When I was 28, my best friend and I packed up everything we didn’t sell and left Dallas for San Diego. Among the well-wishers were the skeptics that we’d fail in this endeavor. There was a recession going on, and California always suffers in a big way. Even though the California economy is usually among the first to rebound, this information wouldn’t have mattered even if we’d been aware of it. We arrived in early October where the only signs of fall were the angle of the sun’s light and the shorter days. At some point, I’ll write about our first San Diego Thanksgiving, which was spent with two insane people and their pig, but for now, let’s jump ahead three years later when life was much more stable.
After almost being swindled out of our money, Randy and I had ended up living in a tiny cottage that had been built for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. It was cozy. So cozy that the old GE fridge hit the kitchen counter across from it when you tried to open the door all the way. So cozy that I was never able to close my bedroom closet because my short dresser was still too long and overlapped the door-frame.
The landlord never brought that fixture for the hallway light, and we used rope because he could never locate the proper doorknob for the bathroom. We didn’t complain much because we knew the cottage was temporary; so temporary that we stayed there for over two-and-a-half years.
We almost missed an opportunity to move into a great house in an historic neighborhood because when a friend had recommended the house to us, Randy and I had driven by separately, and we’d been given the wrong address. Once we figured out where to go and saw the house with the owner, we leased it on the spot. She was a dream of a landlady: “I don’t care what you do. Paint it, put in a new garden, pull out the old one. I trust your judgment. You have a dog? How wonderful! No extra deposit because I love dogs. I’ll always rent to a dog owner, but never a family with children!”
After living in less than 700 square feet, this two-bedroom house with a study and a sizeable dining room on a corner lot seemed like we’d moved into an English manor. We were surrounded by great houses, and the neighbors were all very friendly. Some were nosier than I liked, but we hadn’t been there a day when the president of the neighborhood association dropped by with information and a pledge card for membership. We found out that there was a Labor Day block party, an annual Christmas caroling party, and the neighbors on our street got together on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to celebrate before leaving town. The idea of all the entertaining possibilities after having been cooped up in that tiny cottage was nothing short of inspirational.
We never had more than four people at the table in the cottage because you couldn’t get more than that in the room, and since the narrow kitchen had no dishwasher and no place to put anything, I never went to much trouble.
However, the new kitchen had a large refrigerator, a double oven, Corian countertops and custom cabinets with pullout shelves. There was an island and a wall of cabinets with two four-tier lazy Susans, wine racks and more shelving than we needed (at that time). There was a large sink and a washer and dryer. There was also room to stand a dozen people without feeling crowded. We moved in three weeks before Thanksgiving, so we invited the friends that helped us move and planned the menu.
In the years since living in that house when I’ve not had the luxury of a double oven, I complain that it’s impossible to prepare a successful holiday meal when you have to rely on one oven to do everything. Not that I was able to roast a turkey in one oven that first year and cook everything else in the other. That’s because we got overly ambitious and Randy suggested a ham as well as a turkey. Why not?
Since we were going all out, I starched a linen tablecloth and enough napkins for everyone. I realized that we had all of this stemware, so why not get out the wine and champagne glasses? We needed something for water, too, and since we were having soup, we needed sherry glasses. Randy pointed out that we needed white wine glasses for turkey and red for the ham, so that would bring the count to five glasses per person. Don’t forget coffee for later! No mugs; let’s get out the cups and saucers my sister had given me. We’d also use the matching dinner plates, soup bowls and dessert plates. What about silverware? I had that box of nice stuff, which we hadn’t been able to use for over three years.
We planned and came up with ideas until the week of Thanksgiving. I even strolled past the odd neighbor’s house three doors down. She had a maple tree, and I wanted those leaves. I polished silver, and washed glasses that had been in storage since Dallas. Were we going to too much trouble? Not when you considered that we’d all have a Thanksgiving to remember. Besides, with that dishwasher and that new hot-water heater, we’d have it all cleaned up in no time and put back onto those spacious pantry shelves.
Thanksgiving Day arrived, and I got up about 9:00. We’d already decided that there would be no rush to serve dinner before 6:00 p.m. After coffee and a substantial breakfast, we got to work. The turkey was wrapped in cheesecloth, and the ham was artfully scored. Those went into the ovens for a few hours of basting while Randy worked on the dressing. The house smelled great when the first guests arrived about 3:00. We served warmed brie en croute with sliced apples. Another serving plate to clean, but what did that matter?
People were thirsty, and that meant a few more glasses. We’d put out plates for snacking, and that was so much nicer than paper napkins. Dishes were starting to pile up, so I headed for the kitchen with the idea that I’d run a load of dishes before dinner. There were a few food scraps in the sink, so I rinsed them down the drain and turned on the disposal.
There was a funny sound, so I shut it off. The water was still running, and the water wasn’t going down. In fact, it was rising. We’d not used the kitchen very much, but the disposal had worked fine when we had used it once or twice. Without doing anything to it, Randy suggested I try the disposal again. The funny noise was still there, but this time I heard it behind me as well. Something was going on inside the washing machine. We weren’t using it, but I opened it to check. I can still recall the horror of finding food particles floating in a shallow layer of water. The sink had backed up. This couldn’t be good.
I decided to run some water into the clothes washer and then spin it out. As the washer drained and the drum began to increase its speed, I sighed with relief. At least whatever had happened had taken care of itself, and the water was draining. Then I saw the flow coming from underneath the washer like The Blob.
“Get a towel!” I called. Randy looked over from basting the turkey and threw a dishtowel at me. “I’m going to need more than that!” I asked one of our guests to go to the linen closet in the hall and bring some towels. She returned empty handed. “Where are the towels?”
“I can’t use those,” she said. “They’re too nice.”
“That’s all we have. Bring whatever you can find. The water is moving way too fast!”
I hated it, but we used our best towels along with the everyday towels to soak up the water. The sink was completely out of commission and the look on my face was utter defeat. Randy pulled me aside and said sternly, “Don’t you shut down. We have all this food, and everyone is here. We’ll figure it out, but for now, we move ahead as planned.”
This was actually very good advice. Without him, I might’ve told everyone to eat on one plate and use one fork (dessert included) and you get one glass—the one you’re already holding. However, I knew that we’d planned a great evening, a great menu, and in that newly painted red dining room, it was going to be the best Thanksgiving dinner we’d ever served. And it was.
I’d checked the sink as we went into the dining room. The water was receding, which was a good sign. We sat down at 6:35, and we got up from the table just before 9:00. We’d paced the meal, beginning with soup, the main dinner, a light salad and a choice of desserts. We felt like we’d dined in the Gilded Age.
With the exception of the flatware, we didn’t bother clearing the table. There was really no point. The kitchen was piled up with roasting pans, cookware, used plates and glasses from this feast, along with the soiled napkins and the piles of soggy towels from earlier. I’d managed to find a bucket in the garage, and I’d filled it outside. We were able to get a few items in there to soak, but there was nothing else to be done until Friday when the Roto-Rooter man was scheduled to arrive sometime between 7:00 a.m. and noon.
Our friend Paul had brought a movie from Blockbuster, and we all collapsed in the living room, drowsy and stuffed. I fell asleep almost immediately, and I can’t even recall what movie was playing. I finally went to bed with the ominous feeling of being greeted in the morning by the mess that was continuing to dry by the minute.
The plumber explained the next afternoon that lines had been clogged with old grease from the previous tenants. In the weeks since moving in, we’d not prepared any large meals. Therefore, we’d not had any problems until we started really using the kitchen. I made a mental note that one should never attempt to entertain soon after moving into an old house without testing the plumbing first.
Within five years, I would forget that very important lesson when I moved into another old house and had 60 people for a fund-raising dinner within the first two weeks, but that’s another story.
© 2014 by Patrick Brown
My latest book, Tossed Off the Edge, is available at http://www.amazon.com/Tossed-Off-Edge-Patrick-Brown/dp/1495359875/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415994293&sr=8-1&keywords=tossed+off+the+edge