Funny you should ask ... Tim Gamble

Do you have any funny or embarrassing Thanksgiving memories?

Thanksgiving was a big deal at my house. My mother, who grew up in Quincey, Massachusetts, can trace her lineage back to 1624. They’ve been celebrating the season for a long time. They weren’t there with the Wampanoags and Pilgrims, but close. My mother learned to cook from her mother and was never that far from her beloved Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.

Thanksgiving was a family affair. My brothers and sister and I each had our jobs helping to prepare the feast, everything from cleaning house, decorating, cutting, chopping, mixing, polishing, and setting the table. The house was filled with the smell of fresh baked pies and a waft of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. The turkey took forever to cook. We were well past starving by the time my mother called us all to the table for the Thanksgiving blessing. You had to be careful not to eat too much or you’d miss the fresh cinnamon apple pie and homemade ice cream or the yummy pumpkin pie with marmalade whipped cream. She also made a mincemeat pie each year that none of us ever touched.

Tim, Dave, Mom, a little bit of Fred, and Terry at Thanksgiving 1956
Tim, Dave, Mom, a little bit of Fred, and Terry at Thanksgiving 1956

I was a freshman at Arizona State in the fall of 1967. School was out for the Thanksgiving break. My mother, who lived just west of Scottsdale, asked me if I was coming home for Thanksgiving dinner. I said I was. She asked me to find out whether any of my friends, who were stuck in the dorm, would also like to join us. I said I’d check. I put a note on the bulletin board inviting anyone who didn’t have plans for Thanksgiving to stop by my mother’s house for dinner. I noted the time and address and headed home.

My mother lived in a modest cinder block home near Camelback Mountain in the Arcadia district of Maricopa County. The house was built in a citrus grove, half the trees were grapefruit the other half were orange trees. The long driveway from the street opened into a large front yard. When I arrived, there were already cars parked on the front lawn. I went inside the house. There were several kids from school already there. My mother asked me what was going on. I told her I posted her invitation on the bulletin board. She said, “I was hoping you’d invite a couple of your friends.” I told her I did know a few of them. She said, “We’re going to need more food.” She threw another dozen potatoes in the oven with the turkey, told me to go outside and pick some more grapefruit and oranges, and start peeling and slicing and add it to the fruit cocktail. She quickly whipped up another couple of side dishes while we waited for the turkey to finish baking . I went to the neighbors and borrowed a few more card tables and chairs. The tables extended from the dining room all the way through the living room, with enough food and seats for everyone, crisis averted.

My mother sat at the head of the table and gave the blessing. We started in on the fruit cocktail. Somebody spiked it with vodka. My mother never drank alcohol as a rule, maybe a glass of champagne here and there but no hard liquor. She felt a bit tipsy and needed help getting the turkey to the table. A couple of my friends including Joe offered to assist her. Joe was an African American student studying engineering at ASU. He was sitting in the first chair to my mother’s left. My mother lived in a mostly all-white neighborhood except for Dr. Lang and his family. She attended an all-white Presbyterian church and generally had no interaction with African Americans. My father, who had left the family several years earlier, was openly prejudiced against other ethnic groups. I don’t know how my mother felt about the subject, she never spoke to me about her feelings. I think she was fine with other cultures but preferred not to socially mix. I could feel the tension in the room. Everybody did. My mother would not make direct eye contact with Joe or speak with him during the first course. Joe’s roommate, another African American student, nudged him and told him he didn’t feel comfortable and just wanted to get the heck out of there. Joe told him to “cool it,” everything is going to be fine. As my mother started carving the turkey, she turned to Joe and asked, “Would you like white meat or black meat?” There was a hush over the table as everyone winced at the question. Joe replied with a laugh, “Well Mrs. Gamble, I like mine integrated.” My mother turned beet red and apologized. Joe let her off the hook with, “No problem, it looks delicious.” Several others at the table said to make theirs integrated too. By the end of the dinner, the effects of the fruit cocktail had worn off and my mother was back to her charming old self. She hasn’t talked about it since.

It was 1978. Sandy and I were living in a condo in Thornton, Colorado. We’d been married for about 5 years when my mother decided to visit us during Thanksgiving. She offered to cook the feast for Sandy. Sandy said that would be great. My mother went to the grocery store and bought all the usual trappings for a big turkey dinner and pies for dessert. When it came time to start preparing the food, my mother asked Sandy where she kept the several different kitchen items she needed. Sandy went through each request answering the same each time, “We don’t have one of those.” My mother was undaunted by the challenge and sent me back to the grocery store with a list of essentials, everything from spices to pie tins. The whole thing turned out marvelous, a most excellent dinner.

My mother asked me how we could survive with no kitchen supplies. I told her that neither of us had much interest in cooking. If I had to cook, I used the barbecue. Sandy had a few dishes she liked to make, but more often than not, we’d pick up something at the supermarket that was already prepared. We were always gone at lunchtime, and we never ate breakfast. My mother was a bit surprised; scratch cooking was her whole life. I explained that our arrangement had developed over time, and we don’t cook out of respect for each other’s inability to cook anything worth eating. In Sandy’s defense, she came from a restaurant family and never learned to cook. Like she told me many times, “If I was hungry, I'd just go back to the walk-in cooler and grab something to eat.” I can attest to her inability to make anything more complicated than toast, not because she’s mentally defective, it’s because she didn’t want to.

When we first started living together in Hayward, California, Sandy had a few issues in the kitchen. My mother bought her a beautiful copper tea kettle for Christmas. She liked to make hot tea. One day she tried to use it to make hard-boiled eggs. She left the kettle on the stove too long, the water boiled off, and the eggs exploded all over the kitchen. Another time she left the burner on under the tea kettle and when we came home the spout to the kettle had fallen off. Sandy did try to learn to cook though. The first thing she learned to make was spaghetti. Put the spaghetti in a pot of boiling water, cook until tender, rinse and serve with Ragú tomato sauce. What could possibly go wrong. Nothing, it went well, so well in fact we had it every night for a month. There was one little hitch though, each night Sandy would cook a little more than she did the night before. My plate became overflowing with spaghetti. I would work my way through the pile on my plate until it was gone. In the end Sandy asked me, “How could you possibly eat so much?” I told her, “It wasn’t easy.” She asked me, “Then why are you?” I explained, “My mother would insist that I not waste any food and to eat everything put in front of me. Sandy replied, “My mother told me to eat until I was full and it’s okay to leave a little on the plate. I served you a little more each night because I thought you were still hungry.” We both laughed. I said, “I’m glad we got that worked out before I burst at the seams!” She replied, “You and I need to work on or communication.” We did. Although I learned I can finish eating when I want to, I also learned how to finish her sentences.

In 1979, when my mother came for Thanksgiving, she sent all her kitchen supplies to us ahead of time. I received a large box with pots and pans, cooking utensils, pie plates, serving dishes, and everything else my mother thought she might need to make her life easier. Mom and Sandy had a good time together and dinner came off without a hitch. When it was time for Mom to go back to Phoenix, we packed her and her cookware and sent them home with our thanks. For Christmas that year my mother sent Sandy a full set of cookware and utensils so she wouldn’t have to ship her kit ever again.

The next year, in the Spring, Sandy’s grandfather came to live with us in Colorado. Mathieu was a retired and notable French chef from New York. He pretended not to speak much English. I say pretended because later in a dire emergency he spoke to me on the phone and his English was quite good. Sandy and I didn’t speak any French past what I learned as a freshman in high school. Mathieu and I spent a little time each day at dinner trying to teach each other some basic words so we could communicate. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around we could converse with no problems. Between his English and my French, we understood each other perfectly. This was the third Thanksgiving in a row my mother came to stay with us. By now Mathieu had taken over the kitchen duties and cooked dinner every night. It was his way of contributing to the household and he was very serious about it. When my mother went into the kitchen to check on the supplies she’d need, Mathieu chased her out. My mother was having none of it and they almost came to blows. Sandy stepped in and worked out a compromise where Nancy would make the Thanksgiving meal and Mathieu would do Christmas. My mother visited every year after that for Thanksgiving.

In 1987 Sandy, Mathieu and I were living in Houston. My mother called and wanted to speak with Sandy. I told her that Sandy wasn’t home, but I’d have her call her back. She asked me to give her a message. She said she wouldn’t be able to make it this year for Thanksgiving. She had some surgery scheduled and would be convalescing. I asked her if she was going to be all right. She said she was. She just wanted to let Sandy know she was sending back the airline ticket. I asked her, “What? Can you say that again?” She said, “I know I’m not supposed to tell. Just talk to Sandy and let her know I won’t be there.” When Sandy came home from work, I told her about the cryptic message from my mother. Sandy looked at me and confessed that she’d been sending my mother an airline ticket every year for Thanksgiving for the past ten years. I told her, “If you really hate cooking that much you know we could just go out for dinner.” Of course, that wasn’t it. It may have started out that way, but Sandy had long since learned how to cook and we always had the services of her grandfather any time we’d ask. Sandy just wanted me to see my mother at least once a year and she wanted me to think it was my mother’s idea. My mother was unable to travel for several years after that. She visited us once more before she died. Mathieu also passed away. We miss them both and still tell the Thanksgiving stories every year.

Are we done yet? (Thanksgiving 2002)
Are we done yet? (Thanksgiving 2002)

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