27 November, 2014

When I was a little boy, every Thanksgiving was spent at my Aunt Lee and Uncle Joe’s house. She was my father’s older sister and they were the only real aunt and uncle I knew. My father’s other older sister died long before I was born, when my father was still a teenager, and his older brother lived in California and only came east two or three times that I remember… and we never went west. My mother is an only child. So Aunt Lee and Uncle Joe were it.

Though we lived on Long Island and Aunt Lee and Uncle Joe lived in New Jersey, we saw them often. I loved those visits. In part because I loved my aunt and uncle (and looked up to my older cousins), but also because I loved their house… a beautiful old Victorian with a sweeping staircase. To me it seemed exotic, and fancy… like a movie star’s house, as opposed to our own boring newly constructed suburban split level.

Thanksgiving dinner was always early; one or two o’clock in the afternoon, because Uncle Joe owned a tavern in Newark and had to go to work afterwards. Though I never actually saw the tavern, a vivid image of it is emblazoned in my memory… one based on nothing more than my own imagination. I see an old-time barroom, the kind that when you walk in the door makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time… to the ‘thirties or early ‘forties. There’s a lot of beautiful, old dark wood that’s been well cared for over the decades. The lighting is dim. The clientele is primarily male, primarily African-American, in dress slacks and shirts, and they all wear hats; fedoras. Jazz plays quietly on an old Wurlitzer juke box. An ancient radio behind the bar broadcasts a prize-fight. And in addition to the drinks that are being sold, there is a turkey or a roast on the bar from which meat for sandwiches is carved. Aunt Lee made the food. The sandwiches were free… an enticement to patrons to come in and drink. This last part is the only thing I know to be real.

So because of Uncle Joe’s responsibility to the tavern, our Thanksgiving dinner was always early. But hours later, after everyone else had left and everything had been cleaned up, Aunt Lee, my cousins, my parents, brothers and I would go into the kitchen for my favorite part of the day… a light supper of turkey sandwiches on the corn-rye bread that Aunt Lee always got from her neighborhood bakery (and which I never found anywhere else).

Anyway, this one Thanksgiving, I couldn’t have been more than four or five, Aunt Lee had just had the house painted. The dining room was a light color… Cream? A very pale blue or green? I don’t remember exactly, but it was light. There were a lot of people. The table was beautifully set. The turkey and all the side dishes had been brought out from the kitchen. Uncle Joe was about to carve. And then someone, a man (it might have been Uncle Joe’s father), produced a bottle of sparkling red wine. He was diagonally across the table from me… way down toward the other end. I remember him standing up to open the bottle. I remember the pop as the cork went flying. And I remember the red wine shooting out of the bottle like a geyser. It reminded me of a scene from one of the Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton comedies I watched on television, as the man, mortified, but still holding the gushing bottle, kept turning from side to side as if by doing so he’d find a way to stop the wine which was spraying all over the newly painted ceiling and walls… all over the drapes and dinner table… all over several of the guests.

For a moment everyone sat stunned, frozen, silent. And then suddenly, as if cued by a director, the room erupted in a frenzy of adult activity. People grabbed their napkins and began wiping the table and each other’s clothes. The bottle, having finally lost its propulsion, was covered. People moved chairs to the perimeter of the room, stood on them and tried to wipe the red wine from the walls. Others rushed to the kitchen and returned with towels and sponges. Someone even found a small ladder, stood it beside the table, climbed it and attempted to wipe the wine from the ceiling. But all the wiping, whether with napkins, towels or sponges, was for naught. It wasn’t removing the stains, it was merely spreading them.

There were shouts and cries and chatter until one voice, Aunt Lee’s voice, finally cut through it all. “Everybody stop!” Silence. “Bring your chairs back to the table, and sit down. I will deal with the walls and the ceiling and everything else tomorrow. But right now, it’s Thanksgiving, and the food is getting cold.” Several people attempted to protest, but Aunt Lee was adamant. She produced another bottle of wine, which was opened without incident. And the dinner resumed. If there was any further mention of what had happened (and there was), it was with laughter. And, whatever she may have been feeling inside, as I remember it, no one laughed louder than Aunt Lee.

My Aunt Lee passed away a little over two years ago. And that day was probably half a century ago. But the incident and Aunt Lee’s response stays with me. Yes, the room had just been painted. Yes, it was going to have to be repainted. Yes, that was going to be an unexpected expense (and money was probably tight). But that’s all it was… some money and some paint. And that was hardly as important as the family having our Thanksgiving meal. It was a wonderful lesson about what is, and what isn’t important, about keeping things in perspective… a lesson I try to remember whenever the walls of my life are suddenly, unexpectedly splattered. Thank you, Aunt Lee.

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