Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Stories from Both Sides

The worst Thanksgiving in family history is undoubtedly Thanksgiving 1898.  On that day, William James Tibbitt, my mother's great-grandfather, left the house to go walk the railroad tracks running through Cecilton, Maryland.  That was his job, walking the tracks, looking for possible damage.

And he'd probably have been fine if he hadn't taken a jug of whiskey with him to fight the cold and celebrate the day.  At some point, he passed out on the tracks.  A short time later, a train ran over him.  He was 56. 

William was my great-great grandfather.  The rest of the family moved away, and he lies alone and forgotten in the Elkton Cemetery.

On a lighter note, the other side of the family regales us with the year Uncle Bob brought the meat.  This took place before I was born, but it lives on in family lore.
Mom-mom and Pop-Pop Jahn were living in Ventnor City, NJ, at the time.  I'm not sure that they were called that yet; my cousins may not have been born quite yet, or they might have been very young.  So they were just Fred and Dorothy, with their youngest son, Lou (my father), possibly Uncle Butch, my dad's older brother, and Aunt Dorothy, the eldest, was home for the holiday.  She Uncle Bob were living in Philadelphia at the time, where they both worked.

The day before Thanksgiving, Uncle Bob Grant called from Philadelphia to check in, and to give some news.

"Don't buy a turkey," he said. "I'll bring the meat!"

Uncle Bob was working at the Philadelphia Zoo at the time.  Then, as now, native fauna would find its way into the zoo, and cadge free food from the enclosures.  Squirrels, native birds, and.... domestic ducks.  The duck population grew every year, crowding the waterways inside the zoo.  So every year, zoo maintenance would round up most of the the ducks and give them to staff to take home.

So Uncle Bob was selected for the benefit this particular year, the recipient of two well-fed domestic ducks. 
When he showed up in Ventnor that Thanksgiving morning, my grandmother was shocked - and a little annoyed - to discover that the ducks were, well, alive and quacking.

The maintenance staff didn't kill or dress the ducks, they simply captured them and stuffed them in a cloth sack.  Which Uncle Bob had taken onto the bus with him, riding the two hour trip holding a bag with two extremely angry ducks struggling for freedom the whole way.

My grandmother was not pleased.  If the ducks didn't go in the oven, there was no meat on the table for Thanksgiving.

So Uncle Bob was sent out into the back yard to take care of things.  Which went badly; Uncle Bob is about the gentlest human being you will ever meet, and killing the ducks was just beyond him. So my grandmother
came out, gave each duck's neck a wring, and set Uncle Bob to plucking.  My dad remembers helping him find pliers to help him grasp the feathers.  It took a long time, and it left the ducks covered in a fine coat of down with the occasional shaft of a feather sticking out.  Eventually, my grandfather got home from whatever chore he'd been doing (he always had something going on), and fired up a blow torch to burn the rest of the feathers off.

I don't know that anyone ever commented one way or the other about the taste of the birds; my grandmother sort of shrugged it off.  She really liked to cook, and I think that she'd long concluded that the results had been taken out of her hands when my uncle boarded the bus with live ducks.

But Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Bob still make it a point to serve duck every Thanksgiving without fail.