It was only after the turkey season was behind us that I remembered my mother’s two-word recipe for not cooking this big, dumb bird.
My mother was a woman of very few words, mainly because my sisters never gave her a chance to talk. But when my mother spoke, particularly in a crisis situation, the message was clear and concise while the meaning carried weight well beyond its words.
I will never forget the Thanksgiving Day in Dain City near Welland, Ontario when, for no apparent reason, my father decided he would take an axe and slaughter the turkey himself, as the Pilgrims used to do. Since he was not a history buff, I could only assume the Pilgrims were a Welsh rugby team that killed and cooked their mascot after home games. No fan of B. J. Bird or the San Diego Chicken, I think my father might have been onto something back then.
Like all my father’s best ideas, this one was bad, conceived with a bottle of Hudson’s Bay Rye Whiskey. Yet somehow this particular brain-fart survived the hangover and managed to surface the next afternoon.
My mother was dead against this plan, but it happened before she could stop it. Given some warning my mother could almost always derail my father’s bad ideas by subtly planting other bad ideas in his mind – ones that did not involve an axe.
I was six, standing with my mother and my dog, Penny, on the side porch of the house on Forkes Road as my father removed this squawking fowl from the trunk of his car and walked past us to a spot behind the garage where he had strategically placed an axe and a chopping block stump topped with kernels of corn. From where we stood, we could not see the sacrifice. For this my mother added: “Thank God!” Then she crossed herself.
That’s when the seriousness of the situation dawned o me. My mother was no idle genuflector. When my mother crossed herself it was either a respectful salute of gratitude or a sober signal to God that if He wasn’t too busy He ought to have a look down here, right now.
Penny was a friendly, midsized, reddish blond mutt, a male with a female name, which is why young boys should never entrust their older sisters to name the family dog.
We stood still, the three of us, listening intently for a very long time. I was holding Penny by the collar; he was agitated and whining. When the turkey let loose a particularly piercing screech, the dog bolted free. I moved to follow him, but my mother’s grip was unrelenting on my shoulders.
Growling, Penny ran full-tilt towards the back of the garage and then all at once we heard a thud, a scream, a yelp, and a man yell: “Goddammit!” My mother’s hands flinched and tightened around my neck and I had to pull at them in order to breathe. Still she never said a word. We waited, stiffened by tension and silenced by fear.
Suddenly Penny appeared around the far corner of the garage. He fell to his knees, his face and chest soaked with blood.
“Good God, he’s killed the dog!” my mother wailed, shoving me into the kitchen through a door that wasn’t quite open. That was a mouthful for my mother. By this point both of us believed there were very few irrational acts my father was incapable of committing – but murdering the family pet with an axe broke new ground.
I climbed up onto the kitchen sink where I watched the drama unfold through the window.
My father came to the porch proudly holding a headless, limp turkey in his right hand, blood splattered up both sleeves and the front of his white shirt. Never an easy thing to do, my mother ignored my father and walked towards Penny, bloody and hunkered down on the lawn. As she got closer to the dog, he barked and growled, his way of protecting the prize head of a turkey he held between his teeth.
My mother’s shoulders fell in relief. Nobody who wasn’t supposed to die, did.
“Clean it!” my father said, smiling as he offered her the turkey. Standing there dripping with blood and grinning, he looked like the world’s worst butcher.
My mother walked by my father and the turkey, passing with any icy stare that froze them both in place. She walked slowly up the porch and on the top step she turned and offered up her recipe for fresh-killed turkey.
“Stuff it!” she said. Then she entered the house and locked all the grief and gore outside with a flick of a deadbolt. Ah, yes, brevity, the soul of wit, and nobody comes by it more honestly than the Irish.
I didn’t get a beating, which is how I know my father did not hear me laughing on the other side of the door.
He never killed a Thanksgiving turkey again, of course. Like the rest of us, he was dumbfounded that he had managed to do it even once without incurring heavy neighbourhood casualties.
This is an excerpt from the bestseller Margaret And Me.
For a copy or a comment go to www.williamthomas.ca.