I often slept through the three-hour drives between our house and Storeyland, but I knew we were close when my parents’ Dodge Caravan began bouncing through the dips worn into the dirt roads of the neighborhood.
Before the van even stopped, my sister and I had yanked open the vehicle’s sliding door and alighted. A pack of dogs, each animal jumping and wagging its tail with excitement, surrounded us and followed at our heels as my sister and I weaved our way around the jungle-like property to alert our cousins, aunt and uncle: The Winslows had arrived. Thanksgiving could begin.
Holidays experienced as a child feature a unique blend of uncertainty and safety: anything could happen, but our parents confidently control the strings. They are the purveyors of food, activities and even presents. Mine also were the purveyors of family, the organizers of offbeat yet cherished Thanksgiving trips to visit the Storeys, my mom’s sister and her family, at their Lake Worth, Fla., home.
We ate dinner late because there was so much to do: backyard soccer, badminton, croquet and pingpong. Every activity became a competition, the teams divided along familial lines with my dad, “Professor Poppycock,” leading the Winslow faction of my sister and me, and my uncle, “The Knothead,” leading my three cousins. Family friends (a sculptor who constructed his own castle-shaped abode; a crop-duster pilot forever pursuing a new lady love; a wizened hippie who for a time lived in an inoperable van sinking into the backyard) were always on hand, and they filled the rosters as needed. Somehow – perhaps it was The Knothead’s idea – we got into the habit of forming human pyramids. As the years advanced, I “graduated” from the top of the pyramid to the middle tier to a member of the foundation.
My mom and aunt and their mom, “Grandmonster,” stationed themselves in the kitchen, “A Prairie Home Companion” providing a soundtrack of sorts as they cooked and chatted and distanced themselves from my dad and uncle’s exhausting attempts to out-ringmaster each other. If they weren’t careful, the women would get roped into the group bike ride, a spectacle that always reminded me of “The Great Muppet Caper” bicycle scene, thanks to our group’s similarly colorful cast of characters.
Cocktail hour meant scaling a ladder to watch the sunset from the cockpit of the “Sea Storey,” a 48-foot Cheoy Lee Ketch sailboat nestled within a wood frame just beyond the backdoor. From that height, we could see beyond the oaks and royal poincianas and into the neighbors’ yards. Our kingdom stretched out before us.
Thanksgiving dinner consisted of dry turkey, lumpy mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, Pillsbury croissants and one of my aunt’s famous salads, every ingredient – cherry tomatoes, Persian cucumber, olives, carrot, avocado – lovingly sliced into bite-sized pieces. The meal, though not gourmet (consuming my uncle’s gravy, in fact, amounted to a gastronomical dare), was tasty and satisfying after a long day of backyard Olympics. Instead of prayer, my uncle led us in song, clapping hands and swaying from side to side: “Amen. Amen. Amen, amen, amen. Hallelujah!” My mom invariably rolled her eyes. We ate. No one yet owned a cellphone, so we swapped stories and laughed. Later, we donned hats from the Storeys’ impressive collection (a pith helmet, a fedora, a sombrero) and danced around the living room to Roy Orbison and Lyle Lovett. Lampshades on heads were not uncommon. When we grew sleepy watching the embers of the bonfire outside, we retreated to sleep on air mattresses certain to lose all of their air by morning.
Thanksgivings are much more staid – boring even – since the youngest members of our gang reached adulthood and dispersed around the country. Anyway, our playground is gone. The Storeys sold Storeyland after my cousins left high school, and my aunt and uncle now live aboard the restored “Sea Storey.” Grandmonster, our beloved, quirky matriarch, died in 2003. With the exception of Zorro, all of the family mutts I associate with that time have passed on, too.
I recently phoned my mom and asked her to reflect on our Thanksgiving adventures. We laughed while recounting many of the anecdotes I’ve included here. But she misses those days, too.
“It makes me sad,” she said. “It makes me sad I didn’t appreciate it more. That’s probably the last time we were all together.”
Her words, while not exactly providing the upbeat ending I was hoping for, are a lesson I’ll keep with me as I assume the Thanksgiving ringmaster role for my family’s next generation: Be thankful for every moment – especially the imperfect ones.