When I was a little girl, Thanksgiving dinner preparations started in July.
We might have roast turkey or sweet potato pie anytime there was a large crowd coming to dinner. But pickled peaches were a delicacy, reserved for state occasions and religion-sanctioned holidays. Like Thanksgiving.
"Getting ready for Thanksgiving” officially began on whatever hot day in July Daddy came home with a couple of bushels of glowing, golden peaches.
With Mama issuing orders, we sprang into action. No cooking dinner today. Yellow freestone peaches (not too big, not too small) at the exact, perfect stage of ripe-yet-firm and ready to be pickled, waited for no woman.
My brother David (In my movie-memory of those days he’s always around eleven with serious blue eyes and crew-cut, blond hair) was sent to the pantry to bring out cartons of dusty canning jars.
I was set to washing them at the sink. At nine, I was too young to be trusted, and too short anyway, to put the washed jars into the big vat of boiling water to be sterilized. That job went to Bette, our "help," six fee tall and built like a linebacker.
At the stove, Mama mixed vinegar, sugar and spices into pickling syrup. Her round face already shiny with steam and sweat, she kept everyone moving.
Hot as it already was in the kitchen, it was going to get hotter. She dispatched my freckled, seven-year-old brother Joey to bring to the kitchen the black oscillating fan and the big, rattling, roaring box fan, and hook them up with extension cords. Mother believed Joey showed budding talent with things electrical.
Meanwhile out on the back porch, David filled the galvanized wash tub with cool water and washed the peaches.
Once all the jars were washed and awaiting bubbling baptism, I was put to work making pimento cheese sandwiches and the universal lubricant, iced tea. And anyone who wasn’t doing something else sat down at the chipped, green-painted kitchen table to peel peaches.
Anyone included all children, Mama, Bette, and my skinny little live-in grandmother, plus any neighbors who dropped by, and any friends of us children who came looking for playmates. If you had two working hands and were old enough to know which end of the knife was which, you peeled. When Daddy came home from work for lunch (we called it dinner) he ate a pimento cheese sandwich and peeled too.
I remember those days two ways. I remember sweat pooling underneath me on the hard chair. It stuck my bare thighs to the seat so that every squirm was accompanied by rude, slurping sounds. I remember us kids whining and complaining and pointing out the unfairness of it all. I remember no sympathy—only the adage, “Many hands make light work.”
But I also remember how repartee was an indoor sport in our house and any occasion that had us all sitting down together was an appropriate arena. We laughed until we had to stop peeling to wipe our eyes on paper napkins. We held contests to see who could separate the longest strip of fuzzy peach skin from the slick, golden flesh.
And all the while with every passing minute, the steamy perfume of fresh peaches, cinnamon, and clove, made tangy with vinegar, drugged with sugary sweetness grew stronger and thicker, enfolding us all in a distillation of bounty and beneficence.
When we began to tire and conversation around the table flagged (or degenerated into squabbling) Mother would sometimes ask me lead a hymn. With me to keep us on pitch, everyone joined in. Mama sang in a wobbly soprano. My little brother in his sweet little boy treble, my grandmother in her cracked, old-lady voice, Bette in a contralto smooth and rich as top cream.
In addition to hymns, we took requests. Joey wanted Home, Home on the Range. David favored Battle Hymn of the Republic—but you didn’t sing that Yankee song around my grandmother—so he settled for From the Halls of Montezuma. He also called for Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. We sang it, although I’m sure it was all Bette could do to keep a straight face at the white folks’ rendition. The singing was over when Mama called for Blest Be The Tie That Binds.
I remember the absolute democracy—or do I mean communism? Mother commanded, but she worked the hardest of us all. Black and white, young and old, everyone contributed according to their strengths, and come Thanksgiving, everyone partook according to their tastes.
Back in those days, in every household, someone was putting up peaches, but I don’t know anyone who makes pickled peaches anymore. Certainly, I don’t.
And I don’t cook a big meal either. What “makes” Thanksgiving for me is not the food—not even pickled peaches—but the coming together to prepare.
A couple of weeks ago a close group of friends and I agreed that we didn’t want to just show up somewhere and eat. What we wanted to do was to work together.
So bearing made-ahead dishes we’ll gather early at the home of the one who still owns a dining room table, and all together we’ll make the rest.
Maybe I’ll even get them to sing Blest Be The Tie That Binds.
“Blest be the tie that binds/Our hearts in Christian love,
The fellowship of kindred minds/Is like to That above.”
Though I expect Home, Home on the Range will do as well.
Truth is, nobody does a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving anymore. So what "makes" Thanksgiving for you?