Thanksgiving was a non-event for me when we first moved to America. As a Brit, this holiday isn’t on the calendar and not one that we celebrate since, after all, it was from our country that the pilgrims fled, so nothing for us to give thanks for on that count, at least.
But our move to California in the August of 1986 changed all that. EH (ex-husband)
signed his life away joined the Department of Corrections; starting out on the bottom rung of the seniority ladder, it would be years before he was able to grab those family-friendly shifts.
So, while he worked overtime we spent our first couple of Thanksgivings with the grandparents. Driving the four-hour drive from where they lived in Los Angeles to the central coast where we lived, they treated us to a feast at a nearby restaurant, since Crazy Grandma didn’t cook turkey dinners anymore.
Thanksgiving didn’t hold any emotional or sentimental attachment for me, so it was nice to start this new tradition in this way and not have any of the holiday-season stress.
But when my eldest son started Kindergarten a couple of years after we moved, I learned all about the meaning of this special American holiday, through his eyes.
He proudly taught me how the Pilgrim Fathers sailed across the sea from England to America in The Mayflower from Plymouth, Devon in 1620 to escape religious persecution from King James 1 and his cronies.
He told me that they suffered terribly in very harsh conditions, but that they eventually settled in New Plymouth, Massachusetts against all odds and formed a colony of their own.
Their brave New World.
I learned how they made friends with the Native Americans who showed them how to farm the land and grow the local crops such as pumpkins and corn and how to catch and cook the local wild turkey.
It was out of this relationship that the first Thanksgiving feast grew, as a way for the pilgrims to show their gratitude for their new friends: a celebration handed down for all the generations to come, held every year on the fourth Thursday of every November.
It was great fun to join in with the festivities at my son’s school – I watched with pride as he and his friends made paper hats, painted their ‘clothes’ (Indian? Pilgrim?) and ate their own feast (thanks to their parent’s contributions) as they all sat together around trestle tables.
With a couple of Thanksgiving’s under my belt, the year came when I decided to try my hand at making my very own family feast. EH was working the swing shift starting at 3 pm, so I figured I could make the meal in good time before he had to leave.
Never mind that I was nine-month’s pregnant. No problem. I thought.
Thanks to Crazy Grandma’s hand-written recipe for home-made stuffing, a few tips and ideas from new friends I had made at the school gates, and my mum’s advice for cooking a turkey (my first time), I began my preparations early in the morning.
It was tiring enough standing for so long in the kitchen, but the real fun began once everything was cooking happily away in the oven. The constant bending up and down to check on everything set off seismic waves of Braxton Hicks contractions.
They pulled me up so short that I had to keep stopping to breathe, just like they teach you in those ante-natal classes – hee hee hoooo hoooo…
By no small miracle, I managed to pull it off (the meal, not the oven door). My first home-cooked Thanksgiving feast consisted of: turkey, corn-on-the-cob, cornbread, mashed potatoes, Crazy Grandma’s stuffing, yams (sweet potatoes) oozing brown sugar and marshmallows baked and browned on top, French Bean Casserole, and lashings of gravy. Not forgetting homemade pumpkin pie (an acquired taste for this Brit) and ice cream to follow.
We ate, enjoyed and EH left for work. I did the dishes and after a short rest, it being sunny and quite warm outside (which was so strange to me, it being the end of November), I decided that maybe a short walk while my son rode his bicycle would do us some good.
The ‘contractions’ had eased off by now, thankfully.
We stepped outside, the big, blue Californian skies beckoning, and off we went. I will never forget how quiet and still our neighbourhood seemed that day, everybody inside eating their meals with their family and friends.
It certainly heightened my sense of being very alone in a vast land, just me and my little boy.
It was then that I realised I had overdone things. I took a few steps, then stopped. I couldn’t walk. Something felt odd. A strong contraction, oh no, surely not. I called after my son who was peddling his little bike up ahead to come back.
“Sorry my love, no walk today, Mummy’s not feeling too good…”
Once back inside I thought I had better have a lie down, and so instead of a walk in the sunshine we spent the afternoon cuddled up on the sofa with a few good books and watching cartoons. The contractions, to great relief, subsided.
But Nicky didn’t wait long and arrived two days later on the 29th November, close enough to qualify as my very own Thanksgiving baby!
I had a lot more to learn about Thanksgiving. For Nicky’s fourth birthday I planned a party at home, inviting a few of his pre-school friends. I made a chocolate train cake, planned games, set the table with paper hats and streamers.
Nobody replied to my RSVP and only one little girl turned up. Everyone else, I later found out, had gone away to spend Thanksgiving with their families. I didn’t make that mistake again.
The other thing I learned about Thanksgiving in America is that every year that I spent there, we were never alone. I made friends through the children’s friends, our church, and work; we were never short of someone to spend the holiday with.
I am profoundly thankful to those friends who, over the years, welcomed me and my family into their homes year after year and who made sure that we were never lonely or forgotten.
Many of them I am no longer in touch with: those of us who have moved away, taken different paths, embarked on distant journeys. Yet, their generous and loving hospitality and kindness will live in my heart forever.
With every slice of pumpkin pie, I partook in a slice of Americana, spending time with family and friends in a country that was my adopted home for many years, embracing this uniquely American holiday.
As the years went by, I cooked many more Thanksgiving feasts, including one for some of my eldest son’s college friends.
But never again with a baby bump.
My heart overflows with gratitude for you all, my dear family, friends, and loved ones near and far as I wish those of you who celebrate –
…a very Happy Thanksgiving!…
…and to Nicky, a very Happy Birthday to you, my Thanksgiving Baby…!!
With lots of love from Mum xxxxxxx