My mother’s sewing machine hummed all year but it leapt into overdrive in early November. She’d dig into her stash of dog-eared “Family Circle” magazines, locate a “DIY in 10-Minutes Thanksgiving Potholder” pattern, sit down at her Singer and sew serenely all afternoon.
“I thought you might like this for your table, Val,” she’d say, presenting me with a ten-foot-long tablecloth ablaze with orange and yellow leaves, hemmed in brown ball fringe. A week later she’d pop by toting a red felt turkey head, stuffed with batting and attached to a metal rod. “Get yourself a ripe pineapple at the A&P,” she’d say, “and stick the turkey head on top — it makes an adorable centerpiece.”
From aprons trimmed with tangerine rick-rack to dishtowels featuring hand-stitched pumpkins, Mom’s Thanksgiving craftsmanship was bottomless — and endless. Every year my holiday storage box became more crammed. Rick-rack wasn’t my thing. I certainly wasn’t partial to ball fringe. But I loved Mom and used every turkey trapping she gave me over the years.
Her one creation that I actually liked was a four-by-six-foot tan banner with an embroidered multi-colored turkey sitting beneath the words: “Come Ye Thankful People, Come.” Over the past two decades, that banner has hung above the fireplace mantle, from a front attic windowsill, but primarily on the entrance porch, a beacon of our hospitality.
The banner welcomed siblings from Colorado, New York and New Mexico who frequently flew in for the four-day weekend with their children. It lent credence to our family’s open-door policy of inviting “strays” and singles who were alone over the holiday to join us.
Two years ago my husband and I decided to spend Thanksgiving in Florida where daughters Amy and Lisa live. I asked my daughter Alex, who lives in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire, if she would like to use any of my decorations. Indeed she did. “Can I have the turkey banner to hang on our front door?” she asked.
After the holiday Alex put the banner in a box in her basement. Christmas came and went, winter thawed into spring, summer faded to fall. Suddenly, it was the week before Thanksgiving, 2016. I texted Alex and reminded her that I needed the banner.
But there was a problem. The turkey banner was missing.
The prior Memorial Day weekend, Alex’s house had been completely destroyed by a fire caused when a BBQ smoker accidentally exploded. Ten firetrucks with gushing hoses couldn’t extinguish the raging blaze that swept through and ravaged her four-bedroom home.
No one was hurt, but the loss of “stuff” was profound. It took a year and a week before she, her husband and two children, plus Lucy the Labrador, could move back into their reconstructed home.
When brother Robert arrived from Colorado with his family on the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving last year, he looked at the wall of the entrance porch where the banner usually hung, and asked, “Where’s Mom’s banner?”
“The fire,” I answered. “It was in Alex’s basement.”
On Thanksgiving morning, we all breakfasted on our “traditional” sour cream coffee cake layered with whole cranberry sauce. We played Rummikub into the night on a table covered with Mom’s handmade yellow and orange tablecloth. The weathered red felt turkey-headed pineapple graced my kitchen island. Only the family banner was missing from traditional Thanksgiving regalia.
This September I began to plan Thanksgiving 2017. Because my brother and sister were coming with their families, I wanted to start baking coffee cakes ahead to put in the freezer. I had to figure out where 16 relatives were going to sleep. As I was making a chart of arriving bodies and available beds, my phone rang.
Alex said, “Mom, you’re not going to believe this. I was down in my basement this morning, sorting through some of the boxes that had been in storage all last year from the fire — and I found the banner! It smells like smoke, it’s a little moldy, but I’ve got it!”
During the long hard year after Alex’s house burned down, we all learned the collateral horror of fire. My daughter’s family not only lost their home, they lost library books and lacrosse team shirts, treasured photo albums and piano lesson song sheets, Christmas stockings, ski hats, Easter baskets, bicycles, and a 15-year-old’s lifetime accumulation of Legos.
It was all “stuff.” Fortunately, no one was hurt. But finding that family banner still reeking of smoke underscores why we gather together.
When Mom died 22 years ago, she didn’t leave her children money or stock. That frugal woman bequeathed a richer, more meaningful inheritance of hand-sewn tablecloths and turkey heads, all made with love, and with words she wanted her family to live by: “Come Ye Thankful People, Come.” And we do.
Please note: "Turkey on the Loose" was just published in the November issue of SASEE (sasee.com), a South Carolina magazine.
ALSO! Happy Thanksgiving! I will not be Wandering next week, and there will be no blog, because my family is gathering together for the big feast, as we always do.