Thanksgiving 2020 will be unlike any other for many families. But it doesn’t take a pandemic to elicit a dramatic change in holiday plans. Decades ago, as relative after relative arrived at our Highland Park home in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I eagerly anticipated Mom’s usual feast of two turkeys basted to a golden-brown crust with Granny Smith apple and celery stuffing, mounds of mashed potatoes dripping with butter, acorn squash sprinkled with brown sugar, sausage links, dilled carrots, sautéed French-cut green beans with almonds, and steaming biscuits waiting to be dipped in thick gravy. And the pies—oh, the pies!—apple, pumpkin chiffon, and French silk.

Mom had set the adults’ table for 10 with Grandma’s white linen tablecloth and napkins, white scalloped plates, polished silverware and sparkling glassware. But that year, instead of the usual bouquet of fresh flowers from the store, Mom filled the chunky glass vase with dried hydrangeas from her garden.

Thanksgiving
Nora and Fred Wagner gathered with eight of their nine children (the youngest was not yet born) around the time of the gumball store Thanksgiving. Writer Beth Voigt is seated at the far right.

The kids’ table was set more simply than the adults’, as usual. It ran the length of the living room and connected with the adults’ table in the dining room. There, the nine of us siblings would sit with our six cousins.

It took a full 24 hours to get everything washed, chopped, cooked, baked and garnished for our Thanksgiving crowd. As Grandma, Aunt Shirley and Mom conferred in the kitchen, I poked my head in the doorway, hoping to sample the food. Mom was mashing the potatoes in a 10-gallon stockpot, adding water instead of the usual milk, cream cheese, sour cream and butter. “Aren’t we having…?” I asked, alarmed that one of my favorites wouldn’t be on the menu.

“I’m trying a new recipe this year,” Mom said.

Aunt Shirley and Grandma looked down, busying themselves with peeling the carrots. I looked in the fridge, hoping to get a taste of ambrosia salad, but didn’t find any, nor much else. I looked around for the pies and then quizzically at Mom. Before I could ask her where she had put the pies, she said, “When Dad comes home from work, would you go to the store with him?”

“Sure,” I said, relieved that more food was coming, and went off to find my cousins and siblings to build a snowman. By the time Dad got home from work, I was ready. He talked quietly to Mom, kissed her and headed out the door with me.

“Are we going to Red Owl or Applebaum’s?”

“Neither,” Dad said. “We’re going to the gumball store.” That was our name for the gas station and convenience store on West Seventh and Davern streets. It’s where my younger sisters and I would get one gumball each from the gumball machine while Dad pumped gas.

“And then where?”

“That’s it. Nowhere else.”

I frowned. Though our gumball store was stocked better than most, we needed a lot more than it had to offer to make our Thanksgiving dinner complete. Even at the age of 10, I knew that.

Since the gumball store didn’t have grocery carts, I helped Dad carry the items as we walked up and down the short aisles. Dad handed me four boxes of frozen squash, two boxes of frozen sausages, three loaves of Taystee white bread and 10 cans of Chicken of the Sea shredded chicken. He then loaded his arms with several cans of corn and peas and three canned hams.

“Dad, why are we…?”

“Want a gumball?”

We unloaded our items on the counter. Dad handed me some change before giving his credit card to the clerk to pay for the groceries. “Go ahead and get two gumballs.”

When we returned home, Mom, Aunt Shirley and Grandma went into high gear, unpacking the groceries and shooing us out of the kitchen. Mom kissed Dad on the cheek and said, “Thank you.”

That Thanksgiving evening, as the 25 of us crowded around our tables, Dad gave the blessing: “Thank you for this bountiful table and this healthy family, and help all those who are less fortunate tonight.”

It wasn’t until years later that I learned how much my parents’ business was struggling that year and what minimal money they had to feed our large crew. I learned that even so, they had shared some of the fixings purchased for our feast with a neighbor in need. And I discovered that the gumball store was one of the few places back then where you could purchase groceries with a credit card.

This Thanksgiving, as I gather with my small bubble of loved ones, I will give thanks for the lessons my parents taught me on that Thanksgiving so long ago, for the bounty of food on our table, and for the extended family of 60 or so with whom I will once again celebrate at future holiday gatherings.

— Beth Voigt, Summit Hill.

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