leventry fashion. Photographs of the overabundant table were taken, Grandmother said grace, food was served and frenzied eating commenced. Only after the meal did the true festivities begin.
That's when my family participates in an activity known as spoon hanging. For those unfamiliar with the art, it consists of skillfully dangling spoons from one's nose, chin, cheek, anywhere that there's an angle. The entire family participates and the winning "hang" is hotly contested. That year, I finally managed to outmaneuver my cousin Beth, who, up until then, had been the reigning sovereign of the silverware.
Grandmother sat at the end of the table with her friend Peggy, both wearing purple blouses. It reminded the family of a favorite poem that begins: "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me." These eccentricities, according to the poet, are to "make up for the sobriety of my youth." My family certainly makes up for any "youthful sobriety" every time we sit down to eat.
Intermixed with the festival of flatware were stupid napkin tricks, silly camp songs and more laughter than you can shake a drumstick at. Grandma never had to say anything, but you could tell that just being with her family, in her home, on that day was the ultimate happiness. You would never have known that she was ill. You would never have suspected that her family was deeply worried. It was as it should be . a grateful celebration.
After the pie and whipped cream, we retired to the living room to watch the traditional NBC airing of "The Sound of Music," and watch my niece tuck in potatoes as if they were baby dolls being put to bed. We put together puzzles, we talked, we laughed, we spent Thanksgiving as we had spent many before. But would never again.
My grandmother passed away about three weeks later.
Every year at this time I think of Grandma, and how Thanksgiving hasn't been quite the same without her. My family no longer gathers in its entirety. We still spoon hang, but silly napkin tricks aren't quite as silly over the phone. Yet Thanksgiving is still a time to count our blessings, and number one on my list is this: I am thankful that I was able to spend one last Thanksgiving with my Grandmother in the traditional Leventry manner, full of food and full of laughter.