THANKSGIVING ON SWAN ISLAND
Published in Goose River Anthology 2014
The words to the song are: “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go.” That is exactly what my family actually did. Following the single file trail, we walked across the Kennebec River ice from the Swan Island landing to the Richmond State dock. Grampie had freshly shoveled a trail, marking it with saplings (small leafless trees) posted along his snow banks during winters when walking was a safe mode of traveling across the river prior to spring “ice-out.” Nearly overcome by driving wind and drifting snow in a whiteout crossing, he wasn’t about to get disoriented and end up feeling foolish coming home late and out of breath again. He wasn’t about to tell Gramie how he scared himself that night either. It was done. He would fix it like he fixed anything else, carefully and with a great deal of serious thought. That trail was marked immediately after that night in the light of the next day and every snowy winter day following.
When making a trip together, someone was designated to pull a toboggan; sometimes I’d get to ride along with the early Christmas gifts on the Thanksgiving-Christmas trek back across the river until we reached the dock on the Swan Island side. There were years when passing the river was totally impossible, either by walking his well-groomed trail or by boat. We were thankful when everyone was able to cross for the annual family event. Grampie loaded us all into his snub-nosed green Jeep for the rest of the slow bumpy crawl along the one island road we called Main Street. Some years he had to go out with a plow to open the road up prior to driving the Jeep down to the Swan Island landing for the crossing where he would meet up with family on the Richmond side of the Kennebec River.
Preparations began at least two weeks prior to the actual day of Thanksgiving. Gramie and I sat at the kitchen table, working through the menu in great detail for the longest time beginning back when the pumpkins were picked. She wanted everything to be plentiful, cooked well and just plain perfect in every way. As a youngster, I would clap my hands when I got excited, saying yes, yes, yes, let’s do that in answer to her menu selections. She would smile at me with her kind, sparkling eyes and begin to write her list. Grampie’s assigned mission was to go overstreet (to Main Street in Richmond) for the supplies. He returned after his two-way trip across the river, laden with her handmade recycling bags filled to the brim with food and baking supplies he had gathered, following her list most carefully. He always jokingly remarked, Nearly emptied out the sto-ahh this time, shuda gone over for it all in the scow instead of Swanee! He must have been a handsome devil in his day. Even as a small girl I can remember loving the twinkle in his eyes and the dimples in his rosy cheeks.
A few days before Thanksgiving she began to thaw the frozen hulk of a turkey, dunking it in a salty brine bath another day. She commenced having what I came to think of as a pie-baking marathon. I was her “lovely assistant” atop my turtle stool, until at the conclusion; both of us were completely covered with flour. She could certainly produce a mouth-watering selection of picture-perfect pies: Custard with a crimped edge, cherry with a browned lattice top (my favorite), apple with sweet cinnamon-y juice bubbling out of the vents in its mountaintop crust, blueberry with pools of jellied blue juice highlighting the “B” Gramie had pierced in the top crust with a bone handled fork. Traditional mincemeat pie always seemed Grampie’s favorite with raisins, suet and a mystery ingredient that seemed to be some kind of adult secret I was not privy to for some reason. Might that secret ingredient have been venison? It’s only a question! She created cranberry sauce by simmering whole fresh cranberries in a well-worn aluminum pan on the woodstove.
Giant brown biscuits, light as a feather, came out of that little old woodstove oven. Plum pudding, which had no plums in it at all, steamed in a soup can with both ends removed set into a pot of boiling water. This hearty brown sweet bread required one more component before it could be served, the coveted nutmeg & vanilla flavored, hard sauce. Grampie was once again called into action at this stage in the Thanksgiving preparation. Only he had the biceps to stir this confection to its peak of perfection, a semi-stiff consistency to be spread like butter on top of warm plum pudding. Anyone observing could plainly see the kitchen was where Gramie worked her magic. She was masterful and happy there.
Baking utensils used in Marion’s island kitchen
PARKER carving the turkey
Essential to desserts were the ice cream toppings she made. Everything was laid out like a smorgasbord when the ice cream was ready. Frozen strawberries from the store had to be thawed and cut into chunks before slowly simmering down into thick syrup; pineapple “drizzle” syrup emerged after the pineapple juice was reduced down from the canned pineapple. Butterscotch, caramel and hot chocolate syrups were all made from scratch, containers of chocolate jimmies and red-hot cinnamon candies purchased “overstreet” were set out with spoons stuck in each container for self-serve scooping.
Before the homemade ice cream could be churned and all those toppings were ready, Grampie had to suit up as he called it to go outside to collect thick yard-long icicles off the roofline. He stuck the sparkling spears into layers of fluffy snow in a bucket like pencils into sand, later, inside breaking up the icicles to mix them with rock salt and snow. Those components would make the slushy mixture we used to surround the stainless steel bucket containing the actual ice cream recipe. Inside the shiny cylinder, the paddle turned all the ingredients, ensuring that the ice cream would freeze. We wound the handle, several people taking a shift, cranking it round and round as it increasingly became more difficult to turn or until our arms nearly fell off, then we were assured that the ice cream was the perfect consistency for eating.
I can still hear all our stainless steel spoons tapping like wind chimes against the bottoms of our cut-glass ice cream dishes. The next hour was a contest of demonstrating the various individual topping ideas. Excess ingredients slid down the ice cream mountains, like avalanches.
The woodstove had to maintain a consistent temperature for browning up the 25-lb. turkey, feeding everyone, sometimes up to twenty family members, friends, and children. Arranged in an L-shape, tables took up nearly the entire kitchen, a familiar place where we faced each other to share all those family jokes and crazy stories. There wasn’t much room for anyone to walk around to locate their appointed place at the table but everyone carefully searched for their spot. Gramie and I set her ancient but crisply ironed white linen tablecloths out before all the dishes, serving plates and food would be placed. I remembered her using the heavy metal iron, heated on the wood stove, intermittently coaxing the most stubborn wrinkles out by sprinkling the linen with a ginger ale bottle filled with cold water.
Each person could expect to find a nut cup of handmade design full of mints or candies and nuts with a name tag placed next to their designated plate. Some years the nut cups were styled as turkeys, made by tracing my hand on multi colored construction paper or leaves made of brown grocery bags, hand colored and cut out in the shape of oak leaves. Other years her origami fans laced with delicate ribbons and tiny silk roses were the project. One year we cut out pictures of each guest’s head from photos, simply glued to the side of the nut cup, designating the seating arrangement.
The pies stayed cool in the unheated room off the kitchen called the pantry. Canned goods and baking supplies were kept in the cool pantry on shelves surrounding all the walls but the one with the window in it, which had the perfect window seat for me, the room where I was banished during time out for childhood offenses. I always hoped that there was a freshly baked pie when I went in there from which I could cleverly steal a tasty bite.
I believed for a long time that no one would know who the culprit was, until one night shortly after I was tucked into my bed, I overheard Grammie telling a story to Grampie about how they must have mice because she found her fresh apple pie once half eaten except for the top crust. After that, I heard her repeat the story to many of her Needle Club friends at their next monthly meeting. I was too ashamed to ever do that amazing trick again.
Grampie would cross the river on Thanksgiving morning, after getting both the woodstoves roaring. At times, I would accompany him, other times I stayed back to help Grammie in the kitchen. He drove to Dresden Mills to pick up his father, my great-grandfather. After delivering him to the warm kitchen where we were still preparing the food, Grampie would cross that river yet again to meet and escort the rest of the guests, towing a toboggan heaped with Christmas gifts across from the Richmond dockside. We celebrated both holidays at once some years due to the frequent impassibility of the river for months during the winter as much as it probably was the one time everyone could manage getting together at the same time and place.
We shared our feast, gorged on desserts with the women, at last, doing the dishes with kettles of hot water heated on the stove while the men enjoyed a ride down Main Street to “check on the deer.” The afternoon concluded by us all gathering together in the parlor next to the Charlie Brown Christmas tree decorated with ornaments Grammie and I had made with dried botanicals. The miniature deer atop a cotton ball snowdrift or a tiny Christmas tree with little gift boxes under it were scenes we placed inside milkweed pods. Rather than purchased reels of shiny garland, we used thinly twisted vines for ours. Grammie instructed me on how to fold thinly, using imaginative cutting techniques for cutting delicate lacy snowflakes and in crimping tin foil into long elegant icicles that sparkled in the light of the kerosene lantern at night. I made colorful construction paper chains, our long strings of popcorn and cranberries took hours to string with a chunky long needle on waxy thread.
Walnuts were emptied of their contents, strung with yarn loops for hanging, glued back together then the textured nuts were painted in bright greens, reds, blues, and gold, sometimes dipped in glitter, all displayed so proudly on such a sparse little tree. It meant so much to know of its origin, I loved those trees more every year. Grampie trekked out into the woods for each tree, made a stand and presented it to Grammie.
In the fall, she and I spent hours combing the fields for the milkweed pods and vines to dry at just the perfect moment, harvesting the natural elements we turned into ornaments for our tree. She poured through mail-order catalogues to find the miniature animals, glitter, yarn, construction paper, glue or other items needed to create the scenes inside the hollow pods. They were things of beauty, which I packed with such care well into my adult life and through several cross-country moves.
The best part of all the festivities was being able to open the gifts we had handmade for each other. New flannel pajamas hand sewn on her treadle sewing machine for my sister, for our auntie, and for me. A delicately crocheted tablecloth for my mother, a new quilted denim vest for my father; a bottle of whiskey carefully wrapped in a beautiful patchwork quilt for Grandfather. A fifth bottle of vodka, creatively wrapped in a new knit winter cap and scarf for Grampie and brightly printed calico fabric, skeins of silk embroidery floss or balls of cotton crochet thread for Grammie. I was so proud to produce a multi-colored knitted chair seat, made with leftover yarn on my Knitting Knobby tool for the chair where she did her after-supper needlework.
The worst part was the cleanup when all the beautiful wrapping paper was set into the kindling box to aid in starting the next morning’s woodstove fire. Grampie had to take everyone back to the mainland for the drive back home. We were all tired, sometimes it had begun to snow and everyone had to rush before the storm got bad and crossing the river got too miserable. It got very quiet and suddenly the sweaty kitchen and the big drafty old house felt lonely again, but boy, did we have lots of goodies to eat! Most people left with what Gramie called a care package, her way of sending love back home with them but we still had “enough to feed all the starving kids in China,” Grammie would spout off.
For years I never gave any thought to the possibility that other children did not live on an isolated island, did not celebrate in such a grand way with family love surrounding them on that day.
Ours was what I truly believed Thanksgiving to be for the rest of the world. I definitely miss those Thanksgiving celebrations; often find myself singing the words “over the river and through the woods” as I drive over the hill from my house today to see the vista of Swan Island in the Kennebec River.