The beautiful thing about Thanksgiving has always been its character as the one American holiday to which no strings attach. No gifts, no cards, and apart from the inevitable explosion of family pyrotechnics, no grief or guilt or remorseful loners staring into martini dregs as the jukebox plays the tinny strains of “Jingle Bell Rock.”
This simplicity makes it a day unlike any other. It’s not politicized or satirized, and it’s not embarrassingly unhip to love Thanksgiving traditions, even when these involve “salad” made of lime Jell-O and cottage cheese or “mashed sweet potatoes” composed wholly of marshmallows. Wherever Americans live, it’s all cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, gratitude, and golden-brown roasted turkey. On Thanksgiving, if on no other day, united we stand, baby!
“Now, children,” says the D.C. public librarian, peering over her glasses and looking around at the crowd of cross-legged children arrayed at her feet. “What do we think of, when we think of Thanksgiving?” A large gold broach glints on her chest. The radiators are blasting, the children have stripped off their sweaters, and we chaperones and teachers are loosening our collars.
A little forest of arms shoots up. “Turkey!”
“The pilgrims and the Mayflower!” shouts a tall and unusually well-informed kindergartener.
“That’s right,” affirms the librarian. She adjusts her glasses and holds up a book. “Now we are going to read a story about Thanksgiving. It is called: ’Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving.’”
Violet climbs on my lap and covertly starts sucking her thumb. Phoebe keels over on a cushion in front of us and slips two fingers in her mouth. I think briefly of orthodontics and that joke about yachts, and leave them alone.
“‘Twas the day before Thanksgiving, and all through the trees…” the librarian begins, slowly unfurling out a story about a group of children who are taken to a farm to meet menacing farmer Mack Nuggett and his flock of happy turkeys. The children frolic with the joyful birds until they encounter an axe–and the farmer explains its meaning. A few minutes later, with the farmer distracted, the children waddle, strangely stuffed, back into their bus and are driven away.
With a significant smile at the children, the librarian continues, “The very next evening, eight families were blessed… with eight fluffy Thanksgiving turkeys as guests. They feasted on veggies with jelly and toast…”
I look around to see how the other adults are reacting to this subversive tale. Everyone else seems unperturbed. The children loll or sit eagerly, according to their natures. I look a bit longer, searching, then turn back to prepare for the–
“–song!” the librarian says, standing up and wiggling her fingers. “It has movements, so you move your fingers, but I’ve forgotten the words so let’s listen to the tape.”
She reaches behind her and after some difficulty we hear the sound of distant high-pitched gobbling. Then perky recorded voices pipe up: “Five fat turkeys are we–” The librarian pauses the tape, and waggles the fingers of one hand. We adults copy her actions, smiling encouragingly at the hot children. She punches the “play” button again. “We spent all night in a tree–” The librarian hits pause, and waves one finger, as if pointing to a high branch. Then, unbelievably, comes the Message, a neat little North Korean-motivational-calisthenics-cum-vegetarian touch: “When the cook came around/We couldn’t be found/Five fat turkeys are we!”
“Now let’s sing it all together.” The librarian rewinds the tape and plays it as the children chant, “Five fat turkeys are we–”
At this point I am goggling at the brazenness of her reeducation program, and look wildly around at the other adults. Their faces are tranquil. The children, meanwhile, are mostly damp-browed and slumped in the fantastic heat.
Counterrevolution starts at home, so when the song is over I whisper into Violet’s ear, “I think turkeys are delicious. I am glad we have one to roast for our Thanksgiving dinner.” She nods, thumb firmly in place. “Like the pilgrims had for theirs,” I can’t help adding, running-doggishly.
“We have one more story for you today,” the librarian says, with a glance at the clock. “It’s a nice story about an old woman who finds–”
A turkey egg! Yes! It is large and speckled. “We’ll have a nice fat turkey for Thanksgiving,” the old woman promises her cat, but I am on to her game.
Reading from the book in her lap, the name of which I don’t catch, the librarian puts felt pictures up on a black felt board beside her by way of illustration. Up goes a picture of a cracked eggshell and an adorable turk-chick. Next we see a youthful turkey eating healthful vegetables. Then comes a large, fine, fat roaster nibbling seeds. “You sit down at the table,” the old woman tells the cat in the penultimate picture, “and I’ll bring in the turkey.”
The suspense! The pathos! Will they eat their friend? The children do not see it coming.
“I told you we’d have a nice, fat turkey for Thanksgiving!” the librarian reads triumphantly, and sticks to the felt board a picture of the cat, the turkey, and the old woman tucking companionably and non-lethally into cornbread and cranberry sauce. The end.
The librarian beams around at the stupefied children. “That’s my favorite kind of Thanksgiving story,” she tells them. “The kind where the turkey doesn’t get eaten.”
“My favorite kind of Thanksgiving story,” the well-informed boy says suddenly, “is the kind where the turkey does get eaten.” I smile at him and feel a pang: He is so young, he’s just voicing his opinion.
“Ha-ha,” says the vego-librarian. She can afford to laugh. In the course of one morning, she has skillfully indoctrinated 30 children in her cunning
scheme to anthropomorphize the traditional Thanksgiving centerpiece fowl. What is one puny objector?
“Thank you! Goodbye!” the children repeat dutifully, as we zip them back into their jackets and shuffle down the stairs towards the mercifully cool late November air outside.
“That was unbelievable,” I remark to a fellow mother.
“I know,” she whispers, as if we are still under the eye of the jovial reeducator. “How many of these kids are going to want to eat their turkey after this?”