Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Last Thanksgiving, I was excited to cook my first turkey in our new house. Deciding whether the time had come to use my grandmother’s china,what side dishes to prepare (sweet potatoes vs. carrots or both), which tablecloth, what time guests should arrive – all of these things had the potential to become part of a new tradition.
I was especially conscious that morning of how traditions are formed and sustained, knowing this Victorian kitchen, with its enormous vintage Vulcan range that came with the sale, clearly had been the heart of the home for the previous owners and their big family for more than half a century.
I wondered what they ate, if they fired all six burners and both ovens, who sat where, and how many people typically came.
As I was running around in my apron and hoping that the oven still had an accurate temperature reading, the doorbell rang at the back of the house. We weren't expecting anyone – yet. It was about 10 a.m. And we rarely used that entrance.
We opened the door to find a stranger in a baseball cap. He seemed to be in his mid-60s. He was holding a bottle of Greek liquor – Metaxa – and seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see him.
He also seemed a little sad, and a little embarrassed.
The man said he suspected that the home’s previous matriarch, who was in her 90s, had died recently, triggering the sale of the house. But he had to come one last time – just to make sure that all of his high school buddies weren’t gathering in the basement after the Brookline-Newton North football game (itself a century-old tradition) as they had done every year since they were teenagers. And perhaps as our boys will someday do).
We knew his story was true -- our neighbors had told us about this huge annual event that filled the backyard and the cellar for the last 50 years, explaining why our basement had been outfitted as a man cave with a bar, mounted television and a pool table.
Please come in, we said.
He was the grog maker of the group and sheepishly held up his bottle toward the steaming stove top. We half jokingly told him to feel free to make the brew. He laughed.
We offered to give him a tour beyond the kitchen. He made it as far as the dining room, where the table was already set, and then he demurred to see more, knowing that the house had changed enough.
But we wouldn’t let him leave. We had questions.
Tell us about your friends -- the four brothers who grew up here. What had become of them? He told us what they did, where they lived, what they were like.
We imagined them, once upon a time, bounding up and down the stairs, as our three sons do now.
The stranger told us about the patriarch, a restaurateur who had died years before, whose name is still painted on the window of the greenhouse.
The mother, he said, had worked at her son’s sneaker company later in life. And, he said as his eyes saw a past that we could not, they all loved the post-Thanksgiving game tradition.
He warmly obliged us for about 15 minutes before saying he should go; he had some friends to call and a long drive home ahead of him.
As he went out the back, we said goodbye, and closed the door behind him, feeling a rush of cold air.
Walking back to the stove, I appreciated it a little more, and wondered if our new traditions would last as long as the grog maker’s.
This Thanksgiving, I don’t expect the backdoor bell to ring again, but would be happy if it did.