November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday

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By Jack Smith

Thanksgiving was my father's favorite holiday. It may have been his favorite day of the year.

He would rise early, whistling with gusto and singing silly songs in the shower, while mom did all the work in the kitchen.

Dad loved Thanksgiving because it was the one day of the year he was sure to see almost all of his Smith kin, most especially his five brothers and sisters. They were an unusually close set of siblings, their relationships forged by fire with the tragic early death of their mother, who died when the youngest was just an infant, and the premature death of their father, who died when my father was in college after living for years with a broken heart, never remarrying or even dating.

Every Thanksgiving morning, after watching Big Bird, Kermit and others float through Manhattan, we'd pile up in the station wagon and motor through the Wiregrass toward Geneva, home of my namesake. Uncle Jack and his sweet wife,  my Aunt Mill, hosted all the Smiths  every year. They fried up the best hand-breaded chicken fingers you've ever tasted and put out salty Apalachicola bay oysters before any of us even arrived. I ate more fat oysters on Saltines, dripping with tangy cocktail sauce, than one could count.

Mom always brought the mouth-watering homemade dressing, never cooked from a box. For years, she baked a plump turkey in the oven and made gravy from scratch.

Each time one of the siblings and their families arrived at Uncle Jack's, they were greeted with an uproar as though a celebrity had just arrived. There were big hugs and smiles, laughter and commentary on how much the children, usually dressed in khakis and button down shirts we didn't want to be wearing, had grown.

My cousin Mac was in charge of pouring and refilling the champagne, which made the day more fun and interesting as it went on.

My Aunt Janice, an attractive French teacher, and her husband, my Uncle Doug, were usually the last to arrive. The fun didn't start until they had gotten settled in. One year,  Aunt Janice paraded around with a boom box, trying to lead us all in the singing of Handel's Messiah. Another year, I remember her singing something in French and playing conductor on the back steps, trying to get the children too busy playing football to sing along. They didn't.

Aunt Janice, who would hold her chin high while taking drags from her long cigarettes,  was always interested in me and told me she loved me.

My Uncle Maury was the family patriarch, an esteemed and brilliant attorney, always dapper in slacks and a stylish coat. He had a booming voice and a great laugh. Uncle Maury was more than an avid Alabama fan, he was a member of the university Board of Trustees. My favorite part of the day when I was a kid was making my annual $1 Iron Bowl bet with Uncle Maury. In years I'd win, he always sent me a crisp dollar in the mail with a gracious note. I'm not sure I ever paid him.

My Uncle John, who dad always said had more personality than most accountants, was less friendly to any Auburn fan, even his nephew. One miserable year when some demonic TV executives decided the Auburn-Alabama game should be played on Thanksgiving, we all gathered around the television at Uncle Jack's. Uncle John drank a few Coors Lights, "Silver Bullets" he called them, and threw a yellow napkin at my feet on the floor every time Auburn got a penalty. It took me a while to get over that, but I did because he's married to my Aunt Sarah, the kindest person I've ever known. (she went to Auburn).

Uncle Jack and Aunt Mill worked like dogs to make sure we all had plenty to eat and drink. They even put an addition with big windows on their house, mostly for our family reunion.

Uncle Bob, another attorney, always showed up wearing a coat and time, his graying hair neatly combed to the back. He always had a story about his children, my cousins who we loved to get into mischief with during our day in Geneva. Uncle Bob and Aunt June were kind and engaging, and I loved visiting with them even though they were Democrats. We didn't talk politics.

Somehow, Uncle Jack, a contractor with all kinds of big toys on his spacious back lot, never lost his patience with the cousins who played around on his crane and even managed to crank up a diesel truck one year. We couldn't turn it off, so Uncle Jack walked out back and shut down the throttling engine without saying a word.

As teenagers, one cousin and I snuck a half-empty bottle of champagne out of the house and went on a joyride in a field next door. Nobody seemed to notice.

It seemed to take hours for Aunt Mill, her sweet daughters and "the help" to put out all the food, a feast fit for a king. We all ate too much, laughed, and sometimes looked at pictures from the siblings' childhood years or Thanksgivings past. Desert and coffee always followed while the Lions and some other team played a meaningless football game on the living room television.

It always ended too quickly, and we left with full bellies and heavy eyes. The drive home from Geneva to Eufaula was quiet, the autumn orange sun casting long shadows off the pine trees.

We made that trip to Geneva for more than 30 years of my life, and today I cherish those memories. My father, Uncle Jack, Aunt Mill, Uncle Maury, Aunt Cile and Aunt Janice are no longer with us.

What's left of the larger Smith clan won't gather today, but I know we will all reflect on those special days, we will all find something to smile about, and we will all go to bed with full bellies, grateful for the ties that bind, grateful for Thanksgiving memories, and grateful that God put us all on this earth together.