Perhaps Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it’s front-loaded. All the work is done on the first day and the rest of the weekend is comprised of football, avoiding the mall and general digestion.
Throughout the late 1970s and into the early 1990s,when the above couch wasn’t full of random cousins it served as my bed. In 1984, I was a college sophomore, stressed out completely, and couldn’t wait to drive with my family five hours north to my Aunt Joan and Uncle Bill’s cottage on Oden Island, just north of Petoskey, Michigan.
We’d load up the station wagon, pray for no icy roads on Wednesday evening and get going on I-75, along with a couple thousand other travelers–some, like us, not wearing hunting orange and plaid.
It was one of those fatigued moments of joy when we’d drive across the steep bridge to the island and down the road to the cottage. I could see the lights through the woods and we’d pull up, unload the car-top carrier and lug our stuff inside–with no greater hope than to not emerge into the cold again for at least 48 hours. My aunt and uncle greeted us in a warm kitchen as we shook off the snow or very cold mud, depending on the winter.
To unwind, my dad would plop down in the armchair by Bill’s big fire and pretend to start a book as Softy joined him. The book came in a distant third place to petting the dog and visiting his nieces and nephew (Laura, Jenny, Julie, Aimee and Matt). I’m not sure he ever got past the first 25 pages of Ken Follet’s novel, with so many conversations to have and puns to cast into the groaning crowd.
So my three sisters would head into the large bunk room with the girls and I’d get the couch all to myself. And like my father, I didn’t need much sleep and was far too nosey to sleep-in past seven on Thanksgiving Day. After all, there was a big Lions loss to look forward to as well as plenty of in-depth parade-commentary about high school marching bands and floating Kermits. The only thing that finally made me dig out of the pile of blankets was the smell of my mom’s addictive sausage-bread in the oven–melting butter over the cheese eggs completing the bypass-special!
Oden Island is in the middle of Crooked Lake, just off 31. Generally the freeze would be nearly complete. It was beautiful vistas out the window that made the Lions bearable. Perhaps the most devastating in the long line of devastation belonging to a 1980 overtime kickoff return to the Bears (skip ahead to 6:50 unless you’d like to relive the magic, Chicago fans).
For as any Detroit fan will tell you, the highlight of a Thanksgiving Day football game is drowning yourself in gravy and stuffing afterward. It’s been a long wait–the Lions last having won a championship the year I turned negative-seven.
After the loss, my dad and Uncle Bill would then head into the kitchen to work on the carving-portion of the dinner preparations, the other meager 97% of the meal was taken care of by my mom and Aunt Joan.
We didn’t have Norman Rockwell table set up, given the large gang. You found a seat and horizontal surface somewhere and counted yourself lucky.
And just before we’d eat, it was time to pray–youngest to oldest. Those of us comfortably in the middle, like during a teacher’s round-robin oral quiz, would think of something for which we could be thankful. It was always good to have an extra thank in the bullpen in case someone took yours (e.g. quickly swapping “food” for “milk”). Some years, if someone couldn’t make it, they’d be on the phone, a long-distance “Thank you, God…” from Florida.
After dinner it was time for two more activities before the big show. First it was time to do the dishes–always a highlight for the cousins unlucky enough not to run quickly enough into a bathroom, garage closet or deep under a blanket on a dark top bunk.
Then came the digestive walk. 400 lbs of sweaters, wool socks and three or four coats per person were donned and out into the driveway we’d brave the elements, heading for the woods, flashlights in-hand in case of Sasquatch. The less-busy Friday and Saturday would also have community walks that I remember dreading then cherishing.
With the journey came great risks, in addition to the unlaced boot you see above. My cousin Aimee came dangerously close to falling through the ice to depths approaching two inches–with no George Bailey chain of boys to save her.
And perhaps crossing into private land in earth-tones during rifle season may not have been the safest plan–but with the gentle voices of our 12 or so singing and yelling it was a safe bet that both deer and hunters had already taken the bridge to Petoskey’s quieter shopping centers.
But even if the Oden Island Sheriff were to ever pull up the paddy wagon, it was doubtful he’d get a less-gloomy group mug-shot…
And in those early days of technology, where cable TV meant that the wire going to the antenna on the roof that might pick up Traverse City on a breezy enough day, you found yourself coming in from the cold and not watching the static-filled version of the Cowboys game. Instead, it was talent show time…
Teams worked on their routines for a long as ten minutes before the big performance in front of the tough crowd…
In the background of the picture above you’ll see another source of great frustration, memories and saliva. The large round table might have a jigsaw puzzle for a while, but one year someone placed a ping-pong ball in the center and innocently blew it across. The game evolved into 10 or so contestants desperately trying to not let the ball pass by careful hyperventilation. The first to allow a goal or pass-out was teased mercilessly.
But the strongest memory that I will always have of Oden Island and the Stanczyk’s kindness is my cousin Julie’s laughter, complete love and heralding of each Thanksgiving with her cry of “Gobble Gobble!”
Julie and my dad had a special bond and nowhere was it more obvious than on Oden Island. They got one another completely and she totally loved his terrible jokes with a smile and accusing finger of “Uncle Jim!”
Julie passed just five months after my father, in February 1998. And Jim must have had a little influence on the burial arrangements as a singular site was found in a section of the cemetery that had not been available since my great-grandfather’s purchase in the 1925–only twenty feet from Uncle Jim.
I am thankful for the magic of those long drives, the old couch, a terribly consistent football team, games, laughter, singing, dancing and family–with us now and always.