The Peripatetic Reviewer
BY EDWARD WEEKS
THANKSGIVSNG for us meant the giving of thanks for food which we rarely tasted at any other time, and only at Christmas in such abundance. We smelled the feast coming; Helma was the best cook we ever had, and her chestnut stuffing for the turkey and mincemeat were prepared well in advance. So were Mother’s almonds. They were peeled and dried, then toasted in butter in the frying pan until some of them were as dark as mahogany, salted, and allowed to cool. As the oldest, I was supposed to keep the kids out of the pantry, but it took a stronger conscience than mine for me not to snitch a couple of almonds as they lay cooling and crisping on the white napkin.
We always came to Thanksgiving with appetites sharpened by the annual football game between Battin and Pingry, a desperate struggle in the mud of the Pingry Oval. The whole town came to see it, violently partisan. They encircled the field, pressing in on the whitewashed gridiron, shouting and surging along the white lines as they followed the ball or stamped to keep some feeling within their sodden shoes. When we came back from the game, we had to rough-towel our feet and put on dry things and fresh starched collars. Then the doorbell rang, and our cousins, the Bigleys, were arriving, and we all trooped down to the poolroom, where Father at his cellarette would be mixing the manhattans.
The pause for cocktails was a strain on us. For one thing, the warm savor of the cooking was coming full blast through the swinging door. For another, we had no use for those nasty little worms of anchovy on bits of toast which were being passed to the elders. Still more difficult, this was the time when the aunts and uncles tried to say something appreciative to the younger generation; we saw it coming, and we were much too hungry to respond to such amenities. “My, how you have grown, Teddy!” But I knew what they were referring to—my big ears and my nose. A boy is allowed no illusions in a family as outspoken as ours, and the comment of one of my older girl cousins had already been relayed back to me: “He’ll never be good-looking, but he is neat.” I was still too small to be any good as an athlete. So the next question would be about the new part I was memorizing for Prize Speaking: “Gunga Din”? Someone had seen me at the tea dance at the Country club, and this prompted the question: had I learned the turkey trot, and would I show them how it went? If Aunt Liz, my godmother, was present, she would turn the talk at this point, averting such an embarrassment. They meant well, but they always wanted to get at you.
Release came when the waitress hired for the occasion suddenly appeared between the portieres, smiled at Mother, and said, “Dinner is served.”
The small fry, protesting, were led off to their low table in the parlor, where they were propped up on sofa cushions and where the oldest niece, sitting on the piano stool, was left in charge.
In the dining room proper, after we had helped to push in the ladies’ chairs, we bowed our heads over the big damask tablecloth with its pattern of chrysanthemums and listened while Mother said the grace: “For what we are about to receive, the Lord make us truly thankful.” My brother Rufus, who was five years younger than I and fresh as green paint, surprised us all by mumbling in the silence that followed Mother: “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat.” This was not thought to be funny.
Now the feast began, and as in all family affairs, it followed the traditional pattern. Mother’s almonds, crisp and half bitter, were in floral cups at each place, and we nibbled on these as the first course, either creamed oysters or creamed mushrooms in ramekins, was being served. They were always prepared by Aunt Alice, with a sherry flavoring no one else could match, and she had also baked the slender finger-length rolls.
Then Father stood up and began to sharpen the carving knife on the steel. It made no difference how often Mother protested that the carvers, big and little, had already been sharpened by Helma. Dad had to give them his special edge. When the big bird came in, so crisp ol skin, so plump and chesty, the room seemed to swim with turkey redolence. The elders naturally got their first choice — the second joint, a carving of breast with the skin crisp on it, the oyster, the wishbone—but there was still plenty when it came to our turn (I am a dark-meat man myself), and, wow, how good it tasted, especially if you hit half a chestnut in your first bite ol stuffing.
Then came the parade of vegetables. Oyster plant, which tasted like the hearts of celery; mashed potato, which Helma had finely strained and whipped up with a touch of milk: sweet potato in a casserole with a crust on top; squash, which I always rated superfluous; and cranberry sauce, the berries cooked with their skins on so that you got the tart, crunchy flavor. (Never a salad in those days; it was reserved for Thanksgiving supper, when we had the cold white meat with apple and celery and mayonnaise.)
The wine called for toasts, and this was where Dad shone. Our cheeks flushed as the plates emptied and were sent back for second helpings. And suddenly the taste buds could taste no more. The first toast was always for Aunt Hetty Pineo. She was our matriarch, and now that we had stopped eating momentarily, we could look at her with the reverence that goes to age. She always wore black with lace at her wrists and a lace kerchief on her white hair. She was timeless, and she was heroic, for early in her married life she had been thrown and dragged in a runaway, and her right leg had never recovered. We saw her always as a sitting figure, benign and majestic as Queen Victoria.
Now came the pies, and where was the room? The pumpkin was open and shone like fine leather: the mince was crusted. There were spirits in it, and a little of the mincemeat went a long way.
I used to think that it was like the elixir which Alice tasted when she swelled to such size and drove poor Bill Lizard up the chimney.
I saved Helma’s flaky crust for the last bite, and then hardly had the energy to eat it. And no desire whatever for the candied ginger which appealed to the elders.
So it ended. But there was one last act as the coffee was being served in the living room. With the aid of her cane and Father’s arm, Aunt Hetty had been ensconced on the sofa, and now as the eggshell cups were being passed on a silver tray, Nassau, our loose-skinned black terrier, was admitted from the back of the house. Aunt Hetty evidently had the same effect on him as she had on us. It never failed. He would come to a halt before her, stare at her fixedly, and then, sitting back on his haunches, throat up. would emit a low crooning yowl. It must have been of reverence for that quaint figure, so different from the noisy rest of us.
THE NORTHERN PLAINS
It is given to few of us to live on a frontier, and WALLACE STEGNER, the novelist, is one of the few. The Stegner homestead lay right on the Saskatchewan-Montana border, and there young Stegner rode the stagecoach; fondled Buck Murphy’s six-shooter, which was half as big as he was; watched his redheaded mother make a home in a derailed dining car; got knocked around by his heavy-handed father, especially when he dared touch the forbidden .30-.30 which hung under Rosa Bonheur’s horses; and best of all, heard the brag and local history of those who remembered the Blackfoot crazed with whiskey, and ranches as big as the Lazy-S. He was a crybaby and grew up despising his cowardice: he was the bright one in his class — “He’s sensitive,” his mother would tell her friends — and deeply impressionable. From memory, from personal history, and with the craft of fiction, he has written WOLF WILLOW, a story of the Last Plains Frontier (Viking, $3.95).
First this was buffalo, Indian country, its violence multiplied by the whiskey traders; then the scarlet-coated Mounties under Macteod rode in, bringing order and gaining the trust of the Blackfoot; all the way from the Rio Grande came the great herds of cattle, looking for this unfenced heaven to the north; and when that dream was snowed under by the devastating blizzards of 1906 and 1907, the cowboy was followed by the sodbuster, moving in ahead of even the railroad. Quiet earth, big sky, with an occasional oil derrick or grain elevator, wheat enough to provide bread for the world, and over all the pure light and the immense blue across which moved the navies ol cumuli — this was what the boy saw, this and the survivors.
Wolf Willow is a book to compare with Goodbye to a River by John Graves of Texas: in each a talented writer returns to the land of his boyhood, and of his dreams; and in each there is an interwoven medley of hard-fact history, swaggering, half-imaginary characters, and that touch of fiction which makes a good story better. The big centerpiece in Wolf Willow is the account of the frozen, buffeted, brutal fortnight which Rusty, a young tenderfoot from England, lived through as one of a crew of eight seeking to save what cattle could be salvaged from the blizzards at thirty below. This short story of men fighting and stumbling in the blinding, overpowering cold is a narrative of power and authenticity.
There are other characters from whom we get some of the same hard, blazing American color: Macleod of the Mounties; redheaded Mrs. Stegner, who could be thrown from her horse in full view of the men at the store, and while they were still laughing, catch the beast and ride him off; and Corky Jones, whose father was doctor to Queen Victoria and who came as a pioneer to these plains at the age of eighteen, wanting to be a cowboy, in 1898. Corky saw it all, and in addition he saw the petrified bones of the great beasts in the soft rock; he collected the arrowheads and the medicine bags and spears of the Blackfoot until today his dinosaur and mammal bones and his other unique specimens till the whole basement of the public school. And what he lived through helped to make this book.
Forty-four Brimmer Street, Boston, has long stood for me as the address of our finest living historian. But before my time it was the home of the maternal grandparents and then of the parents of SAMUEL ELIOT MORISON. In ONE; BOY’S BOSTON (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00) he tells us of the serene and agreeable life which was led by the children of the Brahmins of Beacon Hill in the years 1887 to 1901.
Sam Morison is loyal to the core, but this is not to say that he has ever missed the amusing side of the New England temperament, and this little book is full of laughable and surprising nuggets. He draws a delightful vignette of his Grandfather Eliot walking in the middle of the street because the brick sidewalks of Beacon Hill hurt his feet, bowing and smiling despite the snide remarks which were hurled at the old man from the passingwagons. He grins at the Revere family of Canton, who owned the famous portrait of Paul Revere at his workbench and kept it in the attic because it showed Mr. Revere in his shirt sleeves, like a common workman. He says, Cabots and Lowells to the contrary, that ancestry did not count in the least in the Back Bay, and he rates Boston manners as being higher than those in New York and lower than those in Philadelphia and Baltimore. And far from being fanatically pro-British, Bostonians are still fighting the War of Independence.
The society which he observed lived not pretentiously but comfortably, made the best of its summers at Nahant and Bar Harbor, and the best of its winters by dining in with a relish and hospitality that are gay to hear about. “Those Alleged Prejudices” and “A Few Celebrities” were the chapters I most enjoyed.