Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Thanksgiving Memory - Grandpa's Great Oyster Circus

“The turkeys are up, Gran’pa!”

          Hundreds of chattering birds echoed in the chilly Pennsylvania meadow as dawn glowed beyond. Grandpa and I crunched cautiously through his frosty, sparkling pasture, my pint-sized shoulders gently guided by his hand. Our breath ascended in foggy puffs. We laughed at each other's steam as we chatted, just the two of us. He carefully steered me toward the flutter and clatter of his turkey pens behind the warm, coal-fired farm house. Looking east to the sunrise he said, "Corky, looks like God's making marmalade today!" I stopped in wonder, to think about that, then looked up at him, my mouth open. He just smiled and clutched my shoulder. I'll never forget my feeling that morning as he pointed out the glowing and glistening wonders around us. He wanted me to be as captivated as he, to have my young brain absorb it all. A shivering lad I was, but the escapade was too embracing to give in to the nose-tingling chill. My tall, lanky pal had coaxed me out of the snuggling feather bed to rise early that Thanksgiving Eve to “help” with the bird-raising chores. My first movement that morning was having my eyes pop open with his tender shake to waken me. Even though I knew it was early and it was cold, I was instantly ready to join my wonderful grandfather.
            He was a full-fledged hero to me; as animated as a circus clown who could easily be the ring-master when opportunity arose, but also full of down-home compassion and skills. Our family trips from Michigan to grandma and grandpa’s farm didn’t come often enough, that was certain, so I clung to my grinning, energy-packed grandpa at every chance.
            The next morning was Thanksgiving and I knew I was in for even more adventures. As the sun cleared the sill, I rolled from my downy cloud and snuck step-by-step descending creaking, wooden steps for my first glimpse of Grandpa’s Amazing Breakfast Show extravaganza! He’d already been dancing and juggling pans in his kitchen for some time, before I caught the Second Act. Customary hot, smoky-blue clouds swarmed around his balding head like the bees in grandma’s garden. He masterfully tended skillets, waving huge forks and spatulas around as though directing the band like John Phillips Sousa himself! Right there in the Big Top, a mighty performance was already on the go. Breakfast bacon and ham sizzled and chattered away, all under the enthusiastic director, while eggs sang and danced a different theme, huffing and puffing and bouncing around their hot cast iron pan, straining desperately to leap out! What a sensuous blast to my tender head. Grandpa’s kitchen was the center ring of his funny, homespun circus and he loved having his peanut gallery watching every move. With butter dish in hand, he’d stretch his arm out to me, “Here Corky, take this.” I’d reach up and he’d thrust it to me so fast that my little fingers ended up halfway into the soft, mushy butter. “Ha! Gran’pa!” I giggled, “You got me again!”
            Except for the warm, yeasty pleasures of grandma’s pies and breads, he did most of the cooking. It was like watching three rings in the big top for the very first time; action from every cupboard, drawers flying open and objects swirling around, as he smoothly lassoed everything back into place except the bull that he laid on us kids. I never really knew if all this high-pitched action at breakfast was his way of accomplishing a perfectly timed meal, or his guarantee that the entire family was up and ready for his hot feast and the freshly squeezed orange juice, warm biscuits and grandma’s honey and peach jam. Whatever grandpa’s motive, we were all out of bed and ready to dig in!
            Of course, for this country chef and turkey farmer, Thanksgiving was the day all the bangin’ and clangin’ would climax with an exuberance of culinary experiments and old favorites. One special thrill of his, besides having his grandchildren around to cheer him on, was to prepare each year’s new stuffing recipe. This was the year of the now family-famous, Oyster Stuffing Recipe that my Mom had discovered for him in Better Homes and Gardens. To be sure, an oyster recipe calls for oysters, which were generally hard to find in rural Pennsylvania in the Fifties. But, grandpa had planned ahead and made sure to reserve some at the market in Lewistown, just 10 miles up the road. So, on that adventure-packed day before Thanksgiving, after our turkey trek, he bopped me on the noggin and said, “Corky, let’s go to town!” “Sure, Gramps!” Off my brothers, Johnny and Ronnie, and I bounded for the big city in the dusty, wired-up old Dodge for frozen oysters. When back home, grandpa placed his prized oysters into the cellar’s turkey freezer, ready for tomorrow. All the family knew he was mighty proud of the rare delight this year’s stuffing promised. Oyster dressing had probably never graced the Juniata Valley before this very event.
            Later, on Thanksgiving morning, after the Amazing Breakfast Show finale, he intently mixed his special stuffing, with three grandchildren helping or watching or crawling underfoot. At a precise moment, the treasured frozen oysters were carefully added to the bread mixture, the bird stuffed and slid carefully into the hot oven. He then directed all to cut, chop, crack, boil, mix, bake and spill all manner of ingredients with no concern as to the after-tornado appearance the circus arena eventually gained.
                        The colliding kaleidoscope of action and potent aromas reached its conclusion about 2:00 PM. We were summoned to wash up, get the year’s official photograph taken, and then say the prayers, in which Grandpa, Dad and Uncle Gerald all thanked the Lord for turkey and oysters and asked that He pay special attention to keeping the children healthy. With nine pairs of hungry eyes watching, Dad skillfully carved the golden-brown bird and spooned out grandpa’s gourmet stuffing with fanfare and hushed anticipation, as though the tightrope walker high in the sky had just stepped onto the wire. The sparkling-eyed, little kid in Grandpa was waiting anxiously for a taste of his uppity, cosmopolitan, fancy-dancy, oyster-enhanced masterpiece. Of course, Dad let Gramps take the first taste. His eyes widened then closed then one opened slightly, but he didn’t say anything for several seconds. He then turned his head, looked around and grinned his big Grandpa-grin. At the expected announcement of triumph, he began laughing and said, “Al, you’d better try it too.” Dad curiously spooned up some stuffing for judging and immediately bit into a still frozen oyster.  Well, gramps, being the funniest character I ever knew, promptly decided that the joke was on him and declared that that was the best Thanksgiving ever! 

(Note: My grandparents, Homer and Eva Lepley, lived in the Alfarata, Pennsylvania area all of their lives. After retiring from working at a nearby iron foundry, Grandpa raised turkeys in large pens behind the farm house.Grandma was president of the local Women's Christian Temperance Union and head of the local Women's Auxiliary of the Republican Party.)