Beverly Beckham

The ghosts of Thanksgivings past

By Beverly Beckham
November 22, 2009

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The best thing about the holidays is the worst thing about the holidays. The past comes calling. Sometimes it taps you on the shoulder. Sometimes it tackles you. Sometimes you laugh at what you remember. Sometimes you cry.

One Thanksgiving . . . it must have been long ago, because look at the table. It’s crowded with people who are no longer here - my mother and father, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Matt, an old friend whom I haven’t seen in years. My children still children, not all grown up with children of their own.

On this Thanksgiving, which was more than 20 years ago, hard to believe, a pipe burst upstairs directly over the dining room and water soaked through the floor and into the ceiling, and the dining room ceiling collapsed.

Not all of it. But a big chunk. There was plaster on the floor and water everywhere and a turkey in the oven and company on the way.

My husband, Mr. Unflappable, turned off the main water supply, cleaned up the mess, found some poster board, and made a sign, which he taped to the mouth of a big cardboard turkey. He then hung the turkey with the sign so that it dangled out of the hole in the ceiling. “Happy Thanksgiving from the Hole Family,” the sign said. This took the place of a centerpiece that year.

Of all the Thanksgivings over all the years, this is the one that makes me laugh. But I wasn’t laughing then. Guests were coming. The place was a wreck. What were we going to do?

We ate. We laughed. We managed.

The hole in the ceiling wasn’t the only Thanksgiving disaster. One Thanksgiving, I forgot to turn on the oven. One Thanksgiving, I dropped the fully cooked turkey on the floor. One Thanksgiving just a few years ago, all the water in the house suddenly stopped working. No faucets. No toilets.

We try to make the holidays perfect, but they never are. Something breaks. Someone doesn’t show up. Someone says something inappropriate. Someone has hurt feelings. Something inevitably goes wrong.

Forty years ago, I brought my newborn son home from the hospital on Thanksgiving day. My mother-in-law cooked dinner at her house and brought it to mine. My mother made me my own mince pie. Everyone waited on me. Everyone fawned over the baby. Everyone I loved was alive and healthy. I was a young wife, a new mother, and still a pampered child.

That Thanksgiving was close to perfection. Not all of them are.

“Why can’t you make stuffing like Mrs. Butler?” I used to ask my mother.

She must have wanted to strangle me.

I see her tired from working the day before, tired from anticipating working the next day, at the stove making gravy, a thing she didn’t do well. And at my old kitchen table with the red Formica top, Little Nana, drinking port, and Big Nana across from her, drinking beer, both of them telling her what to do.

She must have wanted to strangle them, too.

I see me at my first Thanksgiving at my in-laws’ house, missing my mother and her turnip and apple cider because that’s what I was used to every year, parsnips and wine not part of my tradition.

I see years at my own house when a missing person at the table loomed larger than everyone who was there.

“I’m thankful for . . . ” we say around a table every year. “I’m thankful for my family. I’m thankful for my friends. I’m thankful for the roof over my head, for this feast, for all of us being together, for the life we live.”

This is the one constant, the real picture of Thanksgiving. Not what’s on the table. And not who’s sitting around the table. But a nation of people giving thanks.

Even when there’s someone missing. Even when the ceiling is caving in.

Canton resident Beverly Beckham can be reached at