I’m flying to Detroit today to visit my brother Rick, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. A young man, he won’t likely last five more years, and maybe not one more. Those are just the facts.
I don’t tell you this to evoke sympathy, but to explain why I’m reposting this blog from a while back, and to remind you to visit your family because one day they won’t be around to complain about. (That was supposed to sound somber, not wishful.) All my brothers and sisters are flying in to wish him happy birthday, as well as my dad. Mom passed away a long time ago, so it’s the whole family coming. That tells you something.
I hope he’s around for me to whine about having to fly from warm happy Florida to freaking freezing Detroit again next year for his birthday.
Every year at Thanksgiving, when we were kids, my whole family would assemble for a long day of playing football in the back yard, followed by a fantastic, huge Thanksgiving feast. All of the kids in our small Ohio neighborhood will remember the great football games, because it was an annual occasion where, regardless of age, brothers and sisters and cousins and neighbors would play. As we got older, it was even more fun, because it might put a college kid against a grade schooler. Rain, snow, mud; it didn’t matter. The dirtier, the better. Around dusk, the game was disbanded, and the players had to get cleaned up for the grand feast.
Thanksgiving dinner at my house as a kid was great. My grandma and grandpa would drive up from Cincinnati in their car. They were appropriately old, having lived through the Great Depression and all that, but certain things they did made them stand out – like how my grandma always called her car “the machine,” making her seem even older than she was. (When I was really little, I always thought that when she referred to her car as “the machine,” she was talking about a washing machine, and I couldn’t figure out why she was taking a washing machine back and forth from Cincinnati all the time.)
Sometimes we would get uncles and aunts from Cincinnati, too, and our cousins; and as we got older, brothers and sisters would come home from college with girlfriends or boyfriends. Eventually, the married sibling with kids would try to “split” Thanksgiving between our house and the home of their in-laws. Sometimes, our parish priest came to Thanksgiving dinner, a rare treat. He was a big guy, and played football with us, too, with no mercy. He would level you, no questions asked. I suppose he could always ask for forgiveness at work the next day.
We had a big, flat back yard, and playing football in it allowed us all to work up a big appetite for a huge dinner. After cleaning up, we would go into the dining room for dinner. On regular days, we would eat in the kitchen, at the kitchen table; but on special occasions like Thanksgiving, the dining room was required. It had a long table that mom would make even longer with some extra slats that extended it. But of course, that wasn’t enough to seat all the people who would come, so we would place a card table at one end, with some extra chairs. All the nice plates were used – one of the few times during the year that they were ever used – along with the nice glasses, the crystal butter dish (and a plastic margarine tub), fancy pitchers for water and milk… maybe even a few candle sticks! And the aroma of turkey and stuffing filled the air.
So, the kids are squeezed into their chairs, which are placed close to each other, to fit as many people at the table as possible. Side dishes are coming out: cranberry sauce, corn, gravy. The adults are finding their places. Some small talk is being bantered about. My grandma, getting ready to take her seat next to my grandpa, begins to tell us about the pumpkin pies she’d just made from scratch.
Now, you have to understand; grandma and grandpa were a bit of contrasting personalities. Depression Era folks, they worked hard and scraped and saved their whole lives, just like most of our grandparents. Nothing was ever wasted. My grandma was boisterous and outgoing; my grandpa was pretty reserved and quiet. He was really tall; she was short and round. He was nice, polite, and quiet; she was loud – but probably because she was becoming a little hard of hearing about that time, and hadn’t figured it out yet. She didn’t seem loud to herself.
Everybody understands that pumpkins are orange colored, and when you see a baked pumpkin pie, it’s kind of a brownish-orange color. Well, grandma had made some pies from scratch, and she wasn’t happy with how they turned out. As everybody is taking their seats for dinner, and mom is putting the finishing touches on the turkey, grandma is explaining about these pies she’d made. My little brother Rick and I are across the table from her, anxiously awaiting dinner, and dad is seated at the head of the table.
We are truly ready to feast.
Grandma says that the pies had turned out wrong, and she couldn’t figure out why – so she didn’t bring them. Well now, being Thanksgiving and all, that seemed odd, to leave pumpkin pies at home; so I turned my attention to her instead of the noise coming from the kitchen where the turkey was.
Grandma continued. She left the pies at her house because instead of being a nice, deep brownish-orange color, they had turned out….
Green??? I was dumbfounded. How the heck does an orange pumpkin turn into a green pie?
It just seemed amazing to me; the epitome of bad cooking. I had never been a fan of grandma’s cooking – being German, she liked to cook things until she was sure there was no flavor left; her house always smelled like steamed cabbage and canning pickles. In summer, the open windows never quite dispensed those sour aromas out of her house, so it was hard to breathe in there if you were a kid. You wouldn’t go into the basement unless you were with somebody who knew CPR.
Grandma was strict and stern and had very little patience for unruly children, and she let it be known on a regular basis. There were seven of us kids just in my family alone, and I was almost the youngest of the bunch. Add in a few sets of cousins, most of whom were older, and you can see why whatever patience she had for little children had worn out long ago.
So the thought of her cranking out some green pumpkin pies as though a Martian had made them, was too much for us, the aforementioned unruly kids.
My younger brother Rick and I thought that the whole scenario was pretty funny – green pumpkin pies? We began to chuckle.
Dad, of course, was angry at the lack of respect we were showing our grandmother, and quickly told us to pipe down.
Of course, when you’re a kid, trying not to laugh just makes it even harder to not laugh. Rick and I were holding our breath, silently snickering over the thought of Martian pumpkin pies, when grandma dumped a little more gas on the fire:
When she sampled the green pies, they tasted funny, too. Bad. Well, we hadn’t considered that. We figured that the color was wrong but that they tasted okay – such was not the case.
Holding back a disrespectful chuckle is one thing; holding back a bona fide laugh is another. You can only expect so much self control from a kid. Now I was ready to burst. I could feel my ears turning red from holding back my laughter, and Rick was barely holding on next to me. The key to not laughing when you’re in a situation like that is to turn your thoughts away from the source of the laughter and distract yourself. This dinner was too special to get in trouble. I took a careful deep breath and thought about Mom, in the kitchen with the turkey…
Then the next bomb went off.
Grandma’s pumpkin pies were green and they tasted funny, BUT SHE MADE GRANDPA EAT THEM ANYWAY! (Depression Era folks do things like this).
Well, I hadn’t considered that. I thought she sampled the pies, found them to not taste right, and had tossed them out. It didn’t occur to me that she would sit down with her Martian-green, awful tasting pies and actually try to force somebody to consume them. Rick and I are hardly containing our laughter, audibly laughing while doing our best not to. I’m ready to explode. Rick’s shoulders are bouncing up and down so hard, he is hitting me with his elbows. This snorting and chuckling was drawing more attention to grandma’s story.
Dad is getting visibly angry at us. He’s telling us to behave.
We are dying. Rick was turning purple, holding his breath trying not to laugh.
Then came the topper:
“Those must have been the worst pies I ever made,” grandma said.
To which grandpa replied, “Oh, I wouldn’t say that!”
I exploded. I burst into EXPLOSIONS! Explosions of laughter.
Of course, my kind grandpa was trying to say that the pies weren’t very bad. But to Rick and I – and everyone else at the table by now – it sounded like he had said that she’d made lots of things that were worse than green pumpkin pies that tasted bad!
Poor grandpa! No wonder he was so thin!
I think we said these things out loud, too, amongst our laughter, which caused the whole table to erupt. Rick and I were practically crying, we were laughing so hard, and there was no containing our laughter now. Dad was trying to put a lid on grandma’s embarrassment. “Do you want to eat in the basement?” he demanded.
We stopped only long enough to look at each other. “Okay!” we shouted in between laughs, and stood up with our empty plates. We knew we weren’t going to be able to stop laughing, and eating turkey in the basement was better than getting sent to our rooms without dinner, so we took the deal.
On our way to the basement, we figured that since we had paid the price of admission, we could really let loose, so as soon as we were around the corner from the dining room, we just burst. We howled with laughter, repeating grandma’s funniest lines and grandpa’s topper, each revision funnier than the last. We were practically making ourselves hysterical – the kind of laughing that just kind of feeds on itself, and gets funnier and funnier. We just could NOT stop laughing.
Between gasps of air, Rick considered the consequences of not getting turkey on Thanksgiving, a day designated for eating it.
“Are we going to get any turkey at all?” he asked.
“Who cares?” I laughed. “As long as we don’t have to eat any green pie!”
Explosions. We were beside ourselves. My stomach hurt from laughing so much.
As we trudged down to the basement (I guess Mom quickly got us some food on the way down; I don’t remember), we were just laughing like crazy. Whatever words one of us managed to squeak out between guffaws were just indecipherable gasps anyway, and made the other one laugh even harder. Boys of a certain age can do this for hours. Remanded to the basement, we were not constrained by politeness any longer, and we could really let loose with our laughter. We fell down on the spare couches and spun wild variations to each other of grandma’s pie encounter: she had thwarted a Martian takeover of planet Earth by poisoning the invaders with green pies. She was supposed to receive the medal of honor for saving the planet, but the pies were so bad that the president couldn’t go through with it.
We laughed loudly and uncontrollably to ourselves – or so we thought. But as is the case in many old houses up north, the heating ducts run upstairs from the furnace in the basement, and those old ducts can transmit sound pretty good. So all of our noise – sincere, hearty laughter, jokes, and disrespectful commentary – was broadcast straight back into the dining room above us through the heating ducts, for all to hear. And since we weren’t in front of anybody anymore, we didn’t feel the need to be reserved, so we were laughing even louder. And upstairs in the dining room, they were hearing every bit of it.
Eventually, the adults caved in and brought us back up, because they could hear us almost as good from downstairs as they could if we were at the table. We might as well be in the dining room, where we would at least try not to laugh. Besides, two little kids can laugh about something for an hour if left unattended. So they brought us back up from the gallows.
Trying to bail grandma out one last time, Dad said we should apologize to grandma.
The room fell silent as everyone stared at us. I took a deep breath, in hopes of thinking of something that would sound sincere and respectful, but Rick cut me off.
“I’m sorry your pies were green,” He said.
The whole table burst out laughing this time!
BANISHED AGAIN TO THE BASEMENT
We didn’t care. It was one of our best Thanksgivings, ever.
Eventually – about 25 years later – dad came to laugh about it, too.
This story is part of The Long Cutie available on Amazon
I posted it for my little brother Rick, who’s not feeling great right now.