I look forward to the holidays because of their timelessness and tradition. They are islands of stability in the swirling sea of life. Outpost’s where the material, give way to the emotional. Day’s when we do things the way we always have. The way we have since we were children. We eat the same foods, smell the same smells and visit with family.
To me, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the most important holidays. They’re the ones I remember. They’re the most traditional. However, one Thanksgiving stands out because it was different. The food was different and I learned what was important in life, and what being truly thankful meant.
We were living on Commodities. This was before Idaho had food stamps. Commodities were the basics. It was all good food but you had to cook it. Flour, sugar, dry beans, canned meat, rice, cheese, butter and powdered milk. There were other things too, but you get the idea. We never went hungry, but there weren’t any extras.
The holidays were going to be pretty spare. My brother Joe and I were old enough to know it. Our younger brothers and sisters didn’t really understand. I was in Fourth Grade, Joe in Sixth. The rest of us ranged from Second Grade to three years old.
Instead of turkey we’d have venison steak. They’d been given to us by some Native American friends and Dad had been saving them. I remember him putting the steaks on the broiling pan with a big hunk of butter and sliding them into the oven.
Mom managed cranberries from somewhere, and there was pumpkin from the garden for pies. The house was full of good smells and a football game was playing on the seventeen inch black and white Zenith television. We kids were probably playing, or looking through the dog eared JC Penny Christmas Catalog.
We set the table with our good plates and the crocheted white tablecloth that seemed immune to stains. The plates had come as premiums with a full tank of gas from an Atlantic Richfield Service Station years earlier. They were off-white with daisy decals and included a matching saucer and coffee cup. One of the plates spun because it’s bottom was convex and we used to fight over who got it. Mom and Dad would usually end up taking it to end the squabble.
I think we were about half done with dinner when the black plastic rotary dial phone rang. I jumped up and answered it thinking it might have been grandpa and grandma calling to wish us a happy Thanksgiving.
“Ready residence.” I couldn’t understand the voice on the other end. It was garbled. I had to ask several times who they wanted to speak too. I finally figured out they wanted to talk to Dad.
Dad had been a radio DJ in his younger years and always cleared his throat before speaking on the phone
“Hello.” His eyes looked from side to side and his face fell. “I’m so sorry. We’ll be right there.”
The feeling in the room changed. Dad didn’t say anything but you could tell by his face something was wrong. He lowered the receiver as if it had suddenly become very heavy.
“Little Ralph’s dead.”
“He just died.” He looked at Mom. “Big Ralph and Gloria are at St. Joe’s. I told him we’d be right down.”
My brothers and sisters and I looked at each other in disbelief. Little Ralph was our age. He was younger than me, but older than my sisters. We’d met him and his family when we lived in Kamiah. They were the ones who’d given us the venison steaks.
I think I remember Mom looking at us around the table before she got up. But then, maybe it’s just a trick of time. They got their coats from the bedroom, told us to do the dishes and put the dinner away and left.
My brother Joe was in charge because he was oldest. He’d usually started bossing us around as soon as Mom and Dad were gone, but not this time. This time it was different. It felt more solemn. We had everything done and put away by the time they returned.
It was an infection. It was simple as that. Little Ralph had been sick for a few days and died. Death was something that happened to old people, or bad guys on TV. We never thought it could happen to us. I realized at that moment how valuable my family was. I was in a warm house surrounded by my mom and dad and brothers and sisters. The things we didn’t have weren’t so important anymore.
Dad’s gone, so’s my brother Pat. I’m not sure who’ll be next to leave the table. In time we’ll all pass from the earth and become nothing but memories. Finally, they’ll be no one left who remembers, and even our memories will be gone.
I take the last stanza from Henry Austin Dobson’s : The Paradox of Time
How far, how far, O Sweet,
The past behind our feet
Lies in the even-glow!
Now, on the forward way,
Let us fold hands, and pray;
Alas, Time stays,-we go!