By Tom Rodriguez
When I was a young boy, Thanksgiving Day in my home started with my three brothers and I waking up to the wonderful aroma of something cooking in the oven. Some years it was turkey or ham, but most of time it was the sweet smell of pies baking in the oven. I always liked it when Mom made pies because she always let us help her by coring and peeling apples, mixing the pumpkin and milk for pumpkin pies, and slicing bananas and mixing the bananas in the pudding. Sometimes she would also let us roll out the dough for the pies, although we didn’t do it very well and she always had to redo our work. Later, she would reward us by giving us small bite-sized pieces of rolled dough and cinnamon which were delicious eaten fresh out of the oven.
At about eleven in the morning, Mom, Dad, and my brothers and I would head over to my grandparents Gomez home on the next block carrying pies and dishes of food. We were usually the first to arrive but not long afterwards my Uncle John and his big family would show up, and then my Aunt Vicky and her large brood would arrive. By that time there were about twenty-five people in my grandparents small home, and about fifteen men and boys crowded into my grandparents front room and adjacent bedroom.
In the early years, there was no television so my uncles Pete and Blacky, plus my cousins and brothers, all went outside to play catch with a football or with gloves and softballs until we were called to eat. About 1952, my Uncle Cooky bought my grandparents a television set and from that point forward everyone would crowd into the front room to watch the football game. I have many fond memories of those fun times – times when all of the men and boys would sit around talking sports and laughing and telling stories to our hearts content. I believe that I learned how to compete in those gatherings because everyone had to fight to get heard. Of course, just trying to be heard above all of the noise was fun in itself.
The women and girls could usually be found in grandma’s kitchen or dining room talking and putting the finishing touches on the meal. From time to time, I would visit the kitchen to get a drink of water and listen to them talking about their children, their jobs, who was getting divorced, who was getting married, and who was pregnant. It was obvious that they were enjoying themselves in the same way that the men and boys were in the front room watching football. Their conversations were different but the enjoyment they derived from being around family was the same.
Sometime near one o’clock, the aroma of food cooking would waft through the house and made everyone hungry in anticipation of the meal. Finally, at about one-thirty, my mother or one of my aunts would come into the front room and call everyone to the table. The meal would always begin with my grandfather or my Uncle John or Dad saying grace and then everyone would dig in. The younger kids, those fourteen and under, either had to eat in the kitchen, in the front room, or wait for an opening at one of the tables in the kitchen or the main dining room. One of my fondest memories was of the year that I turned fifteen and was invited to sit at the main table. To me that was when I felt like I was really grown up.
The women always ate last because they prepared and served the meal and for a lot of years I always felt sorry for them. What I later found out was that they ate last by choice because then they could sit down and take their time without being rushed. I know this to be true because my mother told me that was why she liked to eat last.
And what memorable feasts we had, serving dishes piled high with my grandmother’s turkey, my mother’s unique stuffing, aunt Beverly’s succulent ham, my aunt Teresa’s great enchiladas, and if we were really lucky, my aunt Vicky’s meat-filled tamales, bowls of buttered mashed potatoes with brown gravy, a sweet potato casserole, a green bean casserole, Waldorf salad, soda pop, beer for the adults, pies of all kinds – apple, banana, pecan, cherry, and lemon, Jell-O, pudding, and just about anything anyone would want to eat. It was an unforgettable family experience with everyone talking and laughing, eating, telling stories, complimenting the cooks, and enjoying the meal and good company. Every year everyone would stuff themselves and then watch television, take naps, sit in the kitchen and talk, read a magazine, or go outside and play. A few hours later, many were ready for seconds, and sometimes, big guys like my Brother John and Uncle Pete even had room for thirds.
Regrettably, our Thanksgiving Day celebrations started to change when some of the older boys joined the Army, Marines and Air Force. The real change, however, came in the early 1960’s when everyone who lived in the Bottoms was forced to move out due to the City of Topeka’s large Urban Renewal Program. In the space of four years, all of the grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, who had once lived within three blocks of each other, were forced to move to other parts of the city. And, as everyone grew older, the large Thanksgiving Day gatherings we once used to have at my grandparents ended.
For a few years afterward, the Thanksgiving Day celebration moved to my parents home. At first, our Thanksgiving Day dinner was attended only by my grandparents, parents, brothers, and by my Uncle Pete and his young family. After a couple of years, however, many of the other relatives made it a point to stop by after their meals to have a few beers, watch football games and just talk. For a few hours each year, it was almost like it was at my grandparents home during the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Inevitably, as it always does, time moved on. The grandparents got older, so did our parents, and so did we, their children and grandchildren. By then, most of the children and some of the grandchildren were married and had families of their own, and some had moved away from Topeka. My brother John, for example, lived in Germany, my brother Michael had moved to Kansas City, Missouri, my Uncle Blacky lived in Los Angeles, California, and my Uncle Raymond lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Today, I think often of those unforgettable days and about how happy and simple life was then, the years when the grandparents were still strong and healthy, our parents were still young and vibrant, and all of the young men and women in our family were just starting their careers and lives. It is painful for me to accept the fact that those days are gone forever and will not come again. I guess that is why I have tried so hard to put it all into perspective. Attempting to do so over the years has given me a special appreciation for just how special those times were, which in turn motivated me to try to create special moments at holidays for my own children. In the end, maybe that is all I or anyone can do, which is to try to preserve as much as possible the memory of those things that were and are special in our lives. If that is true, then I consider myself to be a very lucky man because I have so many wonderful memories to draw upon, including those of the long ago Thanksgiving Days of the late 1940’s, 1950’s. and 1960’s.