Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Thanksgiving for and with the people who matter

It's Thanksgiving tomorrow and that means it's time for my brother-in-law Dan to show me again how to make good mashed potato. "Plenty of butter, Walt, that's the secret."

He will walk among the family and the dozens of other guests, who come and go, stirring butter into a huge bowl of potato, beating it into the smoothness and general consistency of whipped cream. Only when the spoon moves through it like, well, a hot knife through butter will he declare it ready for the table.

Dan's wife, Christina, will meanwhile be moving like a whirlwind through her extraordinary kitchen, with its island as big as Wales, cooking turkey, sweet potato, sprouts, carrots and all the other stuff she has harvested from Stop 'n' Shop, plus gravy (with a dash of brandy) and bowls of fresh cranberry sauce. If memory serves, there will also be a Caribbean-style, slow-roasted suckling pig, plates of chorizo sausages, radishes with fresh garlic, coleslaw, different breads and dipping sauces, and then a whole slew of cakes and puddings, with beer, wine and whiskey to wash it down and coffee, regular and decaff, to follow.

Eventually, maybe around three or four in the afternoon, we will all be called to sit down. There won't be prayers - Please God, there won't be prayers! - but there will be toasts and speeches and reminiscences and photographs. Not everyone will be there, unfortunately. Kate, my wife's oldest sister, will be in Manchester with her husband Paul, and Matt and his wife Sheila will most likely stay up in Lowell, Massachusetts, to which they moved recently from New Hampshire, which means we won't get to see Allison or Martina. Rachel, Kate's older daughter, will be in California, but Leah, her sister, will probably show.

Brother John will be there for certain, with his wife Dorothy and the kids, Young Dan, Jack and Jenny. So will brother Al and his wife, Maritza - though I think Maritza's daughter, Penny, won't make it as she's working now in Florida. But maybe I'm wrong. Who knows? Brother Pete will drive across from Brooklyn, bringing his wife Hillary, just back from a business trip to Moscow, and their three girls, Lucy, Violet and Joanne. And let's not forget sister Anne, her husband Dave, their daughters, Elena and Luisa, and their son, Lucho. Still counting, I'd better not leave out Dan's children, Sheryl and Omar, and their stepbrother, Philip.

Is that everybody? I think so - except, of course, my wife Louisa and me, and the boy, Jamie, back in London (but who's coming out for Christmas).

That's a lot of people. But, like Jimmy Cricket used to say, there's more. Dan and Christina live in Teaneck, New Jersey, a dormitory town about 20 miles from New York, on the other side of the Hudson. Dan's a teacher and his teacher buddies tend to drop in and out, as do his neighbours, many of them hispanic, so that half of the conversations going on at any one time are likely to be in Spanish.

The music will start early and finish late. In the past, the tendency has been for cool jazz in the early phase of the proceedings, giving way to rock and country mid-way through, intermixed with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and then, finally and definitively, Latin rhythms, mostly Cuban and Dominican, giving Dan the chance to show off his impressive hispanic shuffle, in which his rear vibrates while the rest of him sways ever so slowly, like a palm tree in a breeze.

Throughout all this, the children will be racing around, making a lot of noise, pretending not to break things. As the afternoon wears on, the teenage contingent, which is growing and will soon be dominant, removes itself, like Christ, to an upper room, where they play their own music and plot the weekend ahead.

I am not really a party animal. I like the idea of parties, but I tend to run out of small talk early on and never quite know which questions to ask so I'll probably spend time talking to the immediate family members while drinking too much wine and beer and stuffing myself with food.

I'll want to find out how Hillary got on in Moscow and how Young Dan did in his latest play up in Cambridge (he's quite the actor, you know). There's a piano there, so Al, an accomplished pianist as well as an international class saxophonist, will no doubt entertain us at some point, with Anne and my wife joining in on vocals.

Family is what the McCabes are all about. And Thanksgiving is the quintessential family holiday. But it's not the same for everybody. The other night, Louisa and I met up with Anne and two of her friends from the movie business.

The two women were late-thirties, early-forties and unmarried. All their talk, apart from movie stuff, was about men, and one man in particular. Was he dependable, was he the right sort, or was he - let's be honest about this - unacceptably odd, self-absorbed and, hey, maybe just a touch boring? Know what I mean?

"What movie are you working on?" I asked the one who had just been out with this particular paragon?

"Sex and the City," she said.

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