By Faith Ellestad
Every year, I look forward to the Thanksgiving holiday, because it heralds the emergence of Old Tom Turkey. And I don’t refer here to meat.
You know that thing you wanted so much as a child but never got, usually because it was too frivolous or too expensive, or maybe you just never expressed your desperate desire properly to your family? You were left yearning but less hopeful with each emphatic “no.” The longing for your unfulfilled desire waxed huge for a time, then maybe waned, until some event brought it back into full focus. For me, that event was a chance encounter with a particularly enchanting Thanksgiving decoration.
I’m not exactly sure where I realized my childhood dream, maybe at a Ben Franklin, or a book store on the Capitol Square, but I do remember when. It was shortly before Thanksgiving, 1976, and we had just moved into our first home with our one-and-a-half-year-old son. I was out doing errands when I laid eyes on Tom, and it was love at first sight. All the yearning from my childhood rushed back. Something I wanted desperately then, was now available to me, and for less than 5 dollars!
Maybe I couldn’t have had this as a child, I realized, but my kids would not be denied such pleasure. Whether or not they would even care didn’t enter my mind at the time. I hurried home with my prize, a foot-tall cardboard turkey stored flat in a large colorful Thanksgiving-themed envelope.
Why, you might wonder, would such a mundane decoration cause me palpitations? Because. When he emerges and you unfurl and fan out his crinkly crepe paper tail feathers, he become a full-fledged three-dimensional multicolored centerpiece. The Turkey of my dreams. The fold-out decorations I wanted more than anything when I was little.
Old Tom truly is the essence of fulfillment to me. Something I was able to give my family, a tradition that was all ours, even if it was mostly mine to begin with. But every year I can’t wait until Halloween is over, Thanksgiving is upon us, and I can retrieve and set up Tom Turkey to preside over out festivities. That’s my favorite part of my favorite holiday.
During a move several years ago, Tom Turkey went missing. He was AWOL for three years, and I searched for him repeatedly. Eventually, in despair, I made an attempt to replace him with two little 4-inch turkeys sporting similar fanned-out crepe paper tails. They are cute, but they couldn’t replace Tom.
Miraculously, on the fourth anniversary of his disappearance, he reappeared. Someone had carefully packed him between two large art books to prevent bending, and when we finally got around to unpacking those boxes, there he was, regal as ever, just in time to join us for dinner.
Of course, we always celebrate with the quintessential feast: a golden savory bird, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, jellied, because the consensus among my family members is no texture in the red stuff. And pumpkin pie. With squirt whip. I consider this meal an homage to my mother, at whose knee I learned that fiber was for other families, but we could enjoy roughage-free meals, secure in the knowledge we did not have to worry about encountering any texture in our feasts. Now, occasionally as a rebellious adult, I may insert fresh beans or, perhaps a relish plate just to prove my independence, but overall, the Thanksgiving feast remains traditional and smooth. And family approved, year after year.
This year, there were just three family members and Tom in our COVID-bubble festivity, but the food was exactly as anticipated. I was so glad the meal was acceptable, because it re-appeared the next day in exactly the same form, except the beans were frozen this time.
The third reprise, the following evening, was met with somewhat less enthusiasm. I had prepared a hash (a la James Beard) with turkey, stuffing, and some veggies, and although it was wholesome, the flavor was basically unchanged from the previous two meals, which had become a mite tiresome. My husband politely served himself slightly more than a “no thank-you” helping and polished it off gamely, but I, being an astute observer of meal enthusiasm, discerned that turkey had lost its luster and needed to retire to the freezer for another time. Once our turkey dinner overload is just a memory, there will be turkey soup and eventually turkey pot pie.
Still, because I waited too long to get groceries, and by the time I shopped, the smallest turkey I could find was 15 pounds, there remains after three iterations, at least half a turkey and its attendant carcass, relegated to several one-gallon plastic Ziploc bags, in the freezer.
Unfortunately, the packaging of the turkey leftovers heralds the packing up of Old Tom. He can’t keep us company for as long as we’d like these days, because he is becoming increasingly fragile. He’s been around 44 years now and I would like him to last as long as I do. I should probably bequeath him to one of my sons. I can just hear their responses when I bring this up to them.
“When I’m gone, would you be willing to take care of Tom Turkey?”
Oh well, as long as Old Tom Turkey’s around, Thanksgiving will be my happy place.
© 2020 Faith Ellestad
Faith has been writing to amuse her family since she was old enough to print letters to her grandparents. Now retired, she has the opportunity (and with Covid restrictions, the time) to share some personal stories, and in the process, discover more about herself. Faith and her husband live with two elderly cats in Madison, Wisconsin. They are the parents of two great sons and a loving daughter-in-law.