Louisa May Alcott’s “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving”

old-fashioned-thanks-giving-alcott-penguin-s-l300 You’re ready to roast the turkey…you’ve added mushrooms, onion, and chestnuts to the Pepperidge Farm stuffing…the pies are on the counter…and then you get a phone call from your cousin, who has been committed to the mental hospital.  To riff on a phrase from Little Women, Thanksgiving won’t be Thanksgiving without her!

In Louisa May Alcott’s “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” an unexpected  illness also disrupts Thanksgiving.

At the beginning, Mrs. Bassett is cozily preparing the feast the day before the holiday.

“I do like to begin seasonable and have things to my mind. Thanksgivin’ dinners can’t be drove, and it does take a sight of victuals to fill all these hungry stomicks,” said the good woman, as she gave a vigorous stir to the great kettle of cider apple-sauce, and cast a glance of housewifely pride at the fine array of pies set forth on the buttery shelves.”

And then a stranger brings bad news.  Mrs. Bassett’s mother is “failn’ fast.” She and her husband drop everything, promise the children a feast later, and take the sleigh to Gram’ma’s.

The older girls, Prue and Tillie, decide to make the dinner themselves.  They’ve seen Ma do it many times. If you’ve read Little Women, you know the cookery may be iffy.  Jo’s salt instead of sugar in the strawberries doesn’t begin to cover it.

I can’t pretend this one of Alcott’s better efforts, but she is one of our very best American writers, and I have read An Old-Fashioned Girl (my favorite), Little Women, Work (her adult Little Women), and Hospital Sketches many times. I am now breezing throuhg Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, which you can download it free on the internet.

I do wish we had cider apple-sauce at our house.

And I love Alcott’s dialogue (and occasional dialect)!

Tilly Bassett, whatever made you put wormwood and catnip in your stuffin’?” demanded Ma, trying not to be severe, for all the rest were laughing, and Tilly looked ready to cry.

Happy Thanksgiving!  I hope all is well with you and your family.

Happy Thanksgiving! & How We Used to Spend It

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I love Thanksgiving.  It is so quiet it is almost sacred, I swear.

The turkey is thawing and the pies are in the oven.  The tablecloth and napkins are ironed. And I have settled down to read a beautifully-written novel, Elizabeth Berridge’s Rose Under Glass (1961), the story of Penelope Hinton,  a widow in London, her  friendship with a launderette mogul, and a friend’s son who uproots his family from the country to start a publishing company with another ambitious young man.

Reading on Thanksgiving is a luxury, but it is the last peace before the Bacchic frenzy of Merry Capitalism begins. A few years ago I cried after we set up the  Christmas tree.  Very silly, but I dreaded the exchange of extravagant, meaningless presents: that year I didn’t bother to wrap the gifts.  And so we established a new tradition of going to a bookstore and each picking out one book.  It has been a relief for us.

Thanksgiving can be magically quiet, but it is not for everybody.  Somehow holidays are difficult for childless couples and other outsiders. We are not the stars of the Rockwell paintings; we are the peripheral aunts and uncles.  We may feel we have more in common with spinsters than mothers or grandmothers.  Perhaps I am Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe or Jane Austen’s Miss Bates, even though I am married.  And so we learn, like the designated superfluous women we are, to design our own holiday rites.

Our culture  has trouble integrating those who do not fit the ideal niches of family life.  It felt like this in the ’80s; it feels like this now, even though the number of childless women has increased since my youth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, in 2014, 47.6 percent of women between age 15 and 44 had never had children, up from 46.5 percent in 2012.  Another study says that only 6% of these women are childless by choice.  I wonder how many of us are ambivalent.

Nonetheless, we have had happy Thanksgivings.  The history of the Baby Boomers’ Thanksgivings might look a lot like ours.

The 1960s:  prime time for the nuclear family.  My mother never learned to cook, so my grandmother did all the holiday cooking:   turkey, stuffing, ham, three kinds of potatoes, three-bean salad, homemade noodles and rolls, Jell-O, dressing, cookies and pies.  She phoned us when it was ready.  We piled into the car and drive the mile to her house, though we could have walked. So quaint! Close families were literally close!   The men watched football, the women talked and babysat.  Everybody took home leftovers.  Most of us have since scattered to different parts of the country, so this holiday cannot be duplicated.

The early 1970s:  The nuclear family broke up.  At least mine did. So did millions of others. And so one was expected to attend two Thanksgiving dinners:  one with Mom and one with Dad.    One year I dutifully ate turkey in a tiny hick town with my dad, his new wife, and his new stepchildren.  What I remember most vividly:  a boy drove a tractor past the house over and over to signal his love for one of the girls.  OH MY GOD IT WAS SO EMBARRASSING, I COULDN’T WAIT TO GET OUT OF THERE.

The late 1970s: We were students.  One year my boyfriend (now husband) and I cooked turkey legs in the kitchen of the house where I rented a room and then went out for  pie.   Another year we ate with fellow grad students at a Thanksgiving Buffet in the faculty dining room of the Student Union.

The 1980s:  Doing good.   We volunteered at a church’s free Thanksgiving dinner.  What we learned:  people are desperate, poor, mentally ill, and homeless, and the services and shelters are inadequate.  The churches have too many volunteers on holidays and too few the rest of the year.  (And we learned we are better at giving money than mashing potatoes.)

The 1990s:  Physical fitness.   You wouldn’t believe it, but I used to be a jogger.  I ran a 10K or two.   The year I ran the Turkey Trot half-marathon, I got sick.  My husband, a runner, also puked.  He said it was part of athleticism.   Not for me, thank you!

The millennium: A geographical shift. We moved back to the Midwest and spent Thanksgiving with parents, aunts, and cousins, who taught me how to order meals from Harry & David or the Hy-Vee!  My husband sentimentally thinks my home-cooked meal is better.  It is not.

The Twentytens:  I MISS MY MOM, who died in 2013.   Our traditional holiday celebrations have ceased with her death.  That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our turkey dinner with cousins or friends.  We can and do.  But my mother’s generation created our first Thanksgivings.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving

Black Friday:  My idea of hell.

Black Friday: My idea of hell.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

Turkey and dressing: no stress.

Family or no family: no stress.

It’s an excuse to eat.

This year I wish I’d gone to Missouri.

My cousins are gathering there.  They are very smart, but few are conventional.  They experimented, they pushed boundaries, they dropped out, and waited till their thirties to finish college and get regular jobs.  Although I consider myself unconventional, my life really took a predictable trajectory. I was (almost) on time finishing school and getting jobs.

One side of the family is very straight; the other side is creative. Give me the creative side any day.  Show me a manic vet on psychiatric drugs and I’ll show you someone who will make you laugh.  Oh, sure, they’ve got problems, but they make jokes at funerals, tell funny stories about Viet Nam (the only funny stories about Viet Nam you’ll ever hear), and have a good attitude toward a life that was obviously derailed by the military.

And the wonderful women in my family are the steady workers.   If these brilliant gals weren’t favored by big corporations or other good-paying employers, it’s because they’re female or didn’t have the connections.

But there’s the family clash:  your husband doesn’t care for your relentlessly unsuccessful relatives, and you find his family a little dry and by-the-book.

So this holiday we’re home.

I turned on the TV while we ate supper.

I had forgotten all about Black Friday.

Don’t shop.  That’s really the best idea.

I spent so much money in Washington, D.C., that I won’t give presents this year.

But if you want to shop on Black Friday, you should shop for books.

You can read various Best Books of the Year lists to get ready for a day of shopping.

Here are links to some good lists, though they tend to be too long.

The Guardian:  Too long, in my opinion.  Did I really count 39 writers’ suggestions?  More likely 40, don’t you think?  I couldn’t make myself go through them.

The TLS:  Recommendations by 27 writers, including my favorite, Margaret Drabble.  This is part of a longer piece to be published on Friday.  Naturally I read only the bits by writers I know.

The New York Times:  100 Notable Books of the Year (way, way too long).  They haven’t published their best of the year yet.

Amazon’s Best Books of 2013 and Amazon’s Best Books of the Year Celebrity Picks.  I skimmed the list:  Amazon has good taste.  Then I looked at the Celeb list and asked, Do I care what Julianne Moore recommends?  Well, she was one of my mother’s favorite actresses, and turns out she and I both like Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.

Barnes and Noble’s Best Books of 2013:  I haven’t actually looked at this.

I won’t make up my list till the end of the year, but my favorite new books of 2013 are:

Peter Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra

Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings

D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction

Karen E. Bender’s A Town of Empty Rooms

Susan Choi’s My Education

I’ve written about all of these on my blog, but am too tired to give you the links!