I’m haunted, redeemed by Thanksgivings past

A visit to Lowe’s shortly before Halloween was a preview of hell. Everywhere I turned, I saw decorations for Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas all merged into a torture chamber bedecked with lighted trees, inflatable grinches, pumpkins, scarecrows and turkey fryers.

I buried my head in a vat of fake snowflakes and screamed.

Soon, I figure, we’ll have no breaks between our celebrations and stores will be brimming all year with New Year’s Eve confetti, Valentine’s hearts, Easter baskets, red-white-and-blues for Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day – and gifts, gifts, gifts.

The effect of so much giving-and-receiving in the so-called spirit of the season is that no season is special. What, after all, is more depressing than a year-round Christmas store? I know, I know, starving puppies.

Don’t get me wrong: I love special occasions as much as anyone and enjoy decorating as much as the next maximalist. But to all things there is a season. We don’t have time to enjoy one season before the next one is banging at the door. It’s all exhausting and depleting, which is why so many of us love Thanksgiving.

For me, it’s the day I most associate with my father, the Ghost of Thanksgivings Past and my only parent during much of my childhood. No one loved the day more than J. Hal Connor, a.k.a. Popsie.

Sometimes married, sometimes not, he was always the chef, and the kitchen his beloved domain. Whenever I think of him, he’s always in the kitchen. His “happy place,” a term he would have despised, was spectacular in a dream-driven way. It contained all his favorite things and was arranged for conversation over-seasoned with jokes and laughter.

The room was big enough for a large fireplace and indoor grill built into a recessed space along one wall. Furnishings included a hand-hewn rocking chair, a lazy-Susan table, and two comfy club chairs for (and only for) Bandit and Nero, his dogs. An oversized butcher block that he had coaxed from a local grocer was the room’s centerpiece.

I see him standing at his cooking island, his Command Central, which was crowned with a gleaming copper hood. Did I mention that he had obsessive-compulsive disorder? We know that now, but at the time no one recognized his perfectly sharpened No. 1 Mirado pencils as such. They were always sharp — when did he do this? — and ready for his daily crossword puzzle and housed in a sterling cup engraved with the words, “Young Man of the Year.”

J. Hal’s preparations for Thanksgiving began days in advance, beginning with his purchase of a special-order turkey that was comparable in size to a sack of soccer balls. Said bird would be lovingly massaged with butter, salt and pepper. He buttered and seasoned the turkey inside as well and made sure to slather beneath the wings and legs. Into the cavity went a whole onion, an apple and orange, and stuffing made from Pepperidge Farm breading mixed with celery, onion, assorted giblets, poultry seasoning and broth. I told you it was big.

He put the bird in the oven at 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day for a long, slow roast at 200 degrees. This meant staying up all night, of course, which was accomplished with the aid of adult beverages, “ciggy-poos,” as his daughters called them when bumming from dear ol’ dad. For all we knew, he was holding seances out there in the kitchen and burning his favorite incense, “Campfire Memories,” which reminded him of campouts with his father way back when in northern Illinois.

When the turkey emerged from the oven a golden brown that can only be duplicated by God or Photoshop, the chef placed it on his butcher block with the reverence of someone placing an offering on an altar, there to rest until dinnertime.

But first, the gravy!

His was no ordinary gravy. It was labor-intensive, requiring endless stirring and patience, a consortium of giblets that had stewed for hours, a loaf of white bread for frequent tasting, and grease. It was, to borrow one of his favorite words, scrumptious, and probably lethal, too. I suspect his gravy, along with other World War II-era “delicacies,” contributed to his first heart attack at 50 and his last one at 72.

I can’t match his talents in the kitchen, nor would I try. I gave up ciggy-poos long ago and can’t match his tolerance for long, haunted nights. But I’m grateful that his spirit persists in haunting me about this time each year, and that his kitchen remains a memory filled with love, laughter – and the occasional provocation. Nothing’s perfect.

The importance of such rituals can’t be overestimated nor more longingly missed when gone. This is the reason for rituals after all — to invite new generations to become part of the memories they’ll look back on and someday remember how much they were loved.


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