Michael Rustad's Memories

Thanksgiving

 

I was thinking last night of Thanksgiving in the 1950sand 1960s. We would gather as a family in Grand Forks usually at my grandparentshouse on Cherry Street or my Uncle Charlie and Aunt Norma's house on Cottonwood. Grand Forks, North Dakota was the Paris of the Great Northwest part ofMinnesota. This was in the days before the Interstate was completed andit was a two hour drive to Grand Forks. We would drive along Highway 75through Northcote, Hallock, Kennedy, Donaldson and generally go throughtown such as Warren and Alvarado to get to Grand Forks. Today, the routeto Grand Forks is entirely on the North Dakota side.

Because the trip was so long, we needed to get an earlystart. We often had head bolt heaters already installed to be certain thatour car would start. We did not have terrific cars in those days. Thiswas the period in history prior to Ralph Nader's book: Unsafe at Any Speed. Our best car was a biege 1961 Chevrolet station wagon. Our worst carwas an unreliable black and yellow Plymouth. This was the day where thecar's interior was principally composed of sharp knobs and other unsafefeatures. However, we made it safely to Grand Forks every Thanksgivingeven when the roads were icy or snow covered.

The morning of Thanksgiving would begin for me with completionof my farm chores. My ritual was that I would milk the cows early in themorning and make certain that all of the animals had clean straw. The dogsand cats were also fed a special meal that day. It was a Norwegian ritualto give the animals a special meal on Christmas Eve as I learned from myGrandfather. I would extend that ritual to include Thanksgiving, Easterand my birthday on July 9.

When I changed from my barn clothes to my good clothes,we were ready to roll on to Grand Forks. We did not have a shower so Iwould wash up in the sink making certain that all of the manure was offmy shoes. By Thanksgiving, it was frequently cold and there was snow onthe ground. The combination of manure on shoes and a car heater for twohours was not an appetizing prospect. Believe me when I tell you I wascautious about keeping my shoes clean.

Most Thanksgivings were spent with Charlie and Norma Cresien. By the time we arriving at the Cresein's house, most of the food was prepared. The meal was of feast like proportions and often had foods we did not seein Humboldt. My Dad and Mom spent very little money at the grocery store. I can recall months where we would only purchase grape juice, bananas,and a few commmodities not grown on the farm. Mayme Jury (formerly JimFlorence) was proprietor of the General Store. I still remember the chargeskips which stated, "Mayme Jurie Proprietor." In any case, theCreseins shopped at stores such as Hugo's Piggy Wiggly Store (which theycalled the Hobbly Hog Store) or the Red Owl Store (where my Grandpa Carriganworked). The first major supermarkets came to Grand Forks in the 1950s. My Aunt Norma had quite a few brands of goods to choose from which werenot stocked at Mayme Jury's store.

The Thanksgiving Meal, in particular, was not a meal wheremy family would short-change a hungry boy. We would have a lavish mealconsisting of both ham and turkey. Norma Cresein believed in pies and theremust have been 15 or more at a Thanksgiving meal. My mother would frequentlybring side dishes of her special desserts as well including a cherry crumbcakedesert, carmel rolls, or one of her delicious homemade apple pies. My motherwould also bring 3 dozen or so of her famous rolls. My mother was not anexcellent cook like my Grandma Rustad, but no baker could come close tomeeting her high standards of baking. In my 17 years at home, I never rememberher ever burning a roll or it not being of perfect chemistry. I believethat Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty did not apply to my mother'srolls. The carmel rolls, in particular, were a model of excellence. I havesearched the world over for either dinner rolls or carmel rolls. I havelived in Turkey, Spain, Germany, England, France, and Italy. I have yetto find a bakery that could meet my mother's standard of excellence. I didfind an elderly Vermont woman who could meet my Grandfather Rustad's bread-makingstandards but no baker came close to her carmel rolls. This is not thecase of nostalgia or failed memory either. I think that my brother Tonyand sisters, Jamie and Janine would agree with my lyrical praise for Pat'scarmel rolls!

The Thanksgiving dinner would begin with the obligatoryplates of olives (unpitted of course), carrot sticks, celery sticks, andradishes if Norma could find them at the Red Owl or Piggly Wiggly. Leoand Mildred Carrigan, my grandparents, would preside at the head table. The children were relegated to the children's table often not even in thesame room as the adults. There were many children: Maureen Carrigan, MikeyRustad, Tony Rustad, Jamie Rustad, Janine Rustad, Patty Cresein, Peggy Cresein,Mary Cresein, Teri Cresein, and later in the 1960s, Tim Cresein. The adultsat these gatherings were Mike and Mary Carrigan, Charlie and Norma Cresein,Pat and Rustee Rustad, Leo and Mildred Carrigan, and frequently the Creseingrandparents.

My Uncle Jim and Aunt Bev lived far away in Colorado andwe would see them only intermittently on Thanksgiving. Uncle Al and AuntGinny lived far away in Downer's Grove, Illinois (and later at Muscatine,Iowa). If we added the Carrigan kids and the Ducharmes, we might havefinished the food prepared by Norma during those Thanksgivings. When eitherof these branches of the family were in town, the entire brood would assembleeven if it was not Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Our ritual was to gather respectively at the adult's tableand children's table. Saying Grace was the functional equivalent of theNational Anthem. After Grace, it was "gentlemen start your engines"or "grab what you can get." We were told to help yourselves. It was not until year's later that I discovered that there were well establishedrules for table conduct. The plates on the adult's table would begin circulatingin almost a random fashion. You might find a plate of turkey coming fromyour right and mash bottles on your left and cranberry sauce coming froma different direction. The noise level at these gatherings was unbelievable.

One of the Carrigan personality qualities is to demandequal time on stage. Conversations were held but it was not evidend whowas listening. The Carrigans all speak well but very few family membersare good listeners. There was lot of laughter though, so I assume someof the conversation was received as well as transmitted. However, a Martianmight assume that the conversations at our Thanksgiving Table were mostlymonologues.

My Dad's laugh could always be heard above the stint. One of his favorite rituals at these gatherings was to engage in mock battleover the marrow of the ham or roast beef. Mary and Rustee (he was nevercalled Alfred or Alfred Hagbart) was to slurp up the marrow to everyone'sdelight. I can assure you that none of the adults went hungry. The mealseemed to last for hours but given the "grab law" that governedthe festivities, it was probably only a 20-30 minute meal.

The children's table had a different social dynamic. Childrenin those days had a distinct hierarchy based upon age. I was fortunateto be the oldest grand child on either side of the family, so I was thehead of the children's table. It was my job to make certain that the childrengot all of the main dishes and did not tip the table over. We frequentlyhad spills. Tony and Patty were my henchman. My younger cousins oftencomplain to this day about the inseparable trio of Mikey, Tony and Patty. It was true that we ruled the children's table but we were fair. One ofthe biggest problems in the children's tables was spills.

A number of the younger children had mishaps ranging fromfalling off chairs to spilling their milk. The floor near the children'stable was littered with napkins, dressing, and miscellaneous objects rangingfrom children's toys or books to turkey droppings. It was not a particularlypeaceful table but the grandchildren at the top of the hierarchy made certainthat no one got hurt and everyone got fed. Some of my younger Creseincousins (now in middle age) complain that the older kids formed a cliqueat the children's table which somehow excluded the younger children. Ihave no present memory of arbitrary and capricious decisions at the children'stable, but then again I have a memory which may be imperfect.

I was fed up with the children's table by about age 11. I was interested in the adult's table and why they seemed to be havingmore fun than the kids. We also suspected that they were not rotating allof the plates to our table. Desserts were never a problem as there werealso at least 15 pies and generally a gargantuan bowl of whipped cream.

After our meal, the older kids would help clear the tablesand we would then play with our cousins. We would frequently then packinto our snow clothes and have an impromtu game of football or listen toPatty's records. We did not have a record store in Humboldt or even Hallock. Patty often had the latest records. Ricky Nelson's Honey Comb was oneof the records I remember listening to in the Cresein's basement. Therewas sometimes strife between the older and the younger cousins. The socialdynamic was quite positive and we tried to find games which would includethe younger kids.

During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a clear differentiationof social roles. The women prepared the meal and cleaned the dishes. Themen sat in the living room and snored! I remember that my Dad was oftenworking two jobs in those days and was often tired. Turkey apparently hasa natural ingredient that is sleep-inducing at least for adults. We wouldtorment my Dad by placing a wig or funny hat on his head while he slept. When he woke up, he would grab for the nearest kid and complain about beingbothered while he slept.

Let the wrestling begin. This was the type of activitythat inspired WWF. We would clear out the furniture and my Dad would wrestlewith all of the kids, sometimes simulataneously. There were tag-team boutsand then there were pile-ons in which my poor Dad was treated as the wrestlingring. Dad was fond of balancing kids on his hands. He would lift the littlekids up with one hand. If they had good balance, they could reach a fullheight of about 4 feet. My Dad never once let a kid go crashing to thefloor. I never once remember a little kid getting hurt while horsing around(our team) with the kids. I think it is fair to say that my Dad was verypopular with my cousins and lots of fun in general at these gatherings.

At around 5 p.m, Thanksgiving would begin all over again. The bountiful harvest was again assembled and we as a family assembledfor another round of turkey, gravy, dressing, sweet potatoes and pies. Most of the pies were consumed at the later round since few adults leftroom for pie at the earlier setting. For the little kids, it was the reverse. Pie and ice cream was chiefly what they ate at the first setting.

When it was time to go, Norma always packed huge platesof turkey, stuffing, etc. in the event we got hungry for the ride home. Fat chance! When I look of the Norman Rockwell painting of the familyadmiring a perfect turkey, I do not think of my family's usual Thanksgiving. Decades later though, I remember our Thanksgivings with much fondness.


perfect turkey, I do not think of my family's usual Thanksgiving. Decades later though, I remember our Thanksgivings with much fondness.