My mother pulled the turkey out of the oven and moved its leg delicately to test doneness. She didn’t use a meat thermometer. If the leg wiggled easily, the bird was done, and this one was perfect. She touched it again. The turkey squawked loudly. Apparently, it didn’t understand that it was dead. Startled, mother dropped the bird on the floor where it lay in a puddle of juices. Clearly, this Thanksgiving was not going to be like any other.
That Thanksgiving of 1952 was one of the first years that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was televised nationally, but this was the first year we owned a brand new black and white television set to watch it on. It was also the year my aunt Vi’s boyfriend spent the holiday in jail. This made for a very tense gathering even before the turkey gave its last aria.
Aunt Vi was morose. We all assured her that her friend’s incarceration would surely prove to be a mistake and the valuable items found in his room were probably just there for safekeeping. Aunt Vi remained morose.
Vi was my mom’s baby sister, the youngest of eight kids. She was also a professional wrestler, one of the Golden Girls who revolutionized professional wrestling in the ‘50’s. She was advertised as “A National TV Star—the fastest and strongest little lady in wrestling today.” It says a lot about our family that no one found this particularly unusual. After all, four of her brothers were also wrestlers, and my great uncle Lou Franco was reputed to be the man who was hired to rebuild the railroad tracks that Lawrence of Arabia blew up in 1917 at Mudowara, or maybe it was Medina. Lawrence blew up a lot of tracks. The details were sketchy, but we took unpredictable people in stride.
Still, when Vi was morose, her behavior tended to be alarming. In extreme situations, she bit people. And she was none too fussy about whom she bit.
As we sat down for dinner, everyone edged away from her. She actually had an empty chair on either side of her at that crowded table. My mother followed the Old World custom of leaving a vacant chair at the table for the Christ child. This symbolized hospitality for an unexpected guest. In this case, if Jesus had been overcome with a need for vocal turkey and green bean casserole, he could have brought a friend.
Today, when there’s a different protest for each day of the week, it’s easy to forget that my generation grew up during the Cold War in the sure and certain conviction that one day soon Russian planes loaded with A-Bombs would fly overhead and that would be the end of everything. We never thought in terms of “If.” It was always “when.” My goal, I remember, was “if I can only live to be 16.” Air raid drills at school were frequent. When the signal came, we would all curl up under our desks and wait. In those days, girls were required to wear dresses to school and the teachers never seemed to realize that the boys were using the opportunity to catalog the girls exposed panties for later discussion. I thwarted them as my dingy undies were not worth discussing. I proudly maintain that standard today.
The hydrogen bomb was detonated for the first time on Nov. 1,1952, and Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president on Nov. 4. The hope was that now, surely, with weapons so terrible, they’d never be used at all. The polio vaccine and the transistor radio were developed the same year. Thanksgiving dinner for 10 cost $6.52. The turkey was the big part of the meal at $2.97.
My mother was still in the kitchen fussing over the turkey. Apparently, air had gotten trapped inside the bird that caused the gobble (something that couldn’t happen with today’s processing methods). We gave the bird a cosmetic restoration, ignored its cries of distress and carried it to the table. The turkey uttered a last small squawk. Everybody’s a critic.
The TV dinner would be invented in 1953 when the Swanson company found itself with 260 tons of leftover Thanksgiving turkey and had to do something with it. It turned out that Vi’s boyfriend really was a crook. He stayed in jail and aunt Vi happily married a carnival magician and went back on the road. The world is still here. We ate the turkey.
Where you can meet Dorothy
Book signings for “True Tales of Puget Sound” by Dorothy Wilhelm:
Nov. 30: Job Carr Cabin Museum, Tacoma, 1-4 p.m.
Dec. 4: Bartell Drugs, University Place, noon-4 p.m.