Thomas Fiffer reminisces on a Thanksgiving past and the true meaning of generosity.
I remember coming home from college each year for Thanksgiving break, enjoying the holiday, and following our family feast with my mother’s famous Saturday-after-Thanksgiving party. There were tons of leftover turkey (she cooked an extra one on Thursday for this party), curried turkey salad, warm turkey hash, two kinds of stuffing, the sweet and tart raspberry-cranberry jello concoction I loved so much, and trifle, layered with lady fingers and laced with brandy. My mom invited all my high school friends, their parents, and her friends—particularly those who had taken an interest in me after my father died when I was nine. Most of them called me Tommy.
There was Ethel Mae, Harold’s wife, who always came over and asked how I was doing, and when I answered replied inevitably with, “Swell.”
There was Betty Lou, a tiny woman who’d suffered from polio as a child but, despite her size, could chow down nearly half the spread.
And there was Phyllis, a high-school friend’s stepmother, who piled her plate high with turkey and cranberry relish and managed, without fail each year, to spill a huge dark red gob in the very same spot on our dining’s room white carpet.
And of course, Jimmy Z., a sweet, patient man and one of the best listeners I’ve ever met, who insisted on contributing a case of Freixenet methode champenoise to the cause.
Looking back, I realize my mother was giving the gift of hospitality, not just to my friends and hers, but also to me. She was bringing me up to come from a place of abundance, to value and enjoy entertaining, and to reap the benefits of being a generous host. She had received this gift during her own childhood, and now she was regifting it to me.
One of the other guests was Harriet, a large woman with a once-pretty face, insecure about her appearance, who flaunted her husband’s wealth. It was typical for the party guests to come bearing small gifts—a bottle of wine, a jar of jam, an exotic chutney. These items were often wrapped, with gift cards indicating the giver’s name attached. One year Harriet brought a small cylindrical package—marinated olives, maybe?—that when unwrapped turned out to be a Pauline Trigère scented candle, ensconced in a zebra-striped heavy cardboard casing complete with lid. The gift card read, “From Harriet to Elaine,” but on the inside of the lid, there was another inscription: “From Roz to Harriet.”
The candle, which remained on our mantel for a year or two in its black and white case, was a great source of laughter for my brothers and me. We joked that Harriet’s expensive home renovations had cost so much that she couldn’t afford a jar of olives for the party. We speculated that she had a whole closet full of party gifts waiting to be regiven. And we leapt to the startling conclusion that perhaps there were only a few party gifts actually in circulation, and that these just kept getting recirculated. The real rub was that Harriet’s parties, several of which we’d attended, were catered affairs less about generosity and more about showing off her endless redecorating and the costly canapes and serving staff she could afford.
Harriet’s regifting of the candle probably wasn’t a conscious choice, but the ethics—of both regifting and substituting ostentation for hospitality—were likely regifted to her by her own parents. So often we unconsciously regift leftovers from our past (such as the stale turkey of unhappy holiday dinners) and unhealthy behaviors we’ve inherited or developed as coping mechanisms but never examined or addressed. With Thanksgiving approaching, now is a good time to take a closer look at what’s in the stuffing—at how we’ve become who we are and at what we may not be aware we are bringing to the table.
Originally published on Tom Aplomb.