This piece was originally published on my former blog: 10/12/09
Every Thanksgiving, an old family story comes up around the table, and even though I was very small when it happened, I still remember it clearly. Whether that’s because I have strong memories of being four or because I’ve heard the story so many times, I’m not sure, but this is the story of the Thanksgiving we almost had roast beef.
Mom picked me up from the sitter when she was done work, and it was the kind of cold where I had to be dressed in my whole snowsuit, the kind with the puffy snowpants with the shoulder straps and the plastic buckles. She had to bundle up my baby brother to the point where only his nose showed. Despite only being October, we were obviously in for a brutal Alberta winter.
I remember Mom saying that Dad had ordered a fresh turkey this year, so we had to meet a lady to pick up the bird before we headed home for the night. He has a serious hate on for the turkey companies that send their products to the grocery stores. I have many vivid memories of my dad swearing over the turkeys we had for family dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas. For some reason, like the little paper bag for the giblets had only the heart and one kidney, or the bottom end was so tattered that it had to be pieced together with skewers and prayer to hold on to the stuffing, or the neck was omitted, Dad would call our turkey all sorts of colourful names as he wrestled with it in the kitchen sink in the early morning of the holiday in question.
For once, though, dad had decided to avoid all the hassle, and purchase a turkey from a local farmer that he knew would have all the pieces it should, and be perfectly ready to stuff and roast. At least this was the version of his story my mom told me when she parked in the designated spot for the fresh turkey pick up, leaving me to wait, sweating in my snowsuit in the back seat of the minivan. It was the story she’d been given by Dad, anyway.
The hatch of the van opened, and there was a struggle that I wasn’t expecting, followed by strange noises. Before long, my momma was back in the driver’s seat, but she wasn’t happy. This was the first time I’d ever heard my mother angered by a turkey. I remember her saying something about killing my father, and then we drove home faster than I think I’d seen her push that minivan before.
A couple of highway miles had passed before Mom had calmed down enough to explain the sounds coming from directly behind me. Dad’s idea of a “fresh turkey” was to buy a live turkey from a farmer, and that moving main course was currently gobbling away in a burlap sack in the hatch of the minivan. Knowing that she would refuse to pick up a live bird, Dad glossed over the details a little, and now my livid momma was driving home, fuming, with two little kids and one giant turkey in the back of her van.
I’ve given names to things that really shouldn’t have names since as long as I can remember. Case in point, I call my green SUV Fern. Despite being warned that the turkey would be gracing our Thanksgiving table in a matter of days, I named her Henrietta, and loved watching her amble around in the unused chicken yard that became her home during her stint on death row. Dad had done very well in choosing Henrietta: she was enormous, and continued gorging herself on the feed we tossed her as if she was preparing for the big event, glutting herself in a rather dark foreshadowing of the upcoming Sunday meal.
I remember very clearly, on the kind of autumn afternoon where the sky is a weird peach colour as the sun sets in the overcast sky, standing outside Henrietta’s yard, watching her through the chicken wire with fear and good sense keeping me out of pecking distance. Mom was there with me, and I think the conversation might have turned back to her attempts to explain the turkey’s fate to me so that I didn’t get too attached. Truth be told, I was looking forward just a little to the part with the axe, not because I was a creepy or sadistic child, but because gory tales of bird execution made great recess conversation with my town-raised classmates. Headless birds tended to make a kid a bit of a playground celebrity, and I was a story-teller, even then.
People often assume that turkeys are dumb birds. I’m not ready to generalize about the intelligence of all turkeys, but I will admit this: Henrietta was at least smart enough to know that sticking around our place was not in her best interests. As my momma and I watched, our feathered captive stretched her long wings, flexed her muscles, and flapped her way over her fence. We hadn’t bothered to cover the yard, given A) the brevity of the turkey’s intended stay, and B) our faith in the assumption that turkeys (especially one as fat as ours) would not expend the energy necessary to become airborne.
Our turkey, apparently, was made of more determination than the average bird. As we watched, shocked (mom) and entertained (me), Henrietta took off for freedom. I would love to report that she soared majestically, or that she was a vision of animal fortitude and grace, but the truth was that she flailed and bobbed and struggled to stay aloft under the heft of her recent voracity.
This is the best part of the story, the part my mom retells (in character and with gestures) at family functions. I stood there, bundled up in my bulky little kid coat with my fat little kid arm pointed excitedly toward the our escapee, silhouetted and struggling against the October sky. At the top of my four-year old voice I shouted, “There goes Thanksgiving dinner!”
I can’t decide whether this story has a happy ending or not. I suppose it depends who you ask. A while after Henrietta’s great flight to freedom, we got a call from our neighbour a half-mile up the road. He suddenly had a very large, rather tame turkey eating gravel on his driveway.
Henrietta’s flight into the pale October sunset was, I’m afraid, the last sunset she saw. She was delicious. She was also the only live turkey my dad has ever ordered for Thanksgiving. I guess he decided that there are varying levels of “fresh” and that he didn’t want a bird so fresh that it had to be chased down in time for dinner.
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