Friday, November 25, 2011

The Fox and the Hound

Giving thanks can change at a moment's notice
As a child, Thanksgiving began when my father pulled out the homemade red stained table with detachable pipe legs.  The holiday consisted of cleaning my room (and later the house and yard with my sister), fanning the smoke alarm, waiting for guests, eating and ending with my parents complaining about the outrageous rates plumbers charge for holiday visits. 

We always had a huge holiday spread.  Appetizers consisted of the standard mixed nuts, salami and red wax covered gouda cheese with crackers (if I was lucky, Wheat Thins, if not Triskits, or worse, Ritz).  Crudités with dill or onion dip and pitted black olives which all the children, including my sister and I, immediately popped onto our fingers and waved around like finger puppets made the appetizers Thanksgiving.  The main menu and serving containers were always:  turkey and stuffing on the spiked teak cutting stand,  ham, spikey with cloves, on the pink rimmed platter, Pillsbury Crescent Rolls, kept warm in the electric casket-shaped bread warmer, marshmallow topped yams baked on pineapple rings on the white platter, mashed potatoes in the white casserole dish, gravy in my parents’ wedding china gravy boat, and my father’s creamed corn casserole (one of the three dishes he cooked), served in my grandmother’s brown glazed casserole dish.  Salad made its appearance in any variety of bowls because nobody really cared about salad, except that we needed something “green.”  Mushrooms marinated in Wishbone Italian Dressing were served in a stainless serving bowl.  It was the 1960’s – 70’s.  “Cooking with convenience” was all the rage.  Most of the food was canned or rehydrated.   Except for the turkey. 

My mother and I hated turkey.  It was dry and crunchy.  I assumed that was the nature of the bird, until I went to summer camp, and we cooked a turkey in a dutch oven on hot stones, buried under charcoal and ash.   It was delicious.  Who knew?  After that, my sister and I took turns cooking the turkey.  I stuck to a traditional roast while my sister went the Martha Stewart route, placing herbs beneath the skin, making it look like stained glass when it came out of the oven. 

By far, my favorite part of Thanksgiving was the guests.  My father had some friends who were “larger than life:” the colonel who reminded me of a walrus and his beautiful cat-like wife, the professional gambler who showed up with interesting women when he was “up” and no one when he was “down,” the magician who scared my mother by throwing flames from his hands, and the Italian Count and the Countess.  The Count and Countess were our regular Thanksgiving guests.  In exchange, we went to their house for the Fourth of July, which was ironic considering they still relished their unrecognized titles and the wife was from Hong Kong, still a British colony at that time.

To say the Count and Countess were eccentric would be an understatement.  Their cars were beautifully restored Packards.   The Count was a tall man who only wore bespoke (according to my mother) clothing.  He had a thick black mono-brow and longish wavy grey hair that he combed back so that it looked like a powdered wig (appropriate for the Fourth of July, less so for Thanksgiving).  He had a booming laugh that exposed sharp canines, giving him a dangerous air.  His wife was a petite woman who wore stilettos that made her take tiny minced steps.  She styled herself after Elizabeth Taylor, with exaggerated eye make-up and frosted hair teased into a froth.  She delicately brushed stray locks from her eyes with her pinky finger.  Most of the time, she wore a giant fur coat. 

On one Thanksgiving, the Countess wore a fluffy red fox coat.  It was too large to fit into the coat closet, and for whatever reason, my mother didn’t think it would be appropriate to store in either my sister’s or my room.  Actually, I understood why not my room. I would have petted the fur off of it.  So, instead, she left the coat hanging off the arm of the couch, next to the Countess.  They sat and chatted.

The Gentleman as a puppy.  Note the "piglet belly."
At that time, we had an elegant standard sized long-haired dachshund.  My father taught him basic manners as well as tricks.  We called that doxie The Gentleman because we could leave food on the very low coffee table and he’d never try to take anything. When we had company, The Gentleman would lie quietly on the couch between my mother and the guest and my mother would share her hors d’oeuvres with him as she toyed with his silky hair. 

The Gentleman had one flaw:  he loved to gnaw on fabric.  He could look adoringly at the guest, chin on their laps all the while working his lower jaw on a shirtsleeve or pant cuff.  Nobody would be any the wiser until they stood to leave and saw the wet spot and hole.

On the Thanksgiving the Countess brought her fox fur coat, The Gentleman sat between the Countess and her coat, rather than next to my mother.  Despite the fur coat collection, the Countess loved animals and had two Pekinese dogs that she adored.  No one thought anything was amiss, believing that The Gentleman knew an animal lover when he met one.  The Countess alternated between stroking her coat and petting the dog.  My sister and I were excused from the room.

After a while, my dad announced that dinner was ready.  My sister and I dashed into the hall, but stopped dead when we saw the Count and my dad staring, eyebrows raised, into the living room.  It was as if all the adults were frozen in time.  My mother was ash white, her eyes and mouth open wide in mortification.  The Countess held her fox coat by the shoulders and on the coffee colored satin lining there was a large dark area with a hole through the pocket.  My sister and I looked at The Gentleman who slid off the couch and hurriedly trotted down the hall past us, into my parent’s bedroom, most likely to hide out under their bed.

“I’m so sorry,” my mother managed to say.

My dad’s eyebrows kept lowering until they were set in a glower, and his mouth went tight.  His face turned a dark plum color.

“Uh - -“ My mom’s mouth opened and closed but no other sound came out.

Even I knew that the coat was expensive and that there was no way that we could replace it, like we did with the neighbor’s cashmere trousers.  I looked back at my dad.  He had a terrible temper with us, especially if we embarrassed him in front of his friends.  All I could think about was what he would do with The Gentleman.

“Would you like me to hang up your coat?” I offered, pretending the damage was too minimal to notice.

“I’ll have the Count put it in the car,” the Countess said icily.

The Count sprang back to life.  “Of course,” he said, taking the coat and going out.

“We’ll … we’ll pay for the repair,” my mother offered.

“Don’t worry about it,” the Countess said with a tight smile.

“Please,” my mother insisted, her tone stronger as she shot a sharp look at my father.

“Forget it,” the Countess said with a lighter tone, although it was equally false.

I was relieved but couldn’t understand why my parents seemed embarrassed. 

The count returned. 

“Let’s eat,” he roared, smiling broadly, eagerly rubbing his hands together.
The tension broken, we entered the kitchen.  I knew first hand that my father’s punishments were always immediate and swift, company present or not.  The Gentleman was safe.   That Thanksgiving, I was eternally grateful that my father was more forgiving with animals than he was with people.

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