Wednesday, November 25, 2009

And The Sky Was Black With Turkeys


With my free range, antibiotic-free, Montessori educated fresh turkey cooling its wings in our spare refrigerator, I am at peace.  And with more than 24 hours to whip up the stuffing and the cranberry sauce, I have a few moments to pause and remember Thanksgivings past.

Until I learned to make my own kick-butt turkey dinners, my favorite Thanksgivings were not held in my childhood home -- they were held in a drafty farmhouse in Fluvanna County, Virginia.  The farm and farmhouse were owned by the Alexander family.  It was the place they escaped to from the suburbs of Richmond. On weekdays, they lived in a prefab ranch house they referred to (and not fondly) as "the shoebox."  On the weekends, they stayed on the farm and pretended to raise cattle -- with varying success, but always a lot of enthusiasm.

Their youngest son and my highschool friend, David, and his two brothers and his parents all gathered at the farm every Thanksgiving, usually taking in whatever wayward kids that seemed to be kicking around.  I definitely fell in that category.  The hospitality that they showed me, this once directionless teenager --  letting me stay there when things were tough at home and allowing me to work on the farm in the summers --  is something I count among my own blessings on every Thanksgiving.  Their farmhouse was their haven, and they shared it generously.

One of their Thanksgiving traditions was that the three brothers ("the boys") would go out in the morning of the big day and shoot a wild turkey for the holiday meal.  At least, that was the theory.  Wild turkeys abounded throughout the woods in our part of Virginia and could be found pecking along the old carriage roads that criss-crossed the farm.  It wasn't unusual to see turkeys flocking by the side of lane or out in a field.  Until a human showed up with anything resembling a firearm, that is.  Then wild turkeys had a way of melting into the landscape like feathery, diabolical optical illusions.  If Langley could bottle the ability of wild turkeys to instantly disappear in the face of danger, national security might never be the same.

This is how Thanksgiving morning went:  The three brothers would set out across the south field, guns crooked in their arms, with their spirits high and absolute confidence that they would be coming back with a wild turkey for their mother (and any of us teenage kitchen help) to prepare for Thanksgiving dinner.  I would sit with David's mom at the table and eat a leisurely breakfast before we would pile into the car and go to the Piggly Wiggly in Charlottesville and buy a big store bought turkey.  Later in the day, the boys would tramp home, incredulous that they had not shot a single turkey, despite having seen an enormous flock of them in the distance a number of times.  The only wild turkeys they wanted then was the kind that poured out of a bottle.

"But, the sky was black with turkeys," David said one year, trying to explain how hopefully the hunt had started out .  We knew what he meant.  The secretive birds had done it again: One moment there was a turkey convention going on right in front of him, and the next moment there was not a single bird in sight.  "The sky was black with turkeys" was a statement of the most perplexed kind of aggravation.

Maybe it was the many beers we had drunk while roasting the store bought turkey while he was out not hunting or maybe it was just the perfect exaggeration of how he described the botched hunting scene, but we all fell over laughing -- and we never forgot his words.  Whatever it was, "the sky was black with turkeys"became our mantra for any impossible situation.  When the guy you had a crush on, and then finally went out with, turned out to be a total yawn -- the sky was black with turkeys.  When that whole aisle of air filters at the parts store doesn't have a single one in the model you needed -- the sky was black with turkeys.  When you were sure you'd pass that math test, and only got a D -- the sky was black with turkeys.

These days, the sky is black with turkeys a lot.  All that plenty of the two years ago has evaporated for so many of us.  Mortgages that people could once afford are now upside down.  Those hopeful freshmen are now college grads who carry more loan than salary.  A simple blood test isn't covered by our insurance anymore.  Even though the sky being black with turkeys can be really lousy, or it can just all be in your point of view.

The last Thanksgiving we all spent together at the farm something strange happened.  We got home from the Piggly Wiggly with the store bought turkey.  It was a damp, cold day with an icy gray sky coming on.  Up ahead, we could see the boys coming home early.  When they heard the car's tires crunching down the lane, they turned and held up two enormous wild turkeys.  It was glorious.  Later, we cleaned them and cooked them and sat for awhile at the long table just admiring them, laying there in all their turkey splendor.  Then we ate them, and they were delicious.

I was hauling stacks of dirty plates into the kitchen when I encountered David's mom.  She was wrestling the two store bought turkeys we had leftover into the spare freezer where they kept venison steaks and frozen vegetables from the garden.

"The sky sure is black with turkeys over here," she said, laughing.

I knew just what she meant.  In all things, and especially turkeys, it's the balance of it all that we really want the most, and it is almost always the hardest thing to hold on to.

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