Gram learned early that she could keep me occupied, providing a quiet respite for the rest of the family, by assigning me to gravy duty. After snapping and stringing beans — my technique was lazy and inconsistent, at best — the 22 gravy-making minutes that it took to transform scalding stock into a lumpless confection that is the world’s greatest and most versatile topping was my holiday pastime. “Make sure your wooden spoon touches the bottom of the pan and don’t forget the corners; don’t stop until it’s thickened.”
I’ve been stirring the pot since decades before Facebook and Twitter. Dining room tables were our social networks. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we didn’t “friend” or “follow” our family members. We gathered at our families’ homes, shoulder to shoulder and face to face. We passed two gravy boats in opposite directions until they met.
Our interactions weren’t arm’s length and couldn’t be “snoozed” or turned off. We broke bread that was passed hand to hand, the same hands that we held in reverent thanks before eating. We interspersed comments about slight modifications in stuffing recipes with appraisals of the succulence of the current year’s turkey — or ham or corned beef or London broil — compared to the last. Each year, whether by design or out of respect for the process, was better than the previous. We were blessed with an optimism that, despite our last meeting’s bestness, this current familial confluence was even better; the next, we knew, would always be better.
We loved each other and we respected each other. We would bring boyfriends and girlfriends and best friends to enliven the discussions. Grampa, whose specific politics were known but unspoken, provided for the meals; his ideals were shaped and solidified by service in World War II and as the hardworking patriarch who built and paid off the mortgage on the family homestead $124 a month for 20 years. Gram’s politics were less specific, but rooted in unmitigated love: she was invested in preserving the family’s restless perpetuity.
We argued, often about Reagans and Bushes and Grahams and Clintons, though there was little disagreement about the Seminoles and Dolphins. Diversity colored our discourse. And when it got too heated between cousins or between generations, Gram laid down the law that we should “let our vittles fill our mouths.” And we did.
Holidays in the Twenty-teens in the hyper-partisan and abrasive age of Trump, in the absence of grandparent regulations, in a culture that has tribalized families, have lost their savor. This Thanksgiving, even as I tried stirring the pot, I was passed a dry, store-bought biscuit to quiet me. Twice I was quieted by the fear of discord. We, as a people, and even within our familial safe zones, are so easily triggered — so trained to divisive conflict from behind keyboards and among strangers — that we sit, silenced, where we should be most comfortable. Family dynamics are in a dangerous flux. Our nieces and nephews are being taught that, even amongst their most fierce defenders and proudest champions, their opinions don’t deserve a voice. They are being conditioned to hide behind avatars that are wholly divorced from us, we, who love them unconditionally.
When politics interfere with the bonds between brothers and cousins and aunts and grandparents (especially), then we are on the leading edge of national insurrection. If we can’t share our world views over family dinners, in the celebrations of family, then how can we expect to interact with others?
This month, when most everybody we know will gather for their own family feasts before their own gods, martyrs and prophets, let’s consider the implications of silence. Even as moms have become Grams and Grams have become angels among us, let’s remember that our mouths are for more than eating, our ears are for more than keeping warm beneath hand-crocheted caps, and that hearts are more than distant, digital emojis. If implored to “let vittles fill our mouths,” perhaps we should rebel against the silencing forces of fear and trade manners for honesty. Perhaps we should be empowered to stir the pot.
A perfect gravy depends upon it; our families’ futures depend upon it; the future of our Union depends upon it.
Jason Leclerc is an author, poet and regular columnist for Watermark and the Orlando Sentinel. He is a longtime resident of Central Florida and now lives in Tampa.