Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full
What we’re really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets. I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving? ~Erma Bombeck, “No One Diets on Thanksgiving,”
It’s 6:00PM on Thanksgiving day and the house is like an opium den. Scores of adults are draped over furniture, lying on their sides staring vacantly at the Alcorn State versus Miami of Ohio football game. Most do not even know where Alcorn State is but when sedated with tryptophan, a Pop Warner preseason game can hold one’s attention. The sounds of dishes and glasses being washed somewhere in the distance will not motivate the majority of these living dead to move. They may shift slightly reaching out a pathetic hand, trying to stop a child racing by and co-opt them into bringing them a diet coke.
In the house of my youth, my father and grandfather were always first through our Thanksgiving Day food line. Chivalry died each Thanksgiving at 2:59pm when the lords of the manor felt it was their prerogative to initiate our caroling of consumption. The men would move slowly like bull elephants, surveying each dish like discriminating judges at a Midwestern bake off. To my mother’s horror, they would heap massive portions on their plates, amassing Mt Everests of food. My grandfather would usually stuff a roll in his mouth as he inched along, and would occasionally turn and spray bread crumbs on us saying something completely incomprehensible. “Dad, don’t talk with your mouth full”, my mother would scold him. She was quietly doing the math on food portions and realized that it was now unlikely that anyone under six foot tall would be eating anything other than yams and a couple of green string beans.
Thanksgiving was highlighted by a morning playing smash mouth football at the local elementary school. We pulled every muscle, bent every finger, bloodied every nose and assumed the identity of every pro and college football star over the course two decades of the November Thursdays. Everyone had the same idea and the fields would quickly crowd with familiar and strange new faces. Each kid would show up with relatives from across the country who were making their every other year pilgrimages to visit relations. We filled the offensive line with first and second cousins, kids with strange accents, hailing from exotic places like Dee-moyne and Merry-land. They wore football jerseys with affiliations to schools such as the University of Iowa and The Maryland Terps. In some cases, these kids played dirty using little known adult techniques such as crack back and body blocks. There would be sudden fights, the way animals suddenly turn on each other at a watering hole as they seek alpha status. Just as quickly, punches turned to slaps on the back. “Hey, Hawkeye, good tackle!”
The score of the game was never completely tracked and invariably, the entire game broke down into a massive scrum, once the first group of kids pealed away to go home. Usually a twelve year old girl would ride up to the school fence and yell, “Jimmy, Mom says to get your butt home right now or you are going to be in HUGE trouble..” As we melted away from the muddy grass, we piled through our back door full of dirt and bravado. Our mother would gasp and tell us to remove all our dirty clothes on the back porch. We would sprint naked past a sitting room of elderly relatives, perhaps flashing a rear end in a cheeky response to a dare. Off in the distance, CBS sports announcers, Pat Summeral and Tom Brookshire were overheard discussing some aspect of a pathetic Detroit Lions offense. Thanksgiving was the one holiday likely to be celebrated by everyone you knew irrespective of their religious affiliation. A baking turkey blended with the aroma of sautéed onions and stuffing created the most reassuring of all moods. It was a time for family – -no distractions, gifts, holiday cards, competing social obligations, religious services or pressured traditions. It was about eating and talking with your mouth was full.
Thanksgiving also heralded the beginning of the season of family dysfunction. Like the swallows returning each year to the California Mission at San Juan Capistrano, age old scars and disagreements could suddenly flare. “Liberals” and “Conservatives” were terms assigned to people as we listened to the generations of adults debating the economy and foreign policy. I ascertained enough to learn that liberals were really enemy Soviet agents and were doing their best to turn America into a Baltic state. For example, LA’s newly created HOV lane, known as the “Diamond Lane“ was created by a liberal who wanted to encourage you to have more children so you could get more money from welfare. I assumed that meant the majority of the cars in that lane were driven by Catholics. I was not sure what welfare was but I began to suspect having more than four kids was a great financial burden. Why else would you need financial assistance?
Our governor was Ronald Reagan. He could do no wrong. He looked like the guy you wanted to give the ball to on the last play of the game because somehow he would score. In this era of less political correctness, the tenor and tone grew sharper as the meal wore on. My Mom would pretend not to hear. My grandmother was from a generation that had long since abandoned personal views that differed from her husband. My grandfather would nod in agreement and pour himself his fourteenth scotch. This was the stuff Norman Rockwell brushed over a bit in his painting.
As the voices rose, every woman would excuse herself, ostensibly to help clean up, but really to escape the dogma and vitriol. It was a sort of dine and dash. We loitered near the table torn by boredom and the hope to overhear one of my father’s infamous blue streaks of swear words. No amount of pumpkin, pecan or apple pie could anesthesize his dislike for Democrats. As we got older and the table filled with socially responsible daughter-in- laws and independent thinking spouses, my father softened his words and picked his metaphors more carefully. Yet, his passion and his deep conviction could not always be restrained. Thanksgiving was a time to be grateful and gratitude included appreciating those that kept our economy chugging, our country safe from foreign interests and our minds out of the gutter. It seemed reasonable, just a little devoid of compassion. My mother would always try to stem the bellicose editorial by suggesting, “Honey, don’t talk with your mouth full”.
Today, the bodies are still draped across the house like accident victims. The Thanksgiving topics are more politically correct. However, the epicenter remains family – – the chance to fill rooms with the voices of generations, laughing, debating, wrestling, struggling, rising and falling. The spirit of Thanksgiving is still all about “us”. We are a unit – – a team that looks out for one another, tolerates each other’s strange foibles and diverse political views and remain deeply bonded by the fact that no one on earth knows us better or loves us more unconditionally.
John-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell, is other people”. When it comes to Thanksgiving, hell is an empty house and having someone NOT tell you not to talk with your mouth full. .