Giving thanks

I grew up in sunny California, but my family always celebrated Thanksgiving as though we were living in the snow-covered peaks of Vermont.

As we took the annual November trek to my grandparents’ house in San Francisco from our house in Woodside 40 miles to the south, all of us in the car—Dad, Mom, brother Jimmy, sister Ann, and I—would sing out our favorite ode to Thanksgiving written by Lydia Maria Child in 1844 that begins “Over the river, and through the wood to Grandmother’s house we go; the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow.”

Our sleigh was a station wagon, and although there were plenty of woods and creeks in Woodside, there was nary a river or snowdrift. Yet we continued onward for the hour it took in the frosty autumn air, all bundled up in our Thursday best, chanting about “blowing winds stinging the toes and biting the nose” until our collective breaths eventually fogged up the windshield. 

Thanksgiving at the modest Pacific Heights home at 3445 Washington Street was more than a family tradition. It was considered by some to be a seasonal obligation where the patriarch of the clan, Lawrence W. Harris (or L.W., or “G” as we called him), advocated the attendance of his three children—Lawrence II, Robert, and my father King—along with all their wives and children plus numerous great aunts and great uncles, assorted old family friends, and any other non-familial visitors who otherwise might be left out in the cold.

It was a close knit crew for the most part, if only because the living room wasn’t all that spacious for such a large flock of festive folk who gathered not so much to honor the turkey as they did to pay allegiance to my grandfather. While he was sitting on his throne, not far from a cozy fire fueled by coal, his wife Lucy, the matriarch of the clan whom we referred to as “Grams,” never sat still, flitting like a busy bee from one flower to another, greeting and mingling with all her guests, making sure everyone’s glass was full, glowering at all the exuberant children running around should any of them misbehave, referring people to their assigned seats at all the various dining tables, and orchestrating the meal being prepared in the ovens and on the stovetops.

I can unequivocally state that observing my grandmother on Thanksgiving Day was like watching pure theatre on a Broadway stage. I would have gone over the river and through the wood to her house if only to experience how she conducted all the cooks in the kitchen, who I learned later were informed that it would ultimately be she who would be taking credit for roasting the birds. 

Turkey with stuffing of course was not the only fare to grace our plates or our palates. All the trimmings associated with a Thanksgiving feast were served, including a most delicate dish I’ll never forget, one that could have only been created in the forties and fifties: creamed San Francisco cracked crab surrounded by a ring of wild rice. The sweetened hard sauce that accompanied the desserts was also a family favorite, but that’s most likely because according to my mother it was laden with rum.  

Grownups anticipating this blessed bounty took their places around a long oak dining room table showered by the glow of candlelight and decorated with an autumnal cornucopia of rusty colored fruits, flowers, and flavors only a fall season can provide. Children sat nearby at cloth-covered card tables set up for the occasion and scattered around the living room.  

Soon the gaiety, laughter, and cheerful chatter succumbed temporarily to the solemnity of the moment when grace was spoken and thanks were given before the turkeys were brought out to be carved—a ritual and duty, by the way, approached with some apprehension by all three sons who boasted cuts of perfection, when in reality their skills with a knife left much to be desired. In particular, my father’s reputation for butchering a bird was such that I often stepped in to help him out. After all, there are only so many times a fowl-cutter like my father could ask “Would anyone like a piece of dark meat?” before people got the idea that he was more than hesitant about having to perfectly slice the white. 

And while the gravy was being passed around, anyone whose fork was not needed at the moment used it to strike the side of a water glass several times to get everyone’s silent attention, introducing an array of toasts and signaling the clink of wine glasses that were to follow well into the meal. In the Harris household, toasts and clinks were as plentiful as the food on this afternoon. Most of the praise and gratitude—well-deserved—went to Grams and G for giving birth to the family, and then bringing all of us together over the years in what I always believed to be one splendid spectacle.

We were not a wealthy family by any means, despite any appearances, but in many ways we were richer than most, if only for that one precious November day we all shared. For that I am grateful, as I am for the road we traveled to get there.

Want directions? You know where to go: over the river and through the wood.