Blood and marriage draw families together but often whole worlds continue to separate us as individuals. Lifestyle choices. Generations. In-laws. Siblings. Achieving – and maintaining -- harmony is a challenge we all seem to face. Some clans need more help than others. Around our holiday table in 1979, my fractious relatives were gifted with a sudden ability to perceive each other as the loveable characters we truly are, every day of the year. Our secret ingredient for interplanetary peace? An unseen substance in the stuffing.
The basic recipe: Rivalrous teenage sisters. Strait-laced mom. Judgmental 70-something grandparents who abhor visiting funkytown Berkeley (“Nowhere to park the Oldsmobile! Don’t understand the furniture!”).
Add a hefty, home-grown Christmas present from off-the-grid Oregon satellites. Stir: New York Beatnik dad boasting he’s stuffing the turkey with the hippie herb.
At last minute toss in grandparents’ newly widowed neighbor, the sweet and fragile soul Mary Jane. Carve the bird, wait 20 minutes for cosmic family consciousness to settle. Serve in a rosy light.
When Chicken Soup for the Soul debuted fifteen years ago, to my ironic sensibility the upbeat anthology title sounded more like a Saturday Night Live “Deep Thoughts” skit than what would become the bestselling paperback series in the history of publishing. My “Thanksgiving With Mary Jane”**, which appears in “All in the Family” -- the new Chicken Soup volume -- also seemed at the time more joke than enduring lesson about who and what we love.
Orthodox or not, care to share your holiday recipe for family harmony?
THANKSGIVING with MARY JANE By ANASTASIA ASHMAN
When you're a teenager there are a million places you'd rather be than at a family gathering. However when I was fifteen, Thanksgiving with my relatives was the best turkey day I've ever celebrated. My anti-establishment father put marijuana in the stuffing.
A week earlier the postman had delivered a package from our hippie uncle in Oregon, an artisan potter. Gathered in the kitchen my two sisters and I watched my mother open the Christmas gift from her younger brother. Inside was a witchy handbroom, a leather strap nailed to its handle for hanging at the hearth. Perfect for our 1916 bungalow's fireplace.
While we read the card wishing us a happy holiday in my aunt's blowsy writing, my real estate agent mother unwrapped another present.
A large freezer bag of homegrown Indica.
OUR EYES WIDENED. This was progressive Northern California and we'd seen weed before, but a massive stash had never dropped into our laps. A resinous, earthy green scent overwhelmed the yellow-tiled kitchen.
My mother froze, holding the illegal parcel from her off-the-grid brother and his part-Blackfoot wife. My grandparents bought the younger couple a house just so they wouldn't live in a tent on a Santa Cruz mountain, and stocked my wild cousins with cotton panties so they wouldn't run around without underwear.
Compared to that branch of the family tree, our household was conventional. Mom pursed her lips.
"How am I going to get some of that?" I was thinking.
My sisters were probably scheming to out-maneuver me, our sibling rivalry ingrained. Would our parents let us dip in, simply because it came from a relative? They'd never said we couldn't smoke pot. Only cigarettes were taboo. We girls would be popular at parties if we managed even a minute with the aromatic package. My sullen younger sister could use the social boost in junior high, and so could I in tenth grade with my never-ending mouth of metal. The blonde senior could fend for herself. She'd probably sell it for clothes.
My Bohemian New York father swooped in from the living room.
"I'm going to put it in the stuffing," he crowed, snatching the bag of bud from Mom.
"Oh Charles." My mother sighed as he sprinted up the stairs with the Christmas contraband. A capricious architect, my Lithuanian father liked to bait her about the in-laws.
MY TRADITIONAL ITALIAN GRANDPARENTS DID NOT EMBRACE MY FATHER. They were in the habit of warming to random, respectful young men in crisp, white, button-down shirts when in 1959 my father showed up on their middle-class doorstep an art-school Beatnik in a ripped t-shirt. Still closely shorn from his stint in the Army, where he'd met my mother on a French base, in no other way was he regulation. He snubbed social convention, burying his nose in political paperbacks during cocktail parties with my grandparents' keeping-up-with-the-Joneses neighbors.
Their proper daughter, an elementary school teacher, could do better.
Our nuclear family usually observed holidays at their San Jose ranch house on a cul-de-sac filled with cookie-cutter residences -- Dad gritting his teeth the entire time -- but this year my conservative Chicago grandparents had accepted our invite.
They didn't enjoy visiting "fruits and nuts" Berkeley, our feisty university town famous for sparking the Free Speech Movement and agitating against the government's foreign wars.
My grandfather complained there were never any spots on the hilly, busy streets to park his boat-like Oldsmobile.
"Who wants to sit in a baseball glove?" she protested about the cult classic some Italian designer thought up.
We may have lived an hour apart in the San Francisco Bay Area, but we really lived in different worlds.
Another reason my parents didn't host often: Mom wasn't a cook. In fact, my kitchen-averse mother was so grateful when my father offered to deal with a big bird she christened him the turkey expert and let him do whatever he wanted.
THE TURKEY WAS DAD'S RIGHTFUL DOMAIN, and my grandparents would be eating it. They were also bringing a recently widowed neighbor, Mary Jane.
I can't say I forgot about the surprise stash, but we all dismissed the stuffing threat. Crazy talk was my father's specialty.
On the morning of November 24, 1979 Dad got up at dawn, prepared his poultry and went back to bed. By noon my grandparents arrived with the sweet-natured widow. The eight of us squeezed into our places at the round butcher-block dining table, café chairs grinding against each other.
The turkey was nicely done, not dry. Polite conversation flowed due to the gentle outsider Mary Jane who asked a lot of questions.
I spied a big brown bud on the edge of my grandfather's plate, speckled with bread and celery. I glanced at my sisters to see if they had noticed. Pushing food around their plate with secret smiles, they had.
"Your stuffing is very spicy, Charles," effused the widow. "Is that sage?"
WE KIDS STIFLED GIGGLES. I couldn't look at my mother. Dad was poker-faced.
"Oh, I'm tipsy, it must be the champagne," tittered Grandma, leaning in to shoulder-nudge her neighbor like a schoolgirl.
After my finicky grandfather cleaned his plate he went to recline on the Italian baseball mitt. Soon he was sprawled across the giant glove like Fay Wray in King Kong's hand, snoring. The 70-something dandy in a mint green Qiana shirt and white leisure shoes looked comfortable -- and finally at home in our place.
We devoured the pumpkin pie and Grandma's anise cookies but didn't budge from our rosy circle.
In the lanky figure of Grandpa in repose, I recognized the easy character captured in a 1928 photo of him squatting in front of a baseball dugout.
Witnessing chummy Grandma, I understood her life-of-the-party image from a Wisconsin lake in the ‘40s, an arm slung around her ten younger siblings.
Inside my strait-laced Mom I sensed a woman appreciating her daredevil husband's off-kilter view of the world.
I realized my rebel father wasn't really antisocial if he brought us all together.
My sisters. Suddenly they seemed like fellow sojourners navigating teenhood -- simply worrying about braces and popularity and the gauntlet of the right clothes -- as well as my natural allies in this normal-slash-bizarre family. They weren't so bad.
WHEN THE THREE SENIORS SAID GOODBYE, our hugs were heartfelt. My father asked Grandpa which route home he'd take, a mellow and unnecessary exchange between the two men.
"Your family is lovely," the widow Mary Jane exclaimed, kissing each of us. "Today was the best since my husband died!"
As the five Ashmans gathered in the kitchen to do the dishes and review the day's events -- with uproarious laughter and genuine shock -- I found myself thinking of the untamed Oregon folk who couldn't be with us. Their holiday gift ensured they were here in spirit.
In that moment I grasped the meaning of family.