Random Thoughts

A Thanksgiving Dinner - 1940's

... recording one for posterity

by Ann Robbins Talbot

Gram was tiny – shorter than I when grownups generally were taller. Her black and white hair, wrapped round and round her head in a braid, was secured by a spider web hairnet. I wondered how long her hair really was. No matter what dress she wore, a gold brooch adorned the neckline. She was embarrassed when I asked to see it up close. Gram’s quick hand movements contrasted with her slow walk. She was quiet, more observing than participating in the family high jinks. But her displeasure always showed by the tightening of her lips like the drawstrings of a purse.

Gram was getting along in years when Pa bought a new toy -– a reel-to-reel tape recorder, the ancestor of the cassette player. He decided to preserve on tape what could be his mother’s last visit -- Thanksgiving dinner. After all, it took four hours to drive down from Portland and four hours to drive back.

Pa had made his preparations well. His first try at placing the microphone was too intimidating –- hanging from the old brass chandelier over the center of the table. Looped over the curtain rod near Gram’s chair seemed best. But the machine itself
was impossible to hide, so Pa made room for it on the huge, mahogany buffet. One, two. One, two. We tested it with self-conscious gibberish. Yes, it was ready.

Thanksgiving Day at our house followed the same pattern from year to year. Up early for breakfast, setting the dining room table with homemade place cards at each fork, and off to the Melrose/Arlington football game while the turkey roasted in the oven. A sprinkling of snow made the scene perfect. The arrival of Gram and Uncle Walter from Maine combined with the wonderful aromas of a royal feast indicating that it was nearly time to eat.

In mid afternoon Mom signaled that the vegetables were ready. Steam was rising from potatoes, squash, gravy, and turkey – the traditional meal for nine people. We all took our places around the table. At the split second before saying the blessing, Pa switched on the tape recorder. We could hear a rhythmic sound as the spools traveled round and round. From the buffet an unwelcome green light peered at us like an intrusive eye.

After the turkey carving, the vegetable serving, and the showering of compliments on Mom, all conversation died. We were eating. “Pass the cranberry sauce” was about as conversational as anyone got. Swish, swish went the recorder. “Let’s talk about the football game.” Suddenly no one had an opinion. Swish, swish. “Anyone want seconds?” Swish. “Well, John, what did you think about playing in your first Thanksgiving game?” “It was great.” Swish, swish.                         

After the dinner dishes had been cleared and washed, we all settled down, pre-television, to listen to our historic tape. The voices, when there were any, were muffled. Everyone commented how much they hated the sound of their own. Did we hear Gram’s voice? No. She hadn’t uttered a blessed word. Why did we think that a stern, quiet Yankee would suddenly turn into a chatterbox when a microphone appeared?  

But that early recorder picked up with perfect clarity the sound of every fork hitting a plate and every spoon scraping a bowl. It sounded like we were eating on tin dishes in a mess hall. We laughed so hard, we cried. And then we listened and laughed all over again. The playing of The Tape was added to our Thanksgiving traditions until Gram outlasted the old tape recorder.

November 4, 2011

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