It would seem churlish to write about anything other than Thanksgiving today. (The other thing on my mind is the election and, believe me, that would be even more churlish.)
Problem is, everything’s already been said about Thanksgiving (including by me: see Happy Any-Holiday, Wherever You Are). As deeply as I feel all those things, I don’t want to write in cliches. So instead, I’ll post the Thanksgiving scene from DEADLY ADAGIO. As with much fiction, this particular scene is based on a real-life experience. It’s a different kind of Thanksgiving, but the basics are there: family, food, fellowship, gratitude.
Set-up: someone in the official American community in Dakar, Senegal, has been murdered. In this scene, a couple of guys from Washington are in Senegal, investigating. I’m leaving one name blank for those unfortunate souls who haven’t yet read the book and don’t know who’s been murdered.
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The two bland men with skinny ties who were seated on either side of Bruce were introduced as being “from Washington, to help with the investigation.” Unsmiling, but without the puffed-out chest Emily had expected, those guys somehow managed to look stern and submissive at the same time. Maybe that was their intention. And they didn’t realize it was 1998, or maybe they just hadn’t bought new ties since the ’80s. These must be the guys from the FBI.
When they were seated, Bruce started off by asking her the routine questions she couldn’t believe he needed to bother with: name, age, marital status, address, profession. She wanted to scream at him, “Come on, Bruce, this is me. Emily! We’re in the orchestra together. You know Pete, too. You know my name and my marital status and does my age really matter?” She controlled herself, though, because she didn’t want to demean him in front of his Washington-guys. Demeaning wasn’t nice and, besides, it wouldn’t be a good way to gain his trust so he’d divulge.
Bruce finally tiptoed into reality with questions about how long she and ______ had known each other, how well they knew each other, where they met, whether they knew each others’ families. The Washington guys took notes on those skinny pads that she’d seen TV cops use. Emily wondered if their note-taking was redundant, and they compared notes later, or specialized, with each one wring about one kind of thing. She wanted to try to notice when their note-taking sped up and slowed down — maybe that would shed some light on the things they were particularly interested in.
When Bruce asked how they’d first met, she lost track of her status as interviewee and sank into the sweet nostalgia of remembering her friend.
It had been just before Thanksgiving. Emily had gone to the Peace Corps office to offer to invite a couple of volunteers to her family’s celebration, knowing it was a particularly tough time for the young ones, especially, to be away from home. It turned out there was a new Peace Corps Director, and when she made her offer to him, he said they’d be hosting all the volunteers.
“All the volunteers? Do you have any idea what you’re in for? Do you know how hungry those kids can be?” She’d entertained volunteers in the past and knew first hand. The brownie consumption alone was impressive.
Knowing the family would be in for a shock, Emily volunteered to help with the preparations, though not the meal itself, which she’d share with her own family. She got in touch with ________ and the two women spent the next few days together, concerning themselves with how to approximate turkey with all the trimmings in West Africa.
“Fifty volunteers, so about 50 pounds of turkey. How many turkeys is that, do you think?” asked _______. “Anyway, I’m sure we can get them through the Commissary.”
“No, no, no, you’re thinking of people back home. These kids are really hungry. Fifty kids means at least 100 pounds of turkey, I’d say.”
“A hundred pounds of turkey? How will we ever be able to cook all that?”
They found a bakery that would cook six big turkeys, leaving _______’s oven available for 100 or so baked potatoes — 50 sweet and 50 white.
Another logistical challenge was salad for fifty. Here in West Africa, any locally-grown produce to be consumed raw and unpeeled had to be soaked in an iodine solution, then rinsed in (previously-boiled) water to combat the iodine taste. The Peace Corps doctor and Embassy doctor were unanimous and adamant about this. Many of the volunteers, young enough to consider themselves immortal, cut corners — and some paid the amoebic price — but ________ and Emily had shed their senses of immortality long before. They gathered large buckets for lettuce-soaking and peeled the cucumbers and tomatoes so they wouldn’t require soaking.
________’s maid, Yacine, enlisted four family members to help. When Emily and _______ tried to explain the origins of the Thanksgiving meal to Yacine and her helpers, they realized how difficult it was to explain something so culturally specific to someone from another culture. They also realized how incomplete their knowledge was. Between pictures, words, and pantomime, though, everyone wound up understanding a little and laughing a lot.
In the end, _______ and Emily became so close from preparing for the meal that their families had Thanksgiving together, with the 50 volunteers, of course. There were no leftovers except bones.
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