These essays were broadcast on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio’s popular show “Roundtable”

A Very British Thanksgiving

© 2000 Judy Polan
Broadcast on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio’s “Roundtable” and “51%”

It’s probably just as well that I don’t remember my first Thanksgiving. I was six weeks old, and -- according to family legend -- my jokester father thought it would be quite hilarious to present me to the dinner guests on the turkey platter, parsley garnish and all. Apparently my debut was a big success because from that year on, my parents’ home became the family’s Thanksgiving venue.

I loved the rhythm and ritual of those Thanksgivings -- the vision of my mother’s table perfectly set with her blue and white china, used only on cherished occasions; the laughter; the unspoken alliances amongst simpatico cousins; the sharp sound of glass shattering as a football was inevitably kicked through a basement window; the introduction of paramours (some for a one-time-only appearance) and new babies, who were non-rescindable. One year a guy named “Butz” came, and now nobody can remember who he was. 

Delectable as my Mom’s turkey dinners were -- and the sheer tonnage of stuffing consumed could probably make it into the Guiness Book of World Records -- it wasn’t only about food for me.

Years moved on; the holiday remained my touchstone. When I was a kid, the interval between Thanksgivings seemed interminable; as I grew older, it came faster and faster, like dates flashing forward furiously on a movie screen, Once my brother turned to me and asked “Doesn’t it seem like we’re always sitting at this table?” Well, one year I wasn’t sitting at that table, and I came to number Thanksgiving itself as one of the many blessings in my life for which I am profoundly grateful.

It was the year I was living in Scotland, attending graduate school in art history. I knew that Thanksgiving wasn’t officially celebrated in the UK, but since there were many American students at the University of Glasgow, I had myopically assumed that there would at least be some token acknowledgment of the holiday. What was I thinking?

First of all, a festive, secular holiday celebrating life’s blessings would be altogether contrary to the stoic ambiance of Scots culture. Their favorite expressions are full of a sort of resigned woe -- my favorite illustration being: “If everything is coming your way, you must be driving on the wrong side of the road”. Don’t get me wrong -- I truly admire their matter-of-fact, “mustn’t grumble” attitude; which puts us “I feel my pain” Americans to shame. But enthusiastically embracing the good things of life? Not bloody likely.

And -- let’s face it -- there’s The Food Issue. Really, what can you expect from a country whose cuisine (and I do apologize for the use of that word) boasts such tempting treats as rumbledethumps, nettle broth, liver forcemeat balls, and the ever-popular haggis; topped off with a dessert of ecclefechan? Yum. Perhaps best to let the holiday come and go in quiet reflection, and a promise to myself to eat for two next year.

Thursday arrived. Adding insult to injury, our scheduled group activity was the most dreaded facet of my programme -- a field trip. This foray would be to Sandiston Castle, described in our course guide as "an unoccupied historic home on the east coast”. Having been treated to several other such trips, I recognized that description as code for a cold, dank place where we would have to stand for hours looking at furniture under the watchful eye of a suspicious guard, who would certainly not offer us a cup of tea. (Homes with tearooms or cordial hosts had become a collective priority by now.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Naturally, it was pouring buckets when we departed the campus in our overstuffed minibus. I felt that this justified yet another tidal wave of self-pity. Thanksgiving in Britain -- phooey! But just as we pulled into the castle’s long, circular driveway, a most amazing thing happened. The sun dramatically burst forth, and a brilliant, gigantic, full-horseshoe rainbow appeared, right over the nearby ocean’s edge! This was the moment. This was my Thanksgiving. I silently uttered a Hebrew prayer appropriate to the occasion.

Despite the grandeur of the moment, we were unceremoniously rushed into the building. (“We didn’t get where we are today by lingering alongside rainbows...”) Out of nowhere a menacing, Dickensian guard appeared. He bolted the door shut from the inside using a medieval-looking padlock, a chain contraption of the same era, and -- just to be safe -- a huge vertical police lock. I guess the owners (who live in London, and come north occasionally to plunder their own collection for auction-worthy items) were afraid that this group of genteel women was going to pull off a daring heist of their marble tabletops and 3-ton 16th century mahogany credenzas.

That did it. I just couldn’t bear to miss another moment of the glorious sun. I told Gordon, my programme director, that he had to let me out. Unable to undo the variety of restraining devices on the front door, we traversed a maze of passageways below stairs and eventually I exited through the side. Miraculously, the sun was still shining. I took a leisurely stroll by the ocean, spirits renewed by the lilt of gentle waves. I meandered into the little town centre and had a wee think. Finding a very cute bakery, I bought myself my official Thanksgiving dinner -- a lovely, gooey jam roly-poly. I suddenly felt very close to my father, gone now for 20 years. I could imagine him being delighted with me for springing myself from that dungeon, and also for sneaking the jelly donut.

En route home I sat next to the minibus driver, who had witnessed my getaway and remarked “Well done! When the sun is oot in Scotland, you don’t want to be missin’ it.” We talked a bit about Scottish politics, our spouses, and shared tastes in music. Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” started playing on the radio and the two of us merrily sang along, oblivious to traffic delays on the M8 motorway and the quizzical stares of my classmates.

I returned to my flat and found a sweet e-mail from my brother, as well as one from my friend Murph, who wrote: “I’m sending this today because I thought you might be lonely for Thanksgiving.” I immediately phoned my Mom’s house and spent two hours talking to my husband and my mother, and then in turn to every aunt, uncle, and cousin in the place. My young nephew Theo waved the phone over the turkey, so that I could sniff its aroma across the ocean. My Mom was laughing in the background, saying “She can’t really smell that, you know.” But, actually, I could.

 Keyword: Haggis
© 2004 Judy Polan

Now that we have all -- metaphorically, at least -- put away our turkey platters, menorahs, tinsel, and embarrassing party hats, it's time to get ready for the first big blowout of the new year. I'm referring, of course, to celebrating poet Robbie Burns' birthday on January 25

All over the world, there are holidays honoring patriots, warriors, saints, royalty, the signing of treaties, gay pride, children, parents, workers, animals, foods (witness Blini Day in Russia and the Feast of the Radishes in Mexico), culture in general -- even April fools -- but how often do we pause to reflect upon and tip our hats to the artists who have brought grace and beauty and a bit of the eternal into our lives?

As far as I can determine, Scotland is the only country in the world to have created a national holiday in honor of a poet. It's part of why I find the Scots so lovable, beyond their great good humor and love of the underdog. An appreciation for the romantic -- the sublime even -- always struggles to the surface of their persistently restrained and impassive culture. Not to mention their having found a way to turn the imbibing of profuse quantities of whisky, whilst declaiming indecipherable poetry, into a patriotic responsibility.

The Blind Bard

The Blind Bard

© 2001 Judy Polan
Broadcast on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio’s “Roundtable”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
                       last night at Smith
Creaky college auditorium chairs
           Filled with much-pierced students, cracking gum
               and graying veterans of the anti-war
To my left an Italian gypsy woman
       All red swirls and gold hoops

The air crackles
               As we await our bard

He appears, stage left
                           But wait, what’s going on?
His eyes are veiled by a velvet mask -- or is it sunglasses? --
       He waves a white cane about
Reaching, lurching toward the podium
               He is our Homer, our blind poet

Well, what do you expect? I ask myself --
                           He’s 81 and has seen it all anyway
From the Normandy invasion to the heyday of the Beats
   San Francisco and the City Lights Bookstore
       Marched with Caesar Chavez and the civil rights workers
                   Translated Karl Marx’s love poems
Even read to the Delphic oracle.

Suddenly the mask comes off, the cane is discarded
     It was all a joke!
He is simply a man who knows how to make an entrance.

                   Ageless hipster, bearded clown
Proud constituent of the huddled masses
       Bereft compatriot of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso
Stirrer upper
                       Historian of colors
Painter of sounds

All night long I dream of fireflies
       Immaculate conceptions and spontaneous combustions
       Van Gogh’s crows
                       Limousines and VW bugs
Ocean wave bongo drums
Beating hearts
                       flaming Greenwich Village prophets
Roman dogs receiving communion

Just as in life
Nothing rhymes.

April 4, 2001
Northampton, Mass

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