Grandpa was a bookie. He’d take odds on anything. It didn’t matter if it was a horse race, what inning someone would hit a homerun, or who would arrive last for Grandma’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Grandma was opposed to gambling. To say they co-existed at odds, especially as his winnings and schemes fluctuated, is putting it mildly. Maybe that’s why when Grandma died and responsibility for the family’s Thanksgiving dinner was passed to my mother and her three sisters, Grandpa decided it would be fun to establish a tontine.
His rules were simple: Grandma’s diamond ring and something special from him would go to the last sister standing. With a final nod to Grandma’s love of Thanksgiving, he declared the end of each year’s holiday dinner, which his daughters from that day would host, was the official record day for survival.
Survival was the last thing on the minds of my cousins or me. We loved our Thanksgiving get-togethers with their pick-up football, horse basketball, TV watching, and pigging out. For our parents, it was more solemn, especially the year after Grandpa died and two months later, Aunt Sally choked on a piece of turkey gristle. Somehow, that piece of gristle made its way onto one of the Thanksgiving plates she served.
After Aunt Sally’s funeral, her surviving three sisters had a pow-wow in our kitchen. I was playing on the floor, but they ignored me while Aunt June suggested making my mother the permanent Thanksgiving hostess. I thought she was recognizing the fact that after dearly departed Aunt Sally, mother was unquestionably the best cook of the group, but Aunt June was more concerned with the size of our kitchen.
“Carla has the only open-concept kitchen. If we do our Thanksgiving cooking at her house, because there aren’t any nooks, crannies, or walls, we can easily keep an eye on each other.”
My mother stared at her sisters. “This air of suspicion is ridiculous. It’s not like one of us poisoned Sally.”
Aunt June crossed her arms across her chest. “Are you sure? Better safe than sorry is my motto.”
Mother glared at her, but before she could say anything, Aunt Hortense interjected herself into the conversation. “June does have a point. It probably was a choking accident, but then again, maybe she mixed the plates up. Sally always was a bit competitive.”
“Hortense!” Mother threw her hands up in the air. “Just because Dad thought pitting us against each other for a tontine would be amusing, we don’t have to play along. Why don’t we all revoke our claim to the tontine and start enjoying Thanksgiving again?”
Aunt Hortense shook her head. “I’d love to, but you know the rules. Dad set it up so we can’t revoke it. Even though I hate this, we’re stuck with the tontine until the last one of us is left standing.”
Mother snorted. “Fine, but he didn’t stipulate we have to be together on Thanksgiving Day. I’m tired of us ruining Thanksgiving so Dad could play one last game of chance. Besides, I make a mean Day After Thanksgiving Soup. From now on, if you find yourself still alive on the day after Thanksgiving, come to my house at four. Bring your kids and your left-overs.”
“It sounds like a good idea,” Aunt June admitted.
That was the beginning of a new family tradition. Even after thirty years, although a lot of my cousins scattered around the country or are obligated to alternate Thanksgiving plans with their in-laws, the rest come. They bring their mothers and their own children. This year, considering mom’s been fighting a losing battle with the big C, I tried to convince her to cancel the day after, but she was adamant about hosting it. I hate to admit it, but like her, I’m afraid it probably will be her last time prepping Day After Thanksgiving Soup for her sisters.
Considering everything, my mother’s only concession this year was to let me, under her direction, take over most of the prep work. Happily, what I’ve learned over the years, helping my mother and aunts, held me in good stead getting things ready for tonight. Thanks to my mother’s Day After Thanksgiving Soup, I’ve developed some pretty impressive knife skills.
Whether slicing, dicing, chiffonading, or julienning carrots, potatoes and celery or precisely separating turkey meat from its carcass, I take a lot of satisfaction from the details of my work. I’m not as thrilled with the way our extended family chomps down my soup, wipes their mouths on their napkins or sleeves, and then collapses on the couch to watch whatever game is on TV.