Thanksgiving, Light, and Common Women

the common woman is as common
as good bread
as common as when you couldn’t go on
but did.
For all the world we didn’t know we held in common
all along
the common woman is as common as the best of bread
and will rise
and will become strong — I swear it to you
I swear it to you on my own head

(by Judy Grahn)

Sixteen years ago, when my grandmother Dorothy died, I gave the eulogy at her funeral, along with my cousin Jennie. Dorothy died the week before Thanksgiving. When I wrote the eulogy, I thought of Dorothy and the gifts that she gave us. I thought about breaking bread. Sharing bread. I remembered how she gathered us all together, in common.

Her house was so small that sometimes you didn’t even have enough room to change your mind. She had a single bathroom where, by day’s end, the odor of shit and the fragrance of rose milk and Dove soap comingled in an unlikely harmony to remind me that we were all together again. An urban cottage, on the corner of Jackson and Norledge, gathered the dust of recollection like a warehouse of forgotten souvenirs. The holidays there seem to run together, a wave of nostalgia formidable enough that not even the retaining wall out front could hold the memories back.

That retaining wall. What it held — the history of us. The scent of sycamores that propped up the wall and guarded it. The danger of trying to stay in balance as we tempted luck with cartwheels, pirouettes, and the risk of growing up.

“You kids stay off that wall!” Dorothy yelled. “You don’t want to end up like your Uncle Jerry.”

Apocryphal or not, the lore went that Jerry was playing on the wall, fell off, and broke his arm. We all knew the story as if it were religion. Don’t play on the wall. Being the heathens that we were, we shrugged off Dorothy’s admonitions, gave obligatory praise to gods of carelessness and joy, and flung a rebellious finger to Jerry’s unfortunate patron saint of klutziness.

All the while, we knew that Dorothy cared for us.

Dorothy’s Thanksgivings were a common woman’s feast, but what splendor they offered! How a woman no taller than five feet could turn out a bounty for more than a dozen in a kitchen no bigger than a closet, I will never know. Turkey, dressing, potatoes, yams with marshmallows, green beans, cauliflower, cranberry sauce, salad, rolls, and pie, to boot. We ate like royalty, even though we were common. We didn’t know the difference and didn’t seem to care. We devoured the common good.

We were home, gathered around a table coaxed from a console that transformed a living room into a dining room. We ate on fine china, used only on the best occasions. We had cloth napkins.

The turkey roaster was a Cold War relic, white and bulbous, with gray knobs. Melted duct tape with bubbles held the rest together. I wish I had that roaster now. I’d put it in a museum with the caption, “This contraption fed multitudes.”

It was broken down and had its faults. Yet, it fed us all.

Dorothy fed us all.

Sure, she had her peculiars. She was an inveterate liar and would rather take a needle in the eye than admit that her children and grandchildren were anything but perfect. At church, with Lord as witness, and to everyone she knew, she spun tales about us all so grand and magnificent that no one would ever believe that we had known the taste of Cheez-Whiz and canned cranberries.

And we had. We loved it, including the Cheez-Whiz on cauliflower. Maybe we liked knowing where we belonged. Nobody told Dorothy that we were just common, like she was. She wouldn’t have believed it.

Dorothy made a lot of people feel like they belonged, even if they weren’t like her. Lurleen. Marian. Rakeena. Shaul. Becky. The Nguyen family next door. Her God was a kind and generous one. As Jesus’ little sister, she was one of the most beautiful, loyal, and unsung. To her, we were all family.

Common women know times when they couldn’t go on — but did. Depression, depression, War time, war time. Sometimes even in her own living room. She held her own — and she always held her own. Like the retaining wall outside the urban cottage that held a family who had a history. With one another. With the world.

She held us in common, like the best of bread. In the past sixteen years, we wondered how we would get along without her…and we have.

I miss her.

“Wow! This takes a lot of work,” my friend said as I made the preparations for the cornbread dressing that my mom always makes, that Dorothy always made, and that Maude — my great-grandmother who I never knew — made.

I added my own flair, with the hot sausage and jalapeños. Dorothy would never go for jalapeños. They would upset her stomach. Still, it was hers. It was mine. It was ours.

“Yes, it takes awhile, but it’s really good,” I replied. “Trust me. I know.”

On Thanksgiving night, in Kansas City where Dorothy lived, we often went down to Country Club Plaza to see the electrification of the lights. This replica of Seville, the contours of each building festooned with lights, always amazed me. The ritual made the holidays “the holidays” for me. I was mesmerized — and enthralled. Never underestimate the power of light to make memories that will last forever.

I went down to Union Square in San Francisco last night, on Thanksgiving night, hoping to capture some of the joy and wonder of holiday lights. Only a few people were there, but the Christmas tree — in all of its resplendent and sparkling glory — was illuminated. I gazed at the tree and then walked along empty streets, missing the revelry where festive throngs might usually celebrate and usher in this holiday season.

“Here’s to you, Dorothy. Happy Thanksgiving,” I said, quietly, peacefully, under my breath.

Strolling alone, I had a common person’s celebration, with an extraordinary memory of love, family, and warmth. Dorothy, my grandmother and ancestor, witnessed more than this. Yes, we will rise and become strong. I swear it to you. I offered my thanks to the common. Common women.

I still see you.

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