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Constance Alexander: Thanksgiving: Canned cranberry sauce with a side of family memories

When I was growing up, creamed onions and Scotch whiskey were essential to a proper Thanksgiving. The onions paid homage to Mother’s Irish heritage, and the whiskey a wink to Daddy’s ancestry.

Besides the big bird, two kinds of potatoes — mashed white and sumptuous sweet – topped the list. Baskets of Parker House rolls added more temptation, with enough butter to clog even the spunkiest arteries. Offering more color to the fare were fresh carrots, string beans, stuffing, and homemade gravy, steaming and studded with – ugh! – chunks of turkey giblet.

Creamed onions rounded out the meal. Not canned, but the white pearly kind were gently boiled and then tucked into a white sauce thick enough to repair loose bricks in the chimney.

(Photo courtesy Farmer’s Almanac)

No one would have missed the cranberry sauce but Mother. She always remembered. At the last minute, still quivering from the rush to get it out of the can, a plate of glistening ruby circlets appeared at the table, thus completing the feast.

In addition to the seven in our immediate family, Thanksgiving usually meant that Aunt Marge and Uncle Jim took the train from New York to spend the holiday weekend in New Jersey. They were not blood relatives at all, but childhood friends of my father from Canada. We called them aunt and uncle because the connection went all the way back to St. Malachy’s in St. John, New Brunswick, where winters were so fierce there were days they had to climb out upstairs windows of their houses and snowshoe to school.

Aunt Marge was a nurse who worked for a fancy doctor in the City, where she was valued for her unstinting calm and wry good humor. We loved her for those traits, but also cherished the stack of thin silver bracelets she always wore. As babies, we all had teethed on them, and she could point out which tiny dents belonged to each Alexander child. Or so she claimed.

My father and Uncle Jim had served in World War I together. Their accounts of military duty in Belgium and France made the effort sound more like a war on sobriety instead of one to make the world safe for democracy. Nevertheless, the Allies won. After Armistice, Daddy and Uncle Jim sought their fortunes in the U.S. and, according to the 1930 census, were roommates in New York City until work and marriage took them in different directions.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Whenever the two got together, they swapped the same old stories, or parts thereof. All one of them had to do was mention a name or a place, and the other would start chuckling at the shared memory. The question, “Remember Lottie Hornett?” was guaranteed to get the two of them in such a state they ended up hooting with laughter and wiping tears from their eyes.

Since they never completed any anecdote about the mysterious Ms. Hornett, we never understood the source of their mirth. Aunt Marge knew, but never let us in on the joke. In fact, she spent a lot of time reminding Uncle Jim there were children present. At the same time, my mother glared at my father and banished us from earshot with a sweep of her hand.

Aunt Marge and Uncle Jim had no children of their own, and we all secretly agreed it was sad because Aunt Marge would have made a wonderful mother. Uncle Jim’s potential as a parent, however, was suspect. Not only was he impatient and brusque, he was an opera bully who tuned in to the broadcasts from the Met every Saturday afternoon no matter what. When he visited us, he insisted that we share this special treat with him.

“Opera’s good for you,” he declared, and we were too cowed to protest.

For most of my growing up years, our Thanksgiving routine was the same. Aunt Marge and Uncle Jim arrived Wednesday night after work and the party lasted through the weekend. The whole time, children under twelve were relegated to meals at a rickety card table in the corner of the dining room, while the adults languished at the big table with the finest silver and china. Despite cast-off dishes and unmatching cutlery, we kids enjoyed our exile, for it meant we could make faces and plot revenge when the adults weren’t looking.

We plowed through leftovers until Sunday, when the carcass was ready to be transformed into soup. We packed up the last slices of turkey and vestiges of cranberry sauce and creamed onions to send them home on the train with Aunt Marge and Uncle Jim.

As far as I know, those two never cooked a turkey of their own.

This Thanksgiving, where tables for two may be the norm because of COVID-19, StoryCorps has developed a first-of-its kind platform that enables you to record an interview with a loved one remotely about Thanksgiving memories using video conference technology. The audio and a still photo from each interview goes into the StoryCorps archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. For more information, go to https://storycorps.org/.

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