FUNNY BUSINESS - OCTOBER 1995
by Maka MacKenna
Each year when Thanksgiving rolls around I think about Thanksgivings of the past. Some of them are so far past they happened before I was born, and I know them only as family lore. My mother was a Nellis. If the Nellises had a distinguishing characteristic, it was long memory.
It still amazes me that there are families where people beat their wives and molest their children. In our family, 20 years later they still kvetch about who burnt the roast.
Anyway, this is how my grandmother told the story:
Grandpa's sister, Aunt Mamie, was a hellaceously clean housekeeper who fed her kids in the kitchen and didn't open the front parlor to anyone of less than ambassadorial rank. So the unruly Nellises, who were ranchers out in Elk River in those days, were a bit trepidatious at the prospect of dinner at Mamie's.
Everyone was around the table, and my great-uncle, Ted Olander, was carving the turkey. It happened that Mamie was out of the room when disaster struck. The turkey slipped, sailed off the platter and thumped right onto the floor. Hearts stopped.
Ted didn't miss a beat. He grabbed the turkey, slammed it back on its platter and continued carving nonchalantly as Mamie sailed back into the room. No one said a word and Mamie went to her grave not knowing how that grease spot got on the carpet. She probably blamed her kids.
As for Ted, if families gave medals -- and they should -- he would have been honored for extreme valor and quick thinking. Or something like that.
Fast-forward about 60 years to a Thanksgiving I can actually remember, when I lived in San Francisco. I'd invited all my relatives and bought a humongous organic turkey from Co-op. In the early afternoon I popped the bird in the oven and hopped into the shower to wash my hair. Soon I smelled smoke. I ran to the oven, opened the door and beheld a wall of fire.
I was terrified. Obviously, in seconds the kitchen would be in flames. I dialed 911, grabbed the cat and ran down two flights of stairs in my bathrobe, dripping wet. The hell with the neighbors, I had my priorities straight.
The fire trucks -- four of them -- arrived even before I got to the lobby. Lights flashed and sirens wailed. A fire chief ran up, brandishing an ax. "Where's the fire?" he asked, or words to that effect.
I was crying, but since I was drenched anyway I doubt anyone noticed. Clutching the cat to my breast, I bawled, "MY TURKEY'S BURNING!" The fire captain lowered his ax and barked into his radio, "Hold the other four engines, Jake."
Then he and several others in rubber coats clumped upstairs and I spent what seemed like eternity helping a fireman with a clipboard make out a report.
All the while I pictured what was happening in my apartment. There went the wall, there went the roof. What was I going to wear to work Monday with all my clothes burned?
Then everyone clumped down the stairs. They looked awfully calm for men who had just faced down conflagration. I ran upstairs.
The walls remained. Everything was fine. The inside of the oven looked like Haleakala crater but the firemen had mopped the kitchen floor for me. The place looked better than ever except for the charred hulk of a turkey on the table.
I got on the phone and headed off the dinner guests. Only my cousin Ted -- a different Ted, not Ted Olander -- had already left. When he showed up I acted like nothing was wrong. After about 10 minutes he glanced over and saw the bird and said, "We're not going to eat that, are we?"
We almost did, because every restaurant in town was booked. Finally we walked to North Beach and ate Thanksgiving Dinner in an Arab place where we were the only customers. We were thankful for the shish kabob and they were thankful to have some business.
You can always find something to be thankful for. One Thanksgiving my Chinese friend Chris announced at table that "We should all be thankful for TV." After a year-plus of OJ I'm not sure I agree.
But Ted Olander is still hanging in, at 93, in the house on A Street where he's lived with Aunt Ingrid for 60 years, and still sharp as a tack. Now, there's something to be thankful for.
Maka MacKenna is a fourth generation Humboldter who recently returned to the area after 30 years.
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