It started months ago. Weeks before the autumnal equinox, long before the first frost, pumpkins began appearing in the lobby of my apartment building. Bedecked with straw hats and carved faces, they crowded our entryway and clustered around mailboxes, announcing the arrival of fall. In short order, an assortment of turkeys wearing pilgrim collars joined them. Can the dancing elves of Christmas be far behind?
Usual harbingers of seasonal delights—crisp walks amid turning leaves, cozy evenings sipping cocoa and reading new novels—these creatures have become for me, instead, messengers of premature dread. The holidays are coming.
It has been just over a year since my father’s funeral. A cerebral hemorrhage, sudden and swift, turned our family on its ear overnight. Everything is different now. Our lives seem to be teetering on the edge of a gaping hole. We miss Dad more than we can manage.
Considering the state of the world, our loss pales in the larger scheme of things. Families around the globe are slogging through grief as a result of the violence captured in every headline and news broadcast of late. At least my father’s death was part of the natural course of aging.
In the face of sadness, it is said that life has a way of moving on; that in change itself, there is mercy. I suppose that’s so. Time has made adjustment to our loss easier—until now. My mother just announced her decision to sell the family home.
Logically, it is a good decision. Majestic English Tudors are lovely houses in which to grow up, but impossible places to live in when you’re alone and grieving. My brothers and sisters and I have long since left for places and paths of our own. Unable to bear rambling around in the house by herself, even Mom has taken to spending nights in a nearby condominium. It’s time to sell.
Unfortunately, my heart has not been able to keep pace with my mind. Emotions are caught in a tangled web of nostalgia, while reason races ahead to make appointments with realtors. Everything is moving too fast.
Shortly after Mom announced the impending sale, I flew home to help with preparations. My brother, David, and sister, Janet, had been at it long before I arrived, storming through closets with a vengeance, moving through storehouses of over 60 years of living. I was not sure how I could help, but I knew it was important to be there.
As we drove from the airport, Mom tried to prepare me, to protect me from the shock of bagged discards and boxed estate sale items that once were the “stuff” of our home. “It’s just a mess,” she warned.
No surprises there. I knew the house would be chaos and had steeled myself against it. I was ready to pitch in, box, bag, drag and toss with the others. “It’s time,” I kept repeating. “It was a good decision.” But there was a flaw in my armor of rationality. I had not prepared for particulars.
Pulling into the driveway, Mom insisted we use the front door to avoid a back porch stuffed with clothes. “It’s just a mess,” she muttered again softly. I remember thinking that this “mess” was becoming her mantra. It should have cued me to the mayhem I was about to encounter.
As the front door opened, we were greeted with absolute bedlam. Six million knickknacks and gewgaws were strewn across the floor. Furniture was stacked in precarious piles throughout the room. It looked like a block sale gone berserk. And this was only the entrance hall. Was all this stuff really ours?
We laughed at the array, gingerly winding our way through the maze as she began detailing the progress in packing. But I was not listening. I stood transfixed, unable to breathe. Our china cabinet had been violated.
A massive piece of antique furniture, it had stood proudly in our dining room for as long as I could remember. This was the holy of holies, a place where not only china and crystal were stored, but where first Communion rosaries and dented sterling silver baby rattles were squirreled away for safekeeping. This was where, as children, we shoved our huge St. Joseph Missals after returning from Sunday Mass, careful to smooth out the ribbons marking our places amid pages of ritual. This was the repository of things too special for everyday use and viewing.
Now it stood bereft, emptied of most of its treasures, the door swinging open for all to see the void within. I felt as though a tabernacle had been desecrated; an irreverent version of the stripping of the altars on Good Friday unfolded before me. I stepped over the clutter on the floor and reached out gently to close the door on thousands of memories. But something caught my eye. The particulars were escalating. There, hidden in the corner, stood my childhood companions: two ceramic turkeys—salt and pepper shakers of the variety found long ago in every Woolworth store across America.
For decades, these schmaltzy creatures had graced our Thanksgiving table. Year after year, amid fine china, crystal and linen, they stood nobly in their garish orange and brown ceramic feathers, refusing to bow before the pageantry of pomp and splendor surrounding them. Their honest simplicity offered a silent challenge as they were passed among the members of our extended family gathered yearly around the table.
These turkeys were for us a grounding in normalcy amidst the facade of grandeur; a balance of simplicity on the scales of spectacle; a reminder of the deeper essence of our celebrations. With each shake of their tails and outpouring of seasoning, they told us our greatest treasure was not to be found in our finery, but in the simple bond of relationships that held us together as family.
Standing before the turkeys for this last time, I began to wonder if we had heard their messages. As adults, our lives have scattered us along the East Coast, our choices creating patterns and commitments that leave little room for siblings. Time and distance continue to take their toll on relationships.
It is my mother who remains our connector, the one to whom we turn for updates, who guards our family, the place we call home long after having left it to make our own elsewhere. What was to become of us now that our house, our place of belonging and gathering, was being disassembled, marketed and sold?
One thing was certain. The turkeys’ lives were about to end. If my sister found them, they would be relegated to the trash. If my brother happened upon them, they would be tagged for a yard sale. But I was the one they had fallen to, and once again they brought blessing. They had lifted the veil of defenses, pointing beyond the task of closing our house to contemplating the responsibilities of family ties.
I knew I could not abandon the turkeys to the disgrace of a trash pile or publicity of an estate sale. In the privacy of our dining room, we had become partners in fate. Neither the turkeys nor I would ever see another holiday in our home, but the mission of family was still before us. Nothing is beyond redemption. It was clear: my first act in disassembling our house would be one of salvage.
Taking the turkeys from the cabinet, I carried them gently to the kitchen to empty their bellies of salt and pepper. The rubber stoppers in their bases had grown so hardened they nearly crumbled as I pried them loose. Suddenly, pepper was everywhere.
“Damn,” I shouted at no one in particular, at everything in general. “It’s a mess.” I felt swept up in the mayhem—and swallowed by loss, grief, change and transition. I was standing at that terrible point of emptying, when what was is no longer, and what will be has yet to evolve. The turkeys were weakening my defenses, ruining my ability to reason, opening the dreaded door of vulnerability.
Disgusted with sentimentality, I brushed away the pepper, grabbed the turkeys and turned to toss them in the trash. But I stopped. Something was missing. It just didn’t feel right. And then, I knew. It was the salt. There wasn’t any. Not a single grain anywhere. I gave the turkeys another shake and finally, it came; not the salt, but their deepest blessing.
In my heart’s eye, memories of my father poured forth. I could see him, each holiday, every meal, presiding at the head of the table. Casually slouched a bit in his chair, his tie loosened slightly at day’s end, he would sit poised with a salt shaker at his fingertips, seasoning his food over and over until even a deer would have cried for mercy. How he loved his salt. How we all loved him.
Somehow, Dad was able to make everything right, taking away our doubts and fears, instilling confidence and self-assurance. “Everything’s gonna be all right,” he’d proclaim. It was the Southern gentleman’s version of Julian’s “all shall be well.” And we believed him. For a time, it was so. Nothing ever seemed to be “a mess.”
The memory of decades of family events danced within me: births and baptisms; weddings and anniversaries; Advent wreaths and Easter egg hunts; sibling squabbles and reconciled rivalries; homework and graduations; all the celebrations of family life played against a backdrop of ringing telephones, blaring stereos, piano practicing and the voices of children. Our house was always filled with life, and together, my parents presided over it all.
I now began to see the wisdom of these turkeys. My inner turmoil was not about the china cabinet, the loss of accumulated mementos or even the house itself. This whole ordeal was about home, about something that transcends geographic boundaries and time. This was about family, the relationships that are challenged as roles shift, the reshuffling that is necessary when one generation passes away. This was about life, that marvelous invitation to intimacy and love; about the responsibilities that accompany relationships; about our deepest grounding in God, the source and end of all; about Love defying stasis.
Gradually, heart and mind understood as one. My family was not something that could be boxed, bagged or easily discarded. The memories of our house would be with us long after the doors were closed and its keys turned over to new owners. Our home, our love for one another would transcend the details of real estate and property. Ours was a bond that would sustain us through the tears and turmoil of downsizing, disposing and even dying. Together, we would see to it.
As I looked at the turkeys perched in my hand, I whispered, “thank you.” Then, before anyone could see, I wrapped them in paper towels and tucked them into my backpack. They were coming home with me as reminders of the only inheritance I wanted, of the treasure I will always cherish—my family.
We still have a long way to go in the drama of readying our house for sale. We have not even touched the attic or dreaded garages. But I know we are going to make it—my mother, brothers and sisters and I—each supporting the other. We will have to work at it, but somehow, the responsibility has become blessing, not burden—a blessing of family and love. What better treasure to tend than that?
Bring on the holidays, turkeys and all. “Everything’s gonna be all right.”