We’d get together with other twenty-somethings if we could, friends from the ski area, fellow instructors, patrollers, lifties. And, assuming we had Thursday night off, we constituted a sort of substitute family. Nobody had time to cook, so our gatherings were more like impromptu parties where we might put together a baña calda: massive amounts of garlic and anchovies in hot oil in which to dip strips of meat. It was fun. And it helped to be drunk.
We didn’t have time to travel to see family. Nor did they come to us, living as we did, Ellen and I, in rented rooms. We weren’t thoughtless, but we were callow, and late November had almost nothing to do with the times I remembered as a kid.
For a bunch of years in the 1950s and 60s, Thanksgiving meant driving up into the southern California mountains to a place called Cuyamaca, where my dad’s parents had built a cabin. A dozen cousins from three families showed up, plus DD and Poppy, whose offspring we all were. Turkeys and yams and pies appeared as if by magic. Of course, the aunties were slaving over the wood-burning stove, but us kids, racing around in air as crisp as cider, hardly noticed. We just ate, and it was wonderful. Especially the cranberry sauce. And we had fires of oak and cedar in the fireplace, and Coleman lanterns hissing on the mantle. And afterward, the grandparents led everyone in a circle game called Priest of Paris.
Each player was assigned a number, and you kept that number unless someone ahead of you was sent back to the beginning; then you moved up a chair and up a number.
“The Priest of Paris has lost his thinking cap,” someone began, “and doesn’t know where to find it. And so calls on (pause) ‘12’ – two, four, six, eight, ten.” And if by the count of ten No. 12 hadn’t responded “I, sir?” he was out, back to the tail end. If No. 12 remembered his number and could spit out “I, sir?” fast enough, the conversation continued. “Yes, sir. You, sir.” “No, sir. Not I, sir.” “Well, who then, sir?”
And at this point No. 12 got to call another number of his choosing, another relative, and begin the countdown. There were so many ways to flub up. Uncle John might look straight at you and call a number on the far side of the circle. You might forget that your number had changed. You could freeze. You could call your own number, a classic goof. The biggest gales of laughter erupted after my father or his father (Poppy) would chime in late and befuddled: “Oh, sir, no, sir. Who meeee, sir?”
It was nerve-wracking, and thrilling, a thing that only happened at Thanksgiving and only to us. And then we would lie in our sleeping bags and watch the dancing orange coals in the fireplace.
Inevitably the family atomized. We all went our separate ways. We got married and had kids of our own. DD and Poppy died. A few of us ended up in Colorado and New Mexico, where we were close enough, and someone would volunteer to host, and we’d bring our little gangs together in Denver or Santa Fe for turkey and stuffing.
We were the Vietnam generation, and we took to playing a cassette (later a CD) of “Alice’s Restaurant” after dessert. Something about Arlo Guthrie’s own “Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat” and his misadventures with the garbage and the draft board that rang true to us. By the end we were all waiting for it to come around on the guitar and singing real loud “to end war and stuff.”
Now those children, the ones who looked askance at their parents laughing about “the 27 eight-by-ten color glossy photographs,” are parents themselves. There are 23 children and 14 grandchildren, so far, descended from my generation of Shelton first cousins. Not only have we moved up a chair to become our parents, we have become our grandparents, too.
My father is the only one left of DD and Poppy’s sons; the others have been sent back to the beginning. The Diaspora is further spread around the continent. Even if we wanted to all get together, there is no one place. The Cuyamaca cabin was reduced to a pile of stones and melted glass by the giant Cedar Fire of 2003.
Cousins Dave and Patty are off to Nashville this year for Thanksgiving, to be joined there by kids who work at Vanderbilt and others flying in from Chicago and Santa Cruz. I don’t know if Jay and Katherine will be able to lure their son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren to Santa Fe from Los Angeles.
Cecily and Mike, and little Boden, are spending the holiday with Mike’s relatives. Ellen and I are driving down to Albuquerque for turkey and mashed potatoes with Cloe and Adam and our two oldest grandkids. It’ll be a couple of years yet before they’re ready, but I think I’m definitely going to have to teach them about the Priest of Paris and his lost thinking cap.