The dawn is a peach orange band on the horizon. The sun will soon rise like a blood orange. It is a cold clear morning in November.
This day stands out like a bookmarked page near the end of the historical novel that is each year. About ninety percent of 2018 is behind this day. The ten percent ahead will fly frenetically. For many people in this land, routines stop this Thursday every year. For me and my family, today will play out in ways that would not look much different than this same day 20, 40, 60 years ago.
I can close my eyes and be back in the cramped breakfast porch that was the “dining room” in the big old Edwardian house that was my childhood home in Buffalo…rather Amherst…technically Snyder, New York. Dad had taken over the formal dining room for his medical office long before I was born.
“Don’t go in the office!” I was told many times when I was tiny. Of course I did. Either via the heavy swinging oak door from the kitchen or the thick beveled glass French doors which opened onto the living room. That room was full of mystery. A tall fluoroscope stood in one corner. Oak bookcases were full of thick dull colored cloth spines with obscure or exotic titles. Opening some of them would reveal horrific or confusing images. Atop the bookcases were big clear jars with parts of people floating in formaldehyde. There was an iron examination table. A big wooden boxed electrocardiograph machine sat on a small table next to a patient’s chair. Even the sphygmomanometer (blood pressure measuring machine) was in an oak case. A thick glass tube full of mercury rose from it like some kind of medical variation on a thermometer. Stacks of medical journals rose here and there on the floor all around the room. Dad simply could not dispose of medical journals. The house had a beautiful glazed wraparound front porch one wing of which was filled with boxes and stacks of decades of various medical journals. He also had numerous boxes of offprints of articles he had published that he had secured for the hundreds he thought would want one. Maybe a bit of my book hoarding is hereditary.
He had stopped seeing patients in there before I was born. Some legal thing with the state about doctors having home offices with no separate entrance, I was told.
So, my parents had squeezed our “dining room” table into the little room that jutted into the back yard from the other side of the kitchen. Floor-to-ceiling oak cabinets lined the wall on that side of the kitchen. I think we only used that room twice a year. Meals were usually served at the heavy round claw foot kitchen table. Oak, of course.
At Thanksgiving, the clutter was removed from the room and the doors left open so it could warm up some.
Mom would start preparing things the day before. Thanksgiving morning she would be up early. She would tie a frilly special apron around her substantial waist. The house would soon fill with wondrous smells. Cooking smells that were quite rare as I only experienced them once or twice a year. But they were so memorable. So important. So inevitable. So desired.
I would wander in periodically. The heat coming out the kitchen door was a kind of wall you walked into and through. She was by herself in there mostly. My three older brothers weren’t expected to help. Dad was probably at his office in the VA hospital a few miles away. She would offer me a little tidbit of something. Maybe something lifted out of a steaming pot in a serving spoon. Or she might slice a little something off and extend it toward me between two fingers. It might even be a cookie from the wire cooling rack.
I’d return to the “Music Room”—there was an upright piano in there but it was dominated by the gray blue glow emanating from the old Black and white television set. I’d lie prone on the scratchy rug, my chin in my hands, raised up by my elbows pointed into the floor. I’d watch the spectacle and mysteries of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I knew nothing about New York City or any city really. I don’t recall ever going to downtown Buffalo except maybe to a football game or something. We only had the one TV set. It was a big wooden box crafted to look like furniture. Not oak—it was some blond wood with fine grain. Maybe pecan. But everywhere in that old house was surrounded by oak—the floors, and steps and paneling and crown molding and base molding throughout the house were shiny warm finished oak. All the doors and windowsills and window frames were oak. All the doors and door frames were oak as well.
My brothers were not around. Maybe upstairs in their rooms reading while records spun on their little boxy all-in-one record players. Maybe outside raking leaves if Dad had argued them into it. I don’t recall them having any friends over or leaving to see friends.
Sometime in the afternoon when football came on the TV, they would move into the Music Room with me. As teens do, they would sprawl on the sofa and overstuffed chairs. Arms and legs dangling up, out or over the tops and sides of the furniture.
Dad would return from the hospital in his salt and pepper wool suit.
Soon there would be rumblings from kitchen…
“Come mash the potatoes…set the table…stir the gravy…fill the peppermill…light the candles…put the marshmallow sweet potato casserole on the table…carry the turkey in…”
We had the same ceramic turkey platter my whole life. We still do.
Then we’d file in. Unless you were closest to the door, you couldn’t leave once seated unless you could climb over your neighbors seated laps. (I could.) Mom would remove her apron and sit at the corner closest to the kitchen. Dad’s seat was at the head.
“Wait! I’ve got to get a picture!”
Dad was quite the amateur photographer. He even had a darkroom in the basement. His cameras were silver and black German machines with all kinds of dials and lenses and gauges.
“It will just take a minute to set up.”
My brothers and I were staring longingly at the long awaited feast set before us. Steam rose from many of the dishes and bowls in that chilly room. Dad dashed to his office on the other side of the kitchen. We could hear the serving door swinging after he passed through. It kept swinging for a bit.
“Whop, whop, whop…”
In a couple minutes, he was back with the 35 millimeter, flash and tripod.
“Honey, the food is getting cold,” Mom would complain staring at her two days of work cooling off and her four boys looking hungry and forlorn.
“Just take a minute.”
He tested the ambient light with a light meter, turned dials. He aimed the camera and flash toward the table. He looked through the viewfinder.
“Everyone lean in. I can’t get you all.”
We all leaned in over our empty plates.
We stretched further until our chins were beyond the dinner plates’ top edge.
“Ok. When I say 1, 2, 3, smile—smile!”
He pushed something on the timer. Some battery charging device whined on the flash. He scurried behind the chairs until he got to the far end of the table. I guess he could sort of tip us forward in them since we were almost leaning out of them.
“Ok. 1, 2, 3…”
“POP. Hsssss.” The flash bulb exploded in light.
“Ok. Just one more.”
Dad made his way to the photo complex at the head of the table. He popped the dead bulb out and stuck a new one in. He checked the dials and view finder and made his way to the far end of the table.
“Ok. 1, 2, 3…”
We all relaxed.
“Just one more to be sure we get a good one.”
He’d fiddled with the equipment.
“Nobody blink! 1, 2, 3…”
He might try to take another one or two before grumblings of rebellion began emanating from my hungry teenage brothers.
“We never have a hot Thanksgiving dinner, Joe. The boys are hungry,” Mom would speak dejectedly.
But there was no stopping the photo bug. Until he was sure one of the shots would be acceptable, we couldn’t disturb a dish.
When he finally said: “Let’s say Grace,” we each clasped our hands together before our hearts and intoned: “Thank You, Oh Lord, for these and all our blessings.” He might add how wonderful it was to have all the boys together at the table for another day of Thanksgiving.
“Ok, who wants white meat?”
He would begin carving. We would each reach for the nearest serving dish and scoop out a dollop of whatever was in it.
I was a very picky child and really just wanted the white rolls, butter, white meat, mashed potato and gravy. LOTS of gravy. Mom was seated next to me and would add a little of every dish I’d eschewed to my plate for me.
“You’ve got to try everything.”
The serving plates made their rounds, and the sounds turned to silverware scrapping on china and soft guttural sounds of satisfaction. Soon there would be:
“Please pass the …” as second and third helpings were put on the plates.
The product of all the many hours of preparation and cooking my mother had done were quickly decimated. One by one we surrendered to full bellies and leaned back in our high back cherry wood chairs.
But of course there was more. Mom always made pumpkin pie (which I still don’t like much) as well as cherry pie.
The cherries were from the Queen Anne cherry tree in the backyard. When they were ripe, my brother, Jimmie, would climb it and shake the branches. The ripe cherries would drop onto sheets spread on the ground below. Mom would put them up in canning jars. I’d watch her ample figure from behind, the apron string cinched into a bow in back. I’d watch her move from side to side before the stove. Big pots of water were boiling before her. Clouds of steam rose above her and formed drops on the kitchen ceiling.
After we finished Thanksgiving dinner, then we would adjourn to the Music Room and watch TV. Dad would nod off first. A tumbler of Canadian whiskey on the rocks rested next to him on a side table. I’d likely be next sprawled atop cushions I dragged off the couch in the living room. I hope one or more of my brothers would rotate into the kitchen and help my Mom with dishes and leftovers.
My brothers were 10, 12 and 15 years older than I. They soon went away and had families of their own. They would sometimes come back at Thanksgiving but far more often than not they would be at their wives’ or girlfriends’ family feasts in distant parts of the country.
I was 11 or 12 when Dad moved us from Buffalo to Fort Howard Maryland. He had to sacrifice his hoard of medical journals. The Federal government was generous in their moving allowance but drew the line at tons of old magazines.
I salvaged (borrowed …stole…rescued…) books and records from brothers’ rooms and incorporated them into my collection. At that time, my own collection was mostly Scholastic Book Club paperbacks purchased through my elementary school. My brothers were very good about giving me books as gifts, however. Tony in particular would often have some manageable classic like The Old Man and the Sea in hardcover for me on birthdays and Christmas. Jimmie, besides changing my life when he tossed the Tolkien Trilogy in the Ballantine paperback edition onto my bed one evening, would also give me classics. I still have the Complete Pooh somewhere. The inscription he wrote goes something like:
“These are books I loved as a young child, ignored later but rediscovered and treasure them even more as an adult. I hope you’ll love them always.”
I did and I do. (When I was in Boston last weekend for the ABAA Antiquarian Book Show, I lucked in to a very large Pooh exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts. It was wonderful.) When my boys were very young, I introduced them to Pooh Sticks at the little bridge over a tiny stream on the High School grounds right behind the house in Waynesboro.
I don’t remember the Thanksgivings in Baltimore or Rockville very well. Likely, most of those were just the three of us. But I’m sure I nagged Mom to make a turkey. I think I even helped. I’m sure I did when she was wheelchair bound.
After they passed away, I spent all my Thanksgivings at my fiancé’s parent’s house in Waynesboro Pennsylvania. Her mother was a gourmet cook. Indeed, she had decades of Gourmet magazine neatly shelved by date as well as files of recipe cards and numerous cookbooks. When I became a bookseller, I was able to fill in any gaps in her Gourmet collection. At one estate I got into, I found the first 6 or 7 years of them beginning in the early 1940s I think. She was thrilled to complete her collection. (Although she still didn’t like or approve of me very much.)
Then we had kids and Thanksgiving moved to our house. The big old stone manse in Waynesboro has a formal dining room with a butler’s buzzer built into the floor. It has a heavy swinging door from the dining room to the butler’s pantry which leads into the kitchen. The meal became a massive production including my in-laws. Thanksgiving still continues there each year.
Wonder Book has always been open almost every day. But we have never been open on Christmas Day. In my recollection, we only opened once on Thanksgiving. Smitty (Gloria Smith who described herself as “an old maid with no issue”) volunteered to open as she hadn’t nothing to do on Thanksgiving Day. It was a failure. All the other holidays have fallen to commerce and competition although no one is forced to work holidays they want off. So for many, many years, the retail stores have been open “363 days a year.” For most of those years, we were open 10 Am to 10 pm all those days as well. This was due to local brick and mortar competition being open even more hours than that. Now only the Frederick Wonder Book is open 10-10. I always thought the 10-10, 7 days was good for our customers. Easy to remember and available for almost anyone’s work schedule.
Back to November 22, 2018. About 7 am.
Now the day began. I filled the window feeders to overflowing and tossed a couple extra scoops of sunflowers seeds onto the porch roof outside my bedroom and living room windows.
As I walked past the living room bay window to leave, I saw a small flock of Junkos on the porch roof pecking at seeds. The first of the year. They breed in the Sub Arctic and are never around in Spring, Summer or Fall. The arrival of Junkos means winter has begun on my mountain.
I bumped down the mountain with my dogs, Merry and Pippin and went to the warehouse. There I will play with books alone (but for the Jack Russells and millions of books) for a few hours. On the way, I stopped at 7-11. It is a place I am not fond of but which is too convenient as it stands on the corner where I turn south onto US15. It is the only option that does not involve leaving the highway. I got an extra large coffee. Black. This time of year, I’ll occasionally cave despite my purist thoughts and get flavored coffee—Pumpkin Spice.
At Tilco—the warehouse—I set myself up in my usual spot near the Gaylords of recycling and other sundry “sorts” we do to preserve books in bulk. I placed my laptop on the top of an empty 3 foot long, 4 wheeled, 6 shelf metal book cart. It was a weekday so there was not much to stream online. I put on a radio show podcast to cover up the silence. There were 8 or 9 6 shelf carts with blue slips of paper protruding from books on either side. The slips had “CHUCK” printed upon them. These were mostly “tip of the iceberg” books. Books that sorters felt merit my attentions. Many were books that experienced secondary sorters don’t feel comfortable making decisions on. Store? Books By the Foot? “Madeline” (research)? Data Entry?
It can be fun, and there are often treasures to be discovered. Some treasures may not have great monetary value but are interesting or intriguing in other ways. This leather-bound Book of Sermons from the 1850s had loose boards which some craftsperson in the 19th century carefully sutured back together. It is beautiful in its own scarred and distressed way. A “Franken-book.”
I also was forwarded a couple old A A Milne books in dust jackets. Not very valuable but still an evocative coincidence.
Around noon, I will take a deep breath, load Merry & Pip into the SUV and drive north and west to Waynesboro Pennsylvania. It is a route I’d taken thousands of times but rarely drive any more.
There will be turkey and gravy and mashed potatoes and rolls and football and old family stories. I don’t really care for football anymore, but it is part of this day. I still don’t care for pumpkin pie.
Black Friday 2018
This weekend used to be so huge when the brick and mortar stores were strong. We still go through the motions with early openings and special deals and promotions.
Nowadays, it is our online Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales that get the juices flowing. We will ship thousands and thousands of books over the next few days—if we can get the packing machine working again…
It is always something.
Happy Holidays to everyone.