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'90s FAMILY : Loving Memories of a 'Lovely Bird'


It had been almost two years since the death of Granny Putnam, she of the Jell-O with cranberries, oranges and apples and the traditional Thanksgiving praise to my mom: "Lovely bird, Martha!"

My father died a year or so later, leaving us too soon and not training or designating anyone to assume one of his more important holiday roles: Director of Portions, Corn Bread Dressing Division. Dad took that job upon himself after one particularly ugly holiday incident: Too many guests with too large appetites left an empty bowl by the time the dressing reached his place at the table. From that time on, this otherwise generous man had kept close watch on the dressing bowl.

So now, in late November, 1986, there would be two open seats as my mom's children and their children gathered at her Thanksgiving table.

Better make that tables. The main table, with extensions, could seat eight comfortably, 10 in a pinch. With possibly up to 10 adults, a dozen or so grandkids and occasional other assorted relatives, at least one auxiliary table was required most years. In our family, as in most, that was the kids' table--the dreaded kids' table.

For the younger cousins, the kids' table wasn't a big deal. As their ages reached double digits, however, it began to grate. And on this Thanksgiving, the cousins were abuzz.

My daughter Jennifer and her older-by-three-weeks cousin, Jeff--both barely teens--were scheduled to move up to the "big table." And they weren't above letting their younger cousins know the significance: They were adults, the rest mere children, even if a couple of them were only a year or so younger.

It was a beautiful fall day in Phoenix, so someone suggested that the kids might enjoy eating outside by the pool. We placed two card tables and some chairs on the lawn, set the silverware in place and called the kids to eat.

As they dished up their plates at the breakfast bar, I felt a genetic compulsion to keep an eye on the bowl of corn bread dressing. With their fully loaded plates, the younger cousins headed outside and the adults gathered at the big table.

Having waited so long to gain a permanent spot at the big table and obviously aware of their tenuous hold on it, Jeff and Jennifer exhibited perfect manners. I complimented my daughter and couldn't resist reminding her of when, at the Thanksgiving dinner just before she turned 2, she peeled a black olive into a neat 1 1/2-inch strip . . .

And stuffed it up her nose.

Throughout dinner, the younger cousins filtered in and out--the boys for more food, the girls to report on the boys' bad manners, belching or worse. When a report came in about my son Rich, I wandered outside. I'm sure he told me that he could not, would not and did not do whatever he had been accused of.

The younger cousins had segregated themselves into boys' and girls' tables, and I paused for a second to chat with my nieces. They were deep into what was obviously an important discussion.

When I asked what they were talking about, two fell dumbstruck. The third and youngest, however, was forthcoming: "Oh, nothing really, Uncle Charlie," she said in a serious, yet innocent tone.

"We were just trying to figure out how many more people had to die before we got to sit at the big table."

It was all I could do to get back inside before I burst out laughing. When everyone wanted to know what was so funny, I passed it off as nothing. Later, I told my sisters and our spouses, and we shared a laugh.

In the past nine years, many things have changed. Some of the cousins have kids of their own; all but three are of voting age. And now, when we gather in Phoenix, the big table doesn't seem to hold that much significance.

One thing, however, is the same. At every Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner at Mom's, either I or one of my siblings will say: "Lovely bird, Martha."

It's the least we can do for Granny Putnam.

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