Gentle, time-tested rules govern a family's holiday observance

Celebration: The furniture, the tablecloth and even the food we enjoy have changed little over the years.

November 27, 1999|By Jacques Kelly

LAST SATURDAY morning I was sitting on a curb, chatting with a friend, at the corner of Barclay and 32nd. I looked up, and there was my father, looking sharp in an emerald green sweater, in search of good baking potatoes at the Waverly Farmers Market.

When Thanksgiving week rolls around, it's time to stock the larder with the fall harvest, just one of the gentle rules that govern family holiday observance.

Like any good family tradition, these precepts govern the way we behave throughout this weekend.

Take, for example, the phone call I got this week. My father wanted to know if I had the lace tablecloth? Which one -- great-grandmother's old O'Neill's cloth or the cutwork one from Hutzler's or the Brager-Gutman model?

We agreed the 1980s Hutzler Brothers cloth would do.

We just about fit around the dining room table, the same table my family's been using since -- I guess -- the 1870s.

My grandmother Lily Rose, who was born in 1886, told me the table was old when she was a child. It was used when she lived on Broadway near Lafayette. It arrived in the house in 1915 and hasn't been moved. Well, it was moved at least once, when we wore out the base and it had to be repaired.

Some time in the 1930s my uncle Edward Jacques leaned back in a dining room chair and went through the china closet's glass door. He managed to drive a large crack through it -- a break line that remained for the next 40 years.

One summer, not long before she died, my mother decided to have the glass door repaired. I have no idea why she waited 40 years. She sent the door out, and it came back with a fresh piece of glass rolled into the curving shape of the original. She did not live long after the door was repaired. I often thought this little task was something she wanted to accomplish before she departed these parts.

We've had a very full house this weekend. My sister is in town with her young family -- and everyone gathered at the old house.

When this happens, all the chairs we own get used. Most are as old as my grandmother. Their wooden joints are uncertain, and the seats wobble, especially after a meal prepared by my youngest sister, Josephine. It is uncanny how much her cooking resembles the foods that would have been set on on the table 40 years ago.

Her gravy, turkey and dressing have the same delightful taste we all experienced as children. She adheres to one of the essential rules of this harvest season -- let the family tastes prevail.

In the food department, I am asked only to provide the sauerkraut and some cranberries.

They let me off the hook in one regard. Whereas grandmother Lily Rose and her sister, great Aunt Cora, would have chopped their own cabbage and cured their own sauerkraut in heavy stoneware crocks, I'm allowed to buy it in plastic bags. For that dispensation, I give great thanks.

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