My mother’s ritualistic preparations for Thanksgiving always began three weeks before the holiday. She would pull out her huge loose-leaf binder, titled “T-Day Inspirations,” and pore over its crammed contents torn out of the Kansas City Star’s Home Section and House Beautiful’s “Helpful Hints” columns.
Though well-organized in my mother’s mind, this tome, dedicated to the decorative exultation of Thanksgiving, is a compendium of yellowed newsprint, crinkled glossy paper, Scotch-taped leaflets and overexposed, serrated-edged snapshots of table décors of the past. Dad referred to it as a “dusty firetrap” (perhaps because it was), but for three weeks before Thanksgiving, this pile of paper absorbed my mother’s full attention.Mother’s enthusiasm was palpable, and no matter what drudgery she forced upon her three unwilling boys, such as carrying pinion logs up from the basement, table leaves down from the attic, or tablecloth bolts from the linen closet, the holiday spirit infused every corner of Dumford Circle, where we lived. From the phonograph behind the false-book-spine-covered door to our living room you could hear playing a combination of a Robert Shaw Chorale version of “Come ye thankful people, come,” Bill Evans (for whom Dad was thankful), and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Every year there was a different decorative Thanksgiving suggestion that sprang from that firetrap binder. Large pinecone turkeys in baskets one year, pilgrim hats and bonnets another, or a sumptuous Newport-themed table the next. But one year in particular, the suggestion was to use feathers as the holiday theme. This made things very interesting, since my mother was a rather embittered “bird hunting widow,” as Dad was an avid hunter. Our autumn was not clocked by end-of-season baseball, football or soccer, nor by anything cultural either. No, our autumn was gauged by Dad’s disappearance into the hunting season for teal, followed by duck season, then goose, quail, pheasant and grouse season. And to my mother’s great delight, the almighty binder yielded a bird theme that might draw her closer to my father and his seasonal avocation.
Her tenacious efforts procured from my father a perfect stuffed snow goose. A stuffed, blue-winged teal in full plumage, frozen in full flight, suddenly appeared at the doorstep with a stout, stuffed, mallard with miscolored red glass eyes that appeared to be waddling menacingly toward you. (We called him “Ducky of the Damned.”) Several large, stuffed Canadian geese perched attentively on half-logs appeared in a large wheelbarrow. What seemed like an entire cubby of quail peeking around tufts of dried corn stalks and tightly wired heads of milo hovered upon a huge, amorphous plywood cutout sprinkled with Indian corn kernels. Needless to say, this was more than enough to don and decorate the Thanksgiving table, which sat 33 family members and stretched through three rooms.
But no. More was to come and the binder was to be further consulted. The decorating gurus insisted on long pheasant feathers wrapped in a wreath requiring hundreds of feathers that even my father’s sportsman’s prowess couldn’t keep up with. So the entire pheasant that he had bagged became the creative alternative to the feathers which were twisted around a circular armature of grape vines. Colorfully divided into four parts, this kaleidoscopic pheasant wreath was hung gracefully on our door knocker, to the joy of my mother and father and to the revulsion of almost everyone else.
And it didn’t stop there. To everyone’s surprise, Mother decided that one of the headless, flattened birds was to reside in a nest of evergreens on our formal, 18th-century French bombé chest, double reflected in her gilded, Rococo mirror. I remember how our guests and relatives, after managing to get over the drawn-and-quartered carcass wreath, were pretty much re-traumatized by our foyer display of the pheasant centerpiece.
With so much taxidermy at hand, and such a remarkable variety of positions, mountings and flight patterns, Mother decided to avoid consulting the “holy” binder, and throw caution to the wind. Running up and down the Thanksgiving table, she placed every single bit of taxidermy, linking it with miles of bittersweet that she dragged in from outside, plus cattails that she forgot to lacquer. When they are unlacquered, the white floatie feathers tend to explode and drift everywhere. And explode they did.
Our usual Thanksgiving dinner included not only the turkey, but also the birds shot by Dad. So this particular holiday, the 25-foot table sporting all manner of stuffed, roasted, flying, landing, perching and flattened fowl was quite the bounteous scene. The orange bittersweet berries were rolling onto the floors and the white cattail floaties were clinging onto everything, including our fully charged plates, the chandelier and all the taxidermy. The children loved it; the adults were baffled. Though we could barely talk to each other through the astonishing abundance of birds, vines and cattails, once the scotch and martinis had inured the adults to the miasma before them, and after we finished picking out the floaties, we all toasted my mother’s creativity, my father’s hunting bounty and our general good spirits. Both of my parents beamed with pride at their shared successes.
Years later my brothers and I found that infamous binder and were astonished at its thorough organization. Much to our surprise, the feather article was NOT among the “T-Day Inspirations.” Perhaps she pulled a fast one on us? We never had quite as extravagant a Thanksgiving table again. But for some reason, Mother never threw away the flattened pheasant nor the drawn-and-quartered wreath, which I recently rediscovered in my basement. When I lifted the lid of the storage box, a storm of molting feathers accompanied by a few cattail floaties escaped, and the memories came flooding back, reminding me how thankful I am to have celebrated so many memorable Thanksgivings with my family.