How was my Thanksgiving? Thanks for asking! It was great. We were down in Galena, Ill., the old lead-mining town that time forgot when a little place called Chicago shoved it out of the way. Actually, we were in an 1854 house a few miles outside of Galena, on 17 acres of land that looks pretty much like it did during the Civil War. The house itself is made of stone quarried from the surrounding hills, and your mind keeps wandering back to the Wenner family, who lived there when Abraham Lincoln was still alive, issuing proclamations, then headed further west. Why'd they go? Weren't they happy here? Couldn't they make a go of it?
When we arrived, there were little patches of snow on the shadow side of hills and trees, even the house, which took hours to warm up, but finally did, in the middle of the night, when I had to start peeling off layers of clothes I'd gone to bed in, three blankets not quite doing the job. Everything seemed cold, the air a brisk 35 degrees that would have taken the fun out of our walks if we'd ventured outside. B. went out to weed the strawberry patch and came back grumbling. I decided to jog in town, where the wind doesn't whip across the fields, and when I got back in the car to come home, it steamed up like a sauna. From the outside, it must have looked like I was on fire.
At dinner, talk inevitably turned to the economy. Everybody knows someone who's been laid off, if not several someones, and our own situations aren't as secure as they once were. B., an artist, retired early from his state job and, by tightening his belt a few notches, hoped to live off both his pension and his investments. Now, he's tightened his belt a few more notches and hopes to live off just his pension, but even that could be reduced by 3%, the final decision to come in January. R. has had his own software business for 24 years, a reasonably stable enterprise that got hit with a 25% drop in sales a couple of years ago, then another 25% drop the next year. Things have leveled off, it seems, but he's thinking about getting a "real" job. (Good luck.)
N., a retired professor, may have more money than the rest of us put together, but she's a worrier with visions of Laura Ingalls Wilder dancing in her head, and she fully expects to wind up churning her own butter someday. Toward that end, we've always tried to live off the land, in our own genteel way. The apples in the apple pie came from the orchard just over the hill. The morels were foraged in the woods across the road. The squash, the kale, the chard - all were grown in our gardens. And everything else was bought directly from local farmers. There was no turkey, by the way. We had one last year, but we hated messing with the carcass. Finally, we dumped it in the woods, and when I went back to check on it the next day, it was gone.
Foraging, scavenging, getting by with less - those were the themes this year. We forgot to bring any games, so I invented one using these colored sticks I picked up at a craft store - 250 for $1.99, Made in China. It was really a card game, with the sticks serving as chips, and it worked like this: I would lay out two cards, and whoever's turn it was would bet whether the next card would fall between those two. There was some initial complaining, as there always is when I invent a new game, then everybody seemed to get into the spirit of it. But they were surprisingly conservative, given the penny-ante stakes. Nobody wanted to go for broke. Instead, they played it safe, held on to what they had, hoarded their gold.
This was the 15th year we'd gone down there, 15 years of sitting around the table idly watching our lives go by, warmed by each other's company. But this year felt different. Despite a beautiful Thanksgiving sun casting its autumnal glow, there was a definite chill in the air. Winter was pressing her nose against the window, looking for a way in. So, we all sat a little closer than usual and comforted ourselves with one of life's great paradoxes: The less you have, the more thankful you are for what you've got.
For a turkey with only some of the trimmings, write to: Mr. Right, Isthmus, 101 King St., Madison, WI 53703. Or call 251-1206, ext. 152. Or email email@example.com.