I’m giving thanks

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Last week we celebrated our first Thanksgiving (although we have given thanks before!). This is a wonderful American tradition which is very family based and so far has remained free from gift giving or other commercial excesses (apart maybe from excessive amounts of turkey and pumpkin pie).

We had a number of events leading up to the actual Thanksgiving Day which was Thursday and precipitated a four-day weekend for us (enough to be thankful for just there!). Our church ran a Thanksgiving dinner for the older members of the parish. I volunteered to help cook and serve for this event and that occupied two days working with a great group of wonderful cooks. I made an apple pie which was a huge success. Imagine an Aussie shining with an Apple Pie! It was an American recipe and I will bake it for visitors on our return.

We also volunteered at the Hanna Centre community dinner which was held on Sunday. The centre opens its doors to anyone in the community who wants to come along for this meal. There is no charge, all the costs being covered by the Black Troopers’ Association.The meal was prepared by staff at Hanna and consisted of turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, stuffing, drinks, rolls, and a variety of desserts including the ubiquitous pumpkin pie and a vibrant red cake called “red velvet”. When I asked how it got to be so red, I was told that the ingredients included a bottle of red food colouring. I was sorry I had asked! Recalling the disastrous but dramatically coloured effect that food colouring in play-doh had on the excretions of our neighbour’s dog in Dalby when he sampled some of Jane’s play-doh pies he discovered baking in the sun on our footpath, I decided to avoid that particular treat.

Meals were served to over 200 people. I had the job of coordinating the many volunteers who came along from various frat and sorority groups, school and church groups, and just individuals who wanted to be part of the occasion. Peter welcomed guests at the door and served trays of meals. We had a great time, and ate well, too.

Our actual Thanksgiving meal was celebrated with Peg and Dave Ertmer and their family of two boys, two girls, a puppy and a guinea pig. I had been asked to supply dessert and bread (I have become renowned for my obsession with bread). I decided to break the pumpkin pie tradition and make a pavlova. I also took along a berry pie, just in case. We found some very passable hot Italian bread at the supermarket and headed off. Their eldest son, Mark, lives away from home and he arrived with his contribution – a triple shaded jelly consisting of watermelon, grape, and cherry flavours. I thought it would make a nice addition to my dessert offerings, but no! It was a turkey accompaniment. Peg’s greeting to the tricolor masterpiece and its maker was “What a lovely salad!”

Peg had cooked the largest turkey she could find, and we enjoyed it with stuffing and cranberry sauce, the jellies, raspberry jam (!), beans with fried bacon strips, mashed potatoes, and gravy. After eating our fill of that we retired to the lounge room to watch football (or not), to allow enough room for the desserts to follow. By the time we finished lunch, it was almost dinner time, but instead we all played a game of Balderdash. It was lovely to enjoy such a warm family experience. I didn’t feel particularly deprived that I couldn’t share the experience with my own family as it does not have any traditional significance for us, and I was more than happy to borrow the Ertmer family for this occasion. I don’t think I will feel the same equanimity about my small family at Christmas. That will be a particularly difficult time for us, I think. I am really glad you will be here, Nick, and I am still waiting to hear from you, Tracey. I hope you can make up our little bit of the Albion/Kinnane clan for us here in West Lafayette.

When I was thinking of all the things I have to be thankful for (and there are very many), the one that really rose to the top as being most significant for me at the moment was “mail”. There has been a lot of discussion in recent times about the comparative merits of email and snail mail, and following the recent anthrax scare, mail has been an even hotter topic for discussion. A commentator on the radio the other day observed that whereas once upon a time the postie’s visit was a source of delight, a trip to the letter box now is more than likely to require rubber gloves and to result in a pile of junk mail and/or bills which have been irradiated to kill off any rogue spores. I could make similarly negative comments about the perils of emails. Many noticed that the system last week somehow timewarped me back to 1904, and this week some other glitch sent me messages telling me I no longer existed.

Despite these negative views, I am a lover of all mail – snail mail and email. I even enjoy junk mail sometimes (and I just pass on irradiated bills to Peter). I have two collections of letters that I treasure – one from you, Marie-Francoise, which I have kept faithfully since 1966, and another from Peter who wrote to me daily when I was teaching in Imbil in 1971. I also have your one-letter collection, Gerry! These collections are treasures which I will never part with. An unanticipated pleasure of this current sojourn is the pleasure I have enjoyed from the hand-written letters I have received from a number of people, particularly mum and dad, and Jean and Harvey. These are a great source of delight and cause for thanks. I have received care packages from people, Hannah, Marie-Francoise, and others. Fay and Jim have dealt with all our irradiated mail in Toowoomba and have faithfully sorted, culled, stored, and readdressed as necessary. My mailbox has some treasure in it just about every day. For that I am very thankful indeed!

Email, despite its propensity for time shifting and attempting to thwart my very existence, has been my saviour in times of very real loneliness and homesickness. This form of communication has an immediacy which enables me to get an emergency recipe sent over by Nita, to have Judith send me details of the Melbourne Cup field, to have Robert keep me up to date on local happenings. It has the availability and universality that allows Philip to keep in touch (and almost sane) from wherever he is currently on active duty. It has the capacity to enable Tony to send over copies of journal articles for me to read, and for Susie to send copies of contracts and details of work that I almost got to do there. It has the convenience which enables people with limited time to drop a quick message letting me know they are still there. Hannah’s brief messages are often like a virtual kiss on the cheek as she hurries off to work. It has the simplicity to allow my grandchildren to send me (with their mother’s help) their latest news of missing teeth or birthday celebrations. It has the quick turnover time to enable me to debate topics of interest with Pat and Murray. It has the versatility to enable photos and virtual greetings to be exchanged. Carlee keeps me entertained with many of her offerings. It has the accessibility so that messages can be sent on the run, which is like catching up with Dorothy for a quick chat. It has the interactivity that allows people like Nick and Robert to address particular comments, and the informality to allow the exchange of family news from Pauline, Milly, Colleen, Norma, and to keep me up to date with family group activities. It has the economy of allowing me to send my news in bulk to many of my friends. For all emails and news I have received, I am truly thankful.

After being so thankful on Thursday, we took the opportunity of a long break to travel to Chicago and beyond. Chicago is a good 2-hour trip from here and by the time we had checked out the Thanksgiving sales (commercialisation returns on the day after Thanksgiving for the biggest sale of the year) and had lunch on the way up, it was afternoon by the time we reached our destination.

My goal was to go up the Sears’ Tower, the world’s tallest building. It was a somewhat defiant act against terrorism to enter a skyscraper, and I was determined to show that defiance. There was only a short queue outside the building so I thought it wouldn’t take too long to get up to the lookout and get back down to explore Chicago at closer quarters. Wrong! The queue outside only gives you access to the enormous queue that snakes its way around the basement of the building, up to the first floor, then through another room leading to the escalator, and finally onto the elevator. Security was very strict and was a good practice for our flight to NY in December. After about an hour exploring the nether regions of the tower, we at last took the very fast lift to the 103rd floor where we were treated to a spectacular view of Chicago, a very impressive city even on this overcast day.

Peter tried to repay Hannah’s call she made to us from the top of the Empire State Building, but she was out rowing. We took some photos, and then joined the queue to get the fast lift down. Almost two hours after entering the building, we returned to our car to continue our visit. We drove up the magnificent mile and through some of the other streets. Traffic was VERY congested, but that gave us time to take in some of the beautiful buildings. Chicago has some of the best architecture in America. We then drove through some less salubrious parts of town (we learned on the news later that night that a woman had been killed in gang cross fire there a few days before) and headed out to Oak Park to see another Frank Lloyd Wright site. We were too late to have a guided tour but managed to have a good look around before we looked for a place to stay for the night. We then went back into town for dinner and to look at the Christmas lights and the shops and the buildings by night. An interesting feature of The Chicago Tribune building (an exotic gothic styled skyscraper built in 1924) is the rocks from other buildings which are embedded in its walls. They have bits of the Great Wall of China, Notre Dame cathedral, the Alamo, the Parthenon, the papal residence, the Kremlin, and more than a hundred other places of interest. I’m not sure how many of the pieces were stolen and how many were donated, but they make an interesting addition to an already spectacular building. They even have a piece of Moon Rock in a special display.

The next morning dawned wet and cold with severe weather predicted towards Lafayette and further south. In fact 13 people were killed in tornadoes in the southern states that day. We decided to head north and west and try to collect a few more states. The plan was to head up into Wisconsin, slip across to Minnesota and then come home via the northern tip of Iowa. It seemed like a good idea at the time but miles are a lot harder to drive than kilometres and we soon found that we had bitten off more than we could chew in one day.

Two and a half hours from the Minnesota border, we decided to enjoy Wisconsin and return home. Murray has since told of us a few more things we should have checked out there, but apart from driving many miles (and adding one more state to our tally – I’m up to 20, Peter 22) the highlights of our trip were an historic Swiss village and some delicious cheese. I was curious to see the Swiss village and was amazed how like Switzerland it really looked. The village was settled by immigrants from the Swiss-German town of Glarus, and they have faithfully recreated the alpine style of housing and shops. They also had lots of statues of cows! Peter took a photo of me with one to send to you, Michel.

We also visited the hometown of Ronald Reagan in Dixon, Illinois, on our way home. The local historical society have restored one of the houses his family rented when they came there when Reagan was 9. He was a lifeguard at the river beach and is credited with saving 77 people from drowning. Peter thinks there must have been a lot of poor swimmers to have them come to grief in calm waters.

This week’s quiz question is about the great city we visited in this week’s adventure. Chicago is commonly known as “The Windy City”. How did it get this nick-name?