The Icing on the Cake

December 10, 2013

There is perhaps little sense in dwelling on something that won’t happen again until who knows when. And yet, I find myself mulling over the momentous Thanksgiving/Chanukah mash-up long after we’ve polished off the leftovers.

Here in my insignificant corner of the universe, I related on a personal level to the confluence of festivals, though it is admittedly a perspective that developed when I was still quite young. Because my secular birthday is at the end of November, Thanksgiving has long been the de facto date of its celebration with my family, whether the dates actually coincide or not. The result is that the two events are inextricably linked in my memory. 

Thanksgiving was always magical, a happy standout from my childhood. It was a day that began with a televised view of the parade and ended with the opening of a birthday gift. There was turkey and homemade cranberry sauce, a houseful of elderly relatives who for the most part loved me unconditionally, and a few other guests, depending upon the year. We may well have eaten apple pie for dessert, too, but I only remember the icing roses on my cake.

Looking back now, I know that there were also less joyous moments that tainted Thanksgivings here and there: illnesses and trips to the emergency room, underlying family tensions, arguments and disappointments. But something about the day, for a long while anyway, distanced me far enough from reality to suppress those darker memories.

Of course, as an angst-filled teenager, I quipped about being a turkey baby and having to share the limelight with a platter of trussed fowl. I resented having my portion of stuffing measured. Still, for one Thursday a year, I didn’t mind the rest of the bits that muddled up my adolescent life; something intangible about the day made me able to see past the present and into a more settled future. 

As it does to all it touches, time eventually changed Thanksgiving for me, stealing almost all of its charm. I missed its full-blown observance when I lived in Jerusalem, though friends and I gathered for falafel. It was a turning point anyway. My parents separated that year, and the combination of relatives around the Thanksgiving table would never be the same again. 

Over time, the older generation of relatives passed on, and the holiday lost the last of its luster. Before long, Thanksgiving – with my apologies to the poor turkey — became just another day off from work or school, another national holiday that happened to have a fine menu. 

There were, however, occasional moments when I saw a flicker of the joy it once gave me. British friends I’d met in Israel came home with me one year. They enjoyed their first taste of candied yams so much that they ate the leftovers for breakfast the next morning. 

Two years later, my future husband came to visit from Croatia in order to propose, and we joined friends for his first Thanksgiving. I’d waxed poetic about pumpkin pie, only to discover that another guest had over-seasoned hers with allspice, rendering it nearly inedible. Minding our good manners, we all cleaned our plates, but it soured my husband off anything made of pumpkin for years. It is a moment we still laugh about today. 

Eventually, my mother and stepfather resumed our family Thanksgiving tradition, with all the fixings and their enormous flat-screen television. The sparkle that lit up my childhood memories has been replaced by a day that is quiet and pleasant, predictable and warm. I make the pies; my mother bakes the birthday cake. The boys sit with their grandfather and watch football. 

Now that I’m older and wiser, I’m simply grateful for the constant presence of everyone in the room, thankful for the fact that each of us has been blessed to see another birthday. 

Soon after the discordant “menurkey” reached my ears, I learned that I’d be hosting this year’s Chanukah/Thanksgiving two-for-one. Though turkey-shaped menorahs are not my thing, it seemed entirely natural to me that the holidays could coexist peacefully, and not just because of their themes of gratitude. But I insisted that each get its due. I wasn’t going to let the latkes knock their mashed brethren off the buffet table and there’d be no post-dinner football until after we’d finished singing Maoz Tzur. 

The only Thanksgiving tradition I bumped was the birthday cake. Two occasions are company; three’s a crowd. 

Just days later, however, we attended our family Chanukah party. My son lit the menorah after dinner and the grandchildren opened their gifts. For dessert, there were sufganiyot (donuts) and a large sheet cake dotted with icing roses in fall colors. 

As I blew out the birthday candles, I made my list of wishes, including more opportunities for combined celebrations. There’s no real reason to wait for the calendar – or a spinning “turkel” — to tell us when or why. We should bundle our occasions as they come, together with the everyday blessings right in front of us, marking them in some simple or elaborately splendid way. 

After all, don’t we all want an excuse to eat more cake?