“Give me the turkey tail!” my father would yell from the head of the table, and I would leap to slice off the fatty, juicy, tender stub at the tail end of our Thanksgiving bird. “That butt is mine!” he would chortle, sending my mother into fits of giggles. Our guests — usually just family but sometimes including runaway teens, homeless drunks and disgraced politicians — would scurry to fill their plates from the sideboard, where platters of traditional soul food were stacked 3-deep. My dad didn’t care about the candied yams, collard greens or macaroni and cheese; he only wanted turkey tails, and my mother’s secret-recipe stuffing.
“Tell the story,” my aunt Lola would settle herself with a full plate and a good listening position. Gram would cease fussing in the kitchen; the uncles didn’t say much, but they leaned in. Aunt June and Aunt Beulah nudged around the liquor cabinet until they ferreted out the Chivas. We kids — crowded around a card table and hiding the dog under our tablecloth— would quiet down for the first time all day.
“Well,” he’d begin. “We were broke, as usual.”
“Yes,” Gram would chime in. “But we were together.”
“Good thing it was so many of us,” Aunt June would nod. “Snuggling together kept us warm.”
“The church had a list for charity baskets, but we didn’t get one,” my dad said. “Mama didn’t want to be charity.”
“Couldn’t have cooked it anyway,” Aunt June said airily. “They’d turned the gas off for nonpayment.” Aunt Beulah nodded, and poured her another shot.
“What about the wood stove, Daddy?” I asked, in exactly the right place.
“Oh, you couldn’t fit a turkey in there,” Daddy said.
“How about half of a turkey?” I asked. He beamed at me for knowing my lines.
He shook his head. “No, baby girl, we didn’t even have the little tail of a turkey to cook.” He looked around the room, making eye contact with each one of us. His children, cousins, in-laws, sisters, uncles, aunts. His motley assortment of guests, who might be angels in disguise. His wife and his mother. All eating heartily — this day and every day — because of him.
“It was very cold, and we were very hungry,” he’d say. His deep voice rumbled over me, like always, and I closed my eyes to listen. I could see their stark little apartment in my mind, could hear baby June whining and Gram singing Frank Sinatra tunes and Uncle Joe asking to go outside and play stickball in the street.
I could smell the turkeys cooking in the other apartments, could hear the other children laughing and playing … children who would eat their fill on Thanksgiving, while the boy who would be my father, went hungry. Again.
I could see him and Uncle Joe, 11 and 12, two skinny black boys in thin coats, running down to the kosher deli; watch as Mr. Cohen shooed them to the back of the glass counter; observe them picking through the meat scraps that were headed for the trash. Chicken feet. Brisket fat. Turkey tails.
“We made deliveries for Mr. Cohen all the time,” Daddy said. “He knew us. Me and Joe. He didn’t pay us for doing it, but the nice ladies always gave us tips, so it was a good job to have.”
Mrs. Cohen, wiping her hands on her apron, wrapping up the scraps. Scooping up knishes and rye bread and pickles when Mr. Cohen’s back was turned. Daddy stuffing these gifts inside his too-small jacket. Joe, pretending to trip and fall, slipping apples into his pockets.
“Mama had never seen a turkey tail by itself before, without the turkey attached,” Daddy laughed, and Gram dabbed her eyes. “She found it very peculiar.”
Aunt June cackled. “So she cooked them like she cooked everything. She put a pot of water on top of the wood stove and — ”
“She BOILED them!” all the kids shouted in unison.
“Yes!” Daddy grinned. “The feet and tails and scraps all together, with salt and pepper and one wilted little onion. And when it was cooked — “
“God, do you remember how good it smelled?” Aunt June asked, hugging Gram. “Oh it filled the whole apartment!”
“Yes, it was divine,” Aunt Beulah whispered, kissing Gram’s cheek.
“ — when it was cooked,” Daddy went on. “We all climbed into Mama’s bed.”
“It was finally warm in the house, from the wood burner,” Gram nodded. “And Joe had found some extra wood — ”
“Yes, FOUND!” Daddy rolled his eyes and blew a kiss up to heaven. Uncle Joe had died in Korea, long before I was born. “Joe was always FINDING stuff we needed!”
Gram’s eyes twinkled. “Joe was a good boy,” she said, dropping a kiss on his 4-year-old namesake, my little brother Joe.
My aunts rushed to fill in the story, as they did every year, their words tumbling over each other like puppies in a basket.
“And we turned on the radio to listen to the Andrews Sisters and Glenn Miller and Louie Armstrong— ”
“And Mama taught us the words to the old songs — ”
“ — and we spread out the food on the bed and ate with our hands — ”
“ — and Joe cut his finger slicing up the apples — ”
“ — and June was scared of the chicken feet — ”
“ — and Eddie ate all the pickles — ”
“ — we never sang so loud — ”
“ — we never laughed so hard — ”
Daddy would groan loudly while they talked, licking his fingers, greasy from turkey tail fat. “Best damn Thanksgiving we ever had,” he’d say happily, looking right at us kids. “Now, Mama, bring out the apple pie!”
My mother would hold back her tears until the pie came out, and then she would lean against Daddy and weep. He would pat her hair gently and smile. “Why are you crying?” he would ask her every year. “It was a million years ago. And look around — is anyone going hungry today?”
That cold Thanksgiving in 1945 was the last holiday his family spent together. By 1946, they would be homeless, separated, adrift. He would lose his brother Eddie in a car accident, and see his mother have a breakdown. He would protect his sister at a great personal cost. Later, he would survive high school with two pairs of jeans, eyeglasses he got from welfare, and a night job mopping floors.
He’d serve in the Air Force, and the GI bill would cover his college and law school tuition. He would marry that cute girl from high school — the one who was crying because she couldn’t open her locker — and their children would never know a moment of hunger or insecurity. Every year, he’d tell them about Thanksgiving 1945.
It’s been decades now since my mother and Gram were here to laugh at Daddy’s story. I’m the one who makes the secret-recipe stuffing now, the one who giggles when he yells for the tail of the turkey. It is my daughter who retrieves the turkey bits for him, my nephews who give him his story prompts, my son who brings home purple-haired guests who might be angels. It is Aunt June, now in her 80’s, who sings Frank Sinatra at the top her lungs and bakes the apple pie.
“Are you shopping for Thanksgiving?” my dad asked when called me this morning. He calls me every morning, but it’s almost Thanksgiving, so he’s as excited as the great-grandchildren.
“Yes, Dad, I’m heading out now. Gotta get the ingredients for the secret-recipe dressing.” He tells me, for the fourth time, that we’ll have at least 30 for dinner. “Everyone comes home for Thanksgiving,” he says in a satisfied voice.
As soon as I hang up, the phone rings again.
“Don’t forget the extra turkey tails!” he reminds me.
Not a chance, Daddy. Not a chance.