By Katherine Arthaud, Contributor
In pondering the topic of Thanksgiving and gratitude, I find my mind wandering not to what on earth this Thanksgiving will bring, but back to past Thanksgivings—specifically, to Thanksgivings of my childhood, which would typically be spent at my grandmother’s house in Connecticut. A part of me didn’t love going there. In fact, if you had asked me at the time, I would have told you it was boring.
For one, it took a very long time to get there. And always, almost on cue, somewhere in the last few miles, my father would lose his $%#$, up to here with our bickering and too-loud singing. And once we were there, as much as a relief it would be to be released from the family station wagon and back on terra firma, it was a little claustrophobic.
I grew up on a farm and my grandmother lived in a fancy suburb. Which meant that there were no horses to ride, no woods to build forts in, no fields to gallop through, no friends our own age to romp with, and generally none of the stuff that typically entertained my sisters and me. My grandmother was an old lady. She loved antiques. Her house was not a children’s house. So, going there wasn’t exactly something my sisters and I considered “fun,” and I remember us whining about the annual pilgrimage. And yet, looking back on it, what I feel about my grandmother’s house at Thanksgiving time is: magic.
I remember the smell, which would hit us right away, of something rich and delicious cooking, with the vaguest hint of perfume and cedar in the air. I remember the front hall, and the happiness of seeing my grandmother when we tumbled in with our jackets and suitcases, the feeling of knowing without knowing that I was knowing it as she hugged us one by one that we were loved, welcomed, wanted, cherished. I remember a tall, imposing antique mahogany cabinet with glass doors that sat in the hall, not far from the front door, and how way up on one of its highest shelves was a set of very small colored glasses. There was something about these little, translucent, beveled glasses, in gem tones of emerald, ruby, amber, blue, that was so tantalizing and mysterious. They were far out of reach to the likes of me—I think even my very tall grandmother would have needed a stool or small ladder to get at them—but their untouchability rendered them even more precious, rare, and unearthly. That they were never used in my presence made them even more glisteningly enchanted.
I once asked my mother about them and was told they may be in the possession of my cousin Trina. I suppose I could look into this, but somehow, I don’t feel compelled to own them or even see them again. The memory of them, glittering in their dark wooden nook, is vivid and profound and enough.
Though there weren’t many toys at my grandmother’s house, there were a few. And every year, there they would be, in a box in a closet. We would spill them out onto the floor: a wooden ambulance you could pull around with a string, a handful of plastic gems as big as our fists, a towheaded baby doll with one green eye. There were more, but not lots more, and we used our imaginations, my sisters and me, made up games and stories and worlds around these toys. We buried the plastic gems in a wide and crumbling fieldstone wall down the road and never retrieved them.
We played hide-and-go-seek and sometimes sardines. Once, my parents rented us bicycles from town and we rode around, exploring the quiet roads, usually pretending to be people we were not. There was a collie named Danny who lived next door who was very beautiful, but word had it he’d bitten a boy, so we steered clear, admiring his handsome pointy nose and tawny glossy locks from afar. One year, my grandmother drove us in her navy-blue Lincoln Continental to a big, dimly lit barn to see a collection of dolls from around the world. She called it the Doll Museum, and I guess she knew the man who owned it. He had a pet monkey, who leapt about from his shoulder to chairs, to shelves, to windowsills. He had a beaded collar and large, watery brown-black eyes. We were mesmerized. For many Christmases following, my sister would mourn when she didn’t receive a monkey of her own.
I remember the little electric shocks we would get skittering across the beige carpeting in my grandmother’s house in our bare feet. I remember the oil portraits in the hall that led to the bedroom my sister and I would share; one of my mother and one of her sister, Bambi. My mother was about seven in her picture, and she looked so angelic in her dress and white collar, her hair parted on the side, her hands clasped loosely in her little lap. Beside her was Bambi, about twelve, with a bowler on her head, a tweed coat, and a riding crop in her hand. My mother told us that Bambi, older, bossier and more defiant, had insisted on being memorialized in horseback riding attire, while my mother, far more polite and compliant, was stuck with the velvet dress. My sisters and I would often pause in our shenanigans to gaze at these portraits, fascinated by our mother and our aunt, once kids like us.
I remember my grandmother’s bedroom, vast to us, with its fluffy comforters, pale blue wallpaper, and a frilly dressing table covered with what seemed an infinite number of minute, expensive-looking bottles of perfume, which occasionally my grandmother would allow us to sample, just a touch to the insides of our bony wrists. There was a lace-covered table with an array of silver-framed pictures of friends and relatives. My cousin Trina on a dock. My grandmother’s brother, Uncle Dutch, holding a speckled trout. My mother and father waltzing on their wedding day.
And always, always, I remember my grandmother, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, serene and accepting, and the peace of her home. Being around her changed the dynamics of my family. It settled us. With her, things seemed more spacious, more harmonious, more fair. It’s hard to describe, but many, many times in the many, many years that have followed these Thanksgiving treks to Connecticut to visit my grandmother—and I haven’t even gotten into the food, which was rich and delicious and perfect—I have drawn on these memories, and her love and her presence in our lives, her grace and patience with all of us, and this has been my treasure.
A treasure not stashed in a stone wall or tucked away on a high shelf in a front hall or gobbled up with cranberry sauce and gravy, but in my heart of hearts. My grandmother herself, and how she loved us and saw us, welcomed us and honored us and shared with us, sheltered us and fed us, and sent us back into our lives, with leftovers and her unspoken blessing, to live our lives out and through. For these times in her presence, I am so grateful. For her, today, I give great thanks.