I wake up hung-over. The night before, I took my little brother Matt (home from Ohio University for Thanksgiving) out on the town. He didn’t realize the night before Thanksgiving was like a Perrysburg High School reunion, the bars of our small hometown overflowing with alumnus, all there to see each other, reminisce, and get irresponsibly spiffed.
I shower, drink some coffee. Around noon, Matt shows up at my tiny, one bedroom apartment that sits above a railroad tracks. I’ve lived there so long, I don’t even notice the noise disturbance or the way the glasses in my kitchen vibrate like tiny Christmas bells.
We open the first beer of the day: Winter White Ale from Bell’s Brewery up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. For some reason, we decide to watch Reanimator. I sneak a quick cigarette out my back window and scream and laugh when the dead cat comes back to life on my TV screen.
Soon, Mom calls and says she and Dad are heading over to Papa and Grandma’s on Walnut Street. Matt and I open another round of beers and pretend to bemoan family time, although you can tell by the way we both get sort of giddy, jumpy, that we can’t wait to get to Papa and Grandma’s—and not only for the snacks. I wash the smell of smoke from my hands and put on my winter coat.
The Schwind homestead is a big, brick house with lots of windows and towering trees in the front yard. Based on the cars in the crooked driveway (hell on high heels), Aunt Susie is already there and my parents, too. Uncle Barney might stop by for a quick bite, but he’s always so busy with friends and parties all over the Toledo area—a popular guy. We pass a row of plastic pink flamingoes to the side of their drive.
As always, the front door creaks when we walk in. The house is overly warm and smells of turkey and Papa’s cologne. And there he stands! Papa wears a thick corduroy shirt of deep red, khaki pants, and dress shoes. He always looks ready for church. He’s already mixing a pair of gin and tonics in tall glasses, painted tennis rackets on the side. After he gives us both a kiss (shouts, “Sara baby!”), he pulls two more glasses from the cupboard for Matt and me.
The women—Susie, Mom, and Grandma—somehow fit in the kitchen, as well, despite the lack of counter space. Susie has on an apron. My mom and grandma don’t seem concerned with their semi-dressy attire (fancy sweaters) as they sip their own cocktails and flit about from piles of potatoes to casseroles, shouting, “Did you check the turkey?” It won’t be ready for hours, but it seems imperative to constantly open the oven anyway.
Matt and I wander through the thin hallway that leads from the stifling heat of the kitchen, past the living room where in a month we’ll celebrate Christmas, and finally to the TV room, where my dad sits on a small, bedraggled couch with his Canadian beer and a handful of peanuts.
There’s a spread of food on a circular green table: salami wrapped pretzels, Papa’s famous nacho dip, sliced cheese and crackers, and a cornucopia of mixed nuts. I go right for the pretzels and find them a perfect complement to my gin and tonic. The three of us take our respective seats, not once settling down in Papa’s recliner—because he’ll be there soon enough to watch the game.
For the next two hours, I bounce back and forth from the kitchen to the TV room. I don’t cook; it’s never been expected of me, and I don’t mind. I’d rather watch football anyway. I make conversation with my little circle of family. We’re not ostentatious—no over pouring of cousins and spouses for Matt and me, yet to be found.
Uncle Barney does stop by. Despite the cold temperatures, he’s in a Buckeyes t-shirt, sweating. He travels with his own beer cooler and drinks two, three, in the span of about thirty seconds. As my father would say, he’s “cutting the dust.” Barney talks loudly, laughs with further volume, until I find solace in the repetitive nature of sports with my dad, brother, and grandpa.
We feast at 5:30. The turkey is golden brown. Papa carves it, of course; it’s his one defined responsibility—that and consummate bartender. Then, we dig in. By the time I’m done with my first plate, Aunt Susie hasn’t even sat down. She always has to make sure everything is perfect.
Matt, Dad, and me down three plates before Papa and Grandma have finished one. It’s a Schwind thing, the slow eating. It’s been an ongoing joke since Charlie Brown met Snoopy. My dad heads back to the TV room before everyone is finished, as does my brother. Waiting for Papa to finish dinner is like waiting for a slug to cross the finish line.
By the time we wrap up for the evening walk, the world outside glows in a moonlit shade of navy. We don winter coats, hats, scarves, and gloves. It gets cold so early in Ohio. We take the same path, as always: walk up Walnut Street, turn right on Indiana, and then left on Louisiana into the heart of downtown Perrysburg.
They lit the little Christmas trees up and down the strip that morning after the Thanksgiving parade. Already, shop fronts gleam with white lights and reindeer. We wander all the way to the statue of Commodore Perry. We glance at the muddy Maumee River. We cuddle close to stay warm and begin to celebrate, because the walk makes it official: Christmas time!
When we get back to the house on Walnut Street, the dishes are magically clean. Grandma never goes on our after-dinner walk, so I assume she did them. That or a secret clan of Italian elves she keeps hidden in the basement under the ping-pong table.
We return to the kitchen, decorated with paper turkeys and a fake flower arrangement. Together, we eat pumpkin and banana cream pies and drink coffee spiked with Bailey’s.
Uncle Barney heads home, following a sweaty, wet kiss to my cheek. The rest of the boys retire to the TV room where Papa promptly starts snoring in his reclining chair. Mom and Susie do the last bit of straightening up. The house still smells like turkey. It’s still too warm, which is why we start to doze off until Dad gives Mom the eye that clearly communicates he wants to go home.
Matt goes out to meet friends, and I head to my little apartment on the railroad tracks, rocked to sleep by my faithful trains, tummy full and wallowing in the beauty of tradition, that Thanksgiving many years ago.