- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 23, 2000

There were nearly always strangers at our Thanksgiving table: a lonely acquaintance who had nowhere else to go, Johnny's college roommate, Annie's newest steady. And the soldiers. Many of my memories are khaki-colored.

We embraced the newcomers with conversations of commonality and conviviality. We never took photographs because we didn't want to interrupt the feast with silly smiles and stiff poses, but many of the dinners became snapshots of memory of another time, a mix of history, personality and politics (especially in election years).

The first Thanksgiving I remember was in 1942 as a tiny girl sitting at the table with handsome young men in khaki who were far away from home. They were from cities with unfamiliar names Pittsburgh and New Orleans and Oklahoma City, a small town in Nebraska that I have long since forgotten. Only one of them had ever been to Washington, on a high school senior trip.

The guys joked that next year they would be dining on turkey out of a K-ration somewhere in a foxhole, in the Pacific or in North Africa. I was too young to understand their terror, but I sensed that it was such Thanksgivings as these they would be fighting for.

I showed them my red-white-and-blue pin with the words, "Remember Pearl Harbor," with an enamel globe set with a real pearl. Mom brought out the gas mask and helmet issued to her as a volunteer air-raid warden. The soldiers wanted to talk about their families gathered at distant tables, of their sweethearts waiting back home. They ate seconds of everything, much to mom's delight, but they especially liked the sweet potatoes with marshmallows. (Who didn't?) Dinner was mellow and bittersweet but a heavy and unspoken sadness hung over our good-byes as the guys left together for the walk to the streetcar line.

At our 1948 Thanksgiving, my New Deal parents gloated about the victory of Harry S. Truman over Thomas E. Dewey. The celebrity stranger at the table was a freshman from George Washington University who lived on the West Coast, too far away to go home for the short four-day holiday. He had done volunteer work for Truman and boasted that he had "known" that the pollsters were wrong and that Truman would be elected. He told stories as if they were his own, as though he had been in the president's inner circle. I particularly remember his description of Dewey's lazy campaign. "He didn't run for president, he walked." We thought that was very clever.

Thanksgiving during the Truman years was khaki again. The soldiers would be shipping out this time for Korea. There were heated discussions over the red-baiting of Joseph McCarthy and one guest home from the University of Wisconsin sparked spirited debate when she called the senator an embarrassment to the state. An uncle said she should be glad Joe McCarthy was fighting commies. My aunt quickly asked my uncle to pass the cranberry sauce, and that was that.

The grimmest of all was the Thanksgiving week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. There was nothing to talk about but the tragedy and the fear that Lyndon Johnson wouldn't be up to the job. We were thrilled that Jack and Jackie had brought "culture" to our city and now there was a vulgar Texan in the White House. We didn't have guests that year, and nobody had much of an appetite for a feast. We ate it anyway.

As children grew up and got the college educations their immigrant grandparents never had, the conversations at Thanksgiving grew more sophisticated and argumentative, particularly as each new generation produced a new crop of sophomores. Fashions and politics polarized the generations, causing all kinds of indigestion. The boys with long hair and without ties and the girls with short dresses and without bras soon gave way to orange hair, tattoos and body piercing. The fights over Vietnam, Watergate and the Clinton impeachment pitted cousin against cousin and aunt against uncle, but we survived. At least until this year.

Everybody's keeping his fingers crossed over this year. More than one invited young guest voted for Ralph Nader. If the Gore and Bush fanatics start arguing over dimpled and pregnant chads we might not make it to the pumpkin pie. There won't be any men in uniform, but more than one guest will no doubt express outrage on behalf of those men in khaki whose votes were thrown away in Florida. Not all the turkeys are on Thanksgiving tables this year. So praise the Lord and pass the Alka-Seltzer.

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