Brahma Bull, Knives, Flu Shots: A Family Thanksgiving


It was my cousin Lila’s year to be host for the annual reunion my mother's family holds every Thanksgiving, so about sixty of us were gathering at her house. She had written to ask if I would bring sweet potato casserole and say the prayer before dinner. That was brave of her. Not the casserole part—I make a mean sweet potato casserole. 

It was brave of her to ask me to be the one to pray. Many older members of that side of the family are pillars of an ethnic Scottish Presbyterian denomination that doesn’t yet allow women to be ministers. Lila and her mother have been working for years to try to change that, but you know how churches hate to change. Most relatives of my mother’s generation approach the fact of my being a minister in the way of the Southern culture, which is to say they ignore it, as they would if I wore an outlandish outfit or had an unfortunate lapse in manners. 

Coming into the enormous front room around noon with my sons and our sweet potato casserole, we saw knives gleaming on every bookcase and coffee table. Uncle Norman, 82, had recently returned from Pakistan, from the area where he and my mother had grown up as missionary kids. He’d brought back a collection of Gurkha weapons. 

There were kukris of every length, dangerous curved blades whispering of battles long past. Lila’s twelve-year-old son Decker was running out through the carved Mexican door to the screen porch brandishing a long Talwar sword, chasing his squealing sister Emma into the back yard. No one seemed overly concerned. Since half the adults there were doctors and the other half were lawyers, I figured that if anything happened we could sort it out, so I set my casserole down on the side board and drifted over to where Norman was holding forth on his trip, on the bravery of the Gurkhas, and on the beauty of the Himalayas. 

Glancing out into the yard to keep an eye on the chase, I was dumbstruck. An enormous Brahma bull was being led around out there by a woman dressed like a rodeo cowgirl. Her blue vest with the silver stars sure was sparkly. The 2,000-pound animal was speckled gray and white, with a hump on his shoulders and a dewlap hanging from his neck, flapping from side to side as he plodded behind her with the expression of an ancient being praying for world peace. I was glad somebody was praying for peace. My guess is that when the bull saw Decker and Emma run out of the house, his prayer for peace got more specific. 

This particular bull’s job in the world, apparently, was to give slow rides to people. Helping people face their fears is a good way to work for peace, I think. Most of us rode the bull that day, except the very elderly generation. They watched and applauded in the cool sunshine. Even cousin Pooh was coaxed tenderly out of her wheelchair and onto his broad back. 

Uncle Henry used to pray before dinner every year, a long and sonorous prayer that reminded God about the Puritans and the Native Americans (whose genes, I suspect, dance within the DNA of this family), a prayer that named one by one the blessings of this land and this family. My prayer, the first ever given at this gathering by a woman, was of gratitude for the land, for the family, for the love that surrounded us. I invited those present to call the names of those we missed, those who weren’t able to be there or who had died. One or two cousins said “good job,” Lila and her mother did, of course. Most of them smiled past me as if I hadn’t spoken. 

The food and the company were a pleasure. We told stories of long-ago mischief and the planned some new mischief. One cousin and his wife told about entertaining the devout and extremely dull president of a southern Christian college, along with his extremely dull wife. They had made the mistake of inviting a couple of the other cousins, and one of those had attempted to liven up the conversation by slipping Amaretto liqueur into his own wife’s after-dinner coffee. 

Through an unfortunate mix-up, the devout president’s wife was the one who was served the doctored coffee, and throughout the rest of the evening she pestered my cousin’s wife to tell her where she got this coffee. “This is SO delicious,” she cooed dreamily, “what kind of coffee is this?” The two who were in the know shook the sofa with suppressed giggles, almost falling against one another. 

My cousin’s wife said “I couldn’t let her see them laughing, so I finally turned to the woman and Held. Her. Gaze.” Her open hands went to the sides of her face, like a horse’s blinders. “I held her gaze so she wouldn’t see them over there, and I told her”—and here her voice got animated, confidential—“I grind my own beans!” 

After dinner we all lined up, as always, for flu shots. This strikes strangers as a tiny bit odd, but we are used to it. One of the doctor cousins brings a cooler full of medicine and doses everyone in a back bedroom with the help of his ten-year-old daughter. She’s a whiz with the alcohol and cotton swabs. It’s community building, getting a chance to be brave together after dinner. 

Thanksgiving for me is the family. I have taken my sons to this gathering every year since they were born. I am grateful for the tradition, the talent, the wildness, the faith, character, and kindness of these people. They have their faults, their self-righteousness, their blind spots. Don’t we all? It is a blessing to carry them in my heart. I wish adventures, peace, good company, and good mischief for us all in this holiday time.

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