I survived my childhood Thanksgivings, but Red Death still haunts me

Write what you know the old adage goes.

That is good advice, and as I do know a few things, here is where I will write about them. For instance, I know that raisins are an utter disappointment for anyone who was expecting chocolate chips. I know that a budding clarinet player has the unique ability to call down wild geese right out of the sky. And I know that the morning you finally decide to water your dying lawn, it will rain all afternoon and evening, even though it hasn’t rained a drop for an entire three week stretch.

But I also know this:

If a certain type of Thanksgiving Jello-salad has earned itself a nickname, then it’s best to not eat it.

Before I explain this, let me give you some background on my childhood Thanksgivings. Thanksgiving was a huge affair in our family. It wasn’t very often we gathered the extended kinsfolk together. Relatives drove for multiple hours, all to meet up in the elite and affluent neighborhood where my Aunt and Uncle lived.

The entire lot of us arrived in formal attire and invaded their house for the full length of the day. We ate appetizers off silver trays and exotic nuts out of crystal bowls that were strategically placed throughout the house. Adults laughed and sipped Bloody Marys and knocked-back expensive beers while the wine chilled outside in ice buckets.

To this day I cannot smell any beer without thinking of my uncles with their khaki pants and sweater vests, warm smiles and Heineken bottles.

The cousins and I would remove our dress shoes and run and slide down the long wooden hallway in our socks and tights. We girls twirled in our long dresses, while the boys played Foosball and tugged at their ties.

Although blood related, this entire side of the family outclassed us in nearly every sense. It was not uncommon for my aunt to rent linens, silverware and table accessories that might have come directly from Martha Stewart’s own house. Large tables were set up in the “library” and placed atop a dazzling white fur rug. My aunt threatened to cut off our heads if we spilled even a drop of cranberry sauce, so the children sat at the end of the room, further away from the adults and all the interesting conversation.

Not only was the turkey roasted and carved in grand splendor, fancy dishes were passed down the table while soft candlelight flickered in the dim room and our food gleamed on top of our china plates. Everything was delectable. The tables carried every available food accessory down to the last detail; gherkins, olives, butters and giblet gravy, sauces of all kinds, cloth napkins and fresh rolls. Grown ups chatted and laughed and sipped their wine while a fire roared quietly in the lovely brick fireplace behind the table. Cider popped and fizzled from the bottles. Cousins giggled and told jokes. It was enough grandeur for the royal family.

Except for one thing.

Next to each place setting, was a perfectly square piece of jello salad. It was a layer of shiny, thick, translucent gelatin (probably dyed red from the blood of naked mole rats), with a bottom layer of chunky maggot paste and toenails masquerading as whipped cream and nuts. This was all cheerfully served atop a romaine lettuce leaf on a small fine-china plate.

Red Death.

Even the adults called it that and still do.

Year after year the cousins and I sat and wondered who would be the first to cave in and eat the Red Death, in order to be excused from the table and earn dessert. It was a death match. Kids vs the jello salad from Hell. And Hell won each and every time.

One year in particular, a pact was made, as we sat at the end of the kid table, buttering our rolls and pretending we didn’t just smudge Martha’s table linen with cranberry sauce. With quiet whispers we all agreed that nobody would eat the Red Death, no matter what the threat. The parents sitting up yonder, sopping up gravy and knocking back Budweisers, could just deal with the fact that when dinner ended, Red Death would remain next to each of our plates, untouched. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, fools. It was a brilliant plan and we soared through the first rounds of competition with ease.

Time passed and eventually we were outwitted by my Aunt, who shrewdly and loudly announced “I’ll pay $5 to anyone who eats their enire jello salad.”

My brother (Uncle Fun) and I exchanged solemn looks. Was she serious? Five whole dollars just for a brief encounter with the Red Death? Now there’s a deal. After all, we only had to eat it once a year. Being that Uncle Fun and I were broke, rednecky children, anytime cold hard cash was offered for something as mediocre as food bribery, we were sure to take it.

So we caved.

On that cold dark Thanksgiving night, as candles flickered and sparkling cider gleamed in our goblets; as we endured jaw-dropping glares from our fellow comrades, we broke the unified resolve in the war against poison. Bite by bite, with the last shreds of our dignity and determination fading, we solemnly collected that money with outstretched hands and upset stomachs.

There are fond memories that spring to my mind as I think back to my childhood, especially after flipping through old family photographs that have been worn around the corners and grayed over the decades; the family photos that were taken in front of my aunt’s fireplace as we stood in 1980’s formal wear. To this day I want to breathe into a bag when I look back at how horrifically my bangs were cut and how I wore a plaid pleated skirt with a red sweater covered in 100 white sheep, and one black one. We stood together and smiled while a friendly uncle snapped multiple photographs for our album.

I know a few things. 

I know I will never cut my daughters’ bangs myself. I know cannot possibly duplicate the giblet gravy, because I’m convinced even the cooks themselves didn’t fully realize what went in there. And I know I will never be able to replicate the elegance and splendor that Thanksgiving brought each and every year.

And I know this:

Thanksgiving runs just fine without serving jello salad.

 

 

 

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Swim-goggles and Ork bodies; The truth about the pumpkin patch

Over the years our family has trekked out to various farms and pumpkin-picking locations, but no matter where we go, the basic experience remains the same. If you’ve never hauled your brood off to a farm for family bonding let me explain what fun you’ve been missing. Ready? It will go something like this:

Your young child will wake you up before a sliver of daylight has appeared in the sky. He has figured out that it’s Pumpkin Patch Day.

It’s your fault he knows this, because you have the day circled in red pen on your calendar. Forget the fact that your cherub can’t even read, or that you wrote on the calendar using indecipherable Enigma Code, which required the best military minds of WWII to crack.

You thought writing on the calendar in code would be clever. Nah.

Your 3 year old will crack that code in a nanosecond, knock back whipped cream straight from the can and do a ninja dance on top of your oven. Naked. Then he’ll parade through the house waking up every single sibling shouting  “We’re going to the pumpkin patch todaaaaaay!” Every child can understand this announcement with perfect clarity although your tot can barely speak English.

Now you’re up at the crack of dawn, whether you like it or not. You give each child explicit instructions on how to dress and point them to where their pre-assembled outfits hang freshly pressed and labeled with their name. Socks, underwear, pants, shirt, sweater, shoes and coat. You’ve aimed for clothing colors that are coordinated, in hope of that ONE magical photo that you can use on a Christmas card to send to your ungrateful relatives who don’t even like you.

Despite your simple, direct instructions and well-thought preparations, be assured that one kid will come down in a Cinderella ballgown, pink rubber gloves, swim goggles and a tiara. You have a better chance of field-dressing a Sasquatch than getting that perfect and illusive family photo. The sooner you accept this, the better. Chug some coffee and get over it.

Into the van go three different name-brand baby carriers and a sling. For the baby you load a puffy orange pumpkin costume because your unrealistically optimistic mind can’t let go of a “Baby’s First Autumn” photo to place on your mantle so your Thanksgiving dinner guests can ooh-and-aah while choking down their yams. Also into the van go 8 old towels and 10 plastic garbage bags, because you learned from last year.

Outside it’s dark. It’s dumping buckets of rain, and the air is colder than Jack Frost’s snot. Everyone is bundled in attire perfect for skiing and yet you know by the time you arrive at the pumpkin farm everyone will be sweating in sunny 85 degree weather. The sweat will make them itchy and miserable, so you load 14 more shirt combinations to accommodate various weather outcomes, just in case. Everything is color coordinated, of course, except for your daughter’s light blue Cinderella ballgown and swim goggles. You’re basically screwed with that one. It’s best to load everyone in and move on.

Upon your late arrival to the farm, the kids will pour out and immediately want to run 13 different directions at the exact same moment. Force everyone to freeze and choose your optimum baby-wearing device. Now’s not the time to lose your wits. Keep it together, man.

Steer your brood into the line for the next hayride out to the Pumpkin Field. Dad will go into the barn-turned-produce-stand-and-farm-boutique and buy tickets to the corn maze because it sounds so fun at the time. The little kids spot a distant tractor that pulls miniature train cars painted like drunk cows and want a ride. You have to convince them that the time will come and that first they need to pick out their pumpkins.

Nobody gives a crud about pumpkins anymore because they are doped up on dreams of riding the tractor-cow-train and getting high off the smell of kettle corn, which is layered between the odors of wet hay and cow dung. Ignore their whining and point out the hay wagon that’s coming in your direction. It’s their turn to pick out pumpkins down in the field across the way.

Wait.

Is that a field? It looks like the stinking marshes that Hobbits trek through on the way to Mordor.

At a distance, you notice the “field” is covered in thick mud and shimmering with water from the morning rainfall. See those orange specks bobbing up and down…way…over…there…? Those are your pumpkins. Betcha didn’t know pumpkins can swim. That kid with the swim goggles on? Way smarter than you are. Apparently she learned from last year too.

Load into the hay wagon and hang on for dear life. You don’t want to know the details about this ride, so I’m leaving them out.

After exiting, one of the small kids will spot a Honey-Bucket nearby and become entirely obsessed with needing to pee. This will be a totally new experience and they will not leave you alone until they have peed while standing in a portable blue sardine can. Ironically, this will be the same child who is ENTIRELY UNMOTIVATED to use the toilet at home, for any reason.

Join the rest of the family and prepare to make the best memories ever. Choosing everyone’s pumpkins will be slightly uneventful…Unless you count the 80 minutes it takes to wade past all the dead Ork bodies in the stinking marshes and the wheelbarrow that won’t quite float or move no matter how strong Dad is. Not to mention the three kids who have slipped and fallen face-first into the mud, or the 4 year old who wants a different pumpkin about every 6 minutes. *REMINDER: Don’t leave all your ski coats out here in the field. You will have several of them laying in the mud at this point and you’ll need to carry them all from this point on. After all, it’s 85 degrees now.*

Pay the $139.76 for the pumpkins and head into the corn maze. Because it is incredibly fun dragging muddy, wet children and toddlers down a smelly path lined with rows and rows of dead corn stalks, for about an hour. Or is it three days? Nobody knows. Hopefully you can get everyone back out before the vultures circle.

Now that the baby is screaming, try and breastfeed holding her with one arm while simultaneously holding onto a Flop Tantruming preschooler who refuses to walk and is sitting criss-cross-applesauce in a puddle. Don’t be shy. Go ahead and nurse while leaning over and trying to yank him back up. I’m sure Google Earth won’t be photographing this day.

After emerging from the corn maze, it will be time for the tractor-cow-train, which is what your young children have really wanted all along. You never can tell how a small person will cope with sitting inside a barrel that’s being towed behind a John Deere tractor driven by a fat man in overalls. If your kiddies start screaming and crying as they go zooming past you, just smile and wave and pretend you don’t hear them. After all, you paid $11 bucks a piece to have this experience, so let them live it and love it. If they vomit, just pretend it was already there when they got in.

You spot a perfect photo op, so line up the muddy, dazed, motion-sick kids and force them to stick their faces into wooden cut-outs of sheep, cows, Indians and pilgrims. It’s nearly a perfect picture, except for the one screaming and foaming at the mouth. Never mind. You can scratch this from your Instagram album.

Last stop is at the barn-turned-produce-stand-and-farm-boutique, where you spend $85 on a home baked apple pie and a jar of apple butter. Control your impulses here because it’s very tempting to go overboard. Like on those LEAVES that are being labeled and sold as festive seasonal decor. Take it from me; don’t spend your money on yard waste. You’ll need that money later to buy wine.

Don’t even consider buying that charming, hand-sewn, red apron that says ‘I Love Autumn’ because it will cost you a kidney, and you need both kidneys to process all the wine you’re about to drink when you get home.

Dad will lay down towels and load the pumpkins into the van. Chilled and muddy kids will begin stripping off their pants in preparation to sit on plastic garbage bags in their seats. Despite all the extra shirts and all the previous years of experiences, you still made a classic blunder and forgot to pack extra pants. Don’t panic. Towels are perfect makeshift skirts. Load everyone in, buckle up, pull up Yanni on Pandora and try to lull the little cherubs to sleep with soft instrumentals and a snack.

Distribute kettle corn onto paper napkins on everyone’s lap and try not to think about the fact that your kids are consuming lap-food with no pants on. Haul everyone home, wake them all up and carry them off to baths and bed.

Next time you see a family of Jack’O’ lanterns gracing the porches of your neighborhood, pause and have a moment of silence for all they went through to get them…unless they cheated, and bought pumpkins at the local Walmart.

The Pumpkin Patch is the perfect place to experience memory-making adventures. Plus it gives you extra reasons to buy a truck-load of dark chocolate and wine; not to mention giving your children plenty of stories to tell their grandchildren. Or their therapists.