Written in 1996, The Relish Tray is an autobiographical account of ten years of Thanksgiving holidays spent with a very special family.
Amidst the traditional bounty that graces my annual Thanksgiving table, hidden among plates of turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce, a gelatin salad of some sort, and various vegetables, sits a relish tray stocked with carrots, celery, dip, et cetera.It isn't what fills the tray that's special, it's the tray itself--an intricate cut-glass dish separated into compartments and set into a shiny silver liner with a sturdy handle from which hangs a delicate, curved fork.Surrounded by painstakingly prepared food eyed by hungry family and friends, it draws no particular attention.In fact, it's unique only in its appearance--it's the most elegant-looking piece on our table, but alas, still just a relish tray, not exactly what the guests remark on as they leave or remember once it is cleaned and put away for another year.But to me, it is much more than a relish tray.Oh yes, to me, its tiny, glittering prisms hoard an entire decade of warm Thanksgiving memories.
I was a young woman in my early twenties when my adventurous spirit took me from my home in Tampa, Florida, to live in Provo, Utah.I didn't know anyone there.I had no job or place to live when I arrived.I simply had decided that the mountainous West held more appeal for me than sun and beaches.I found an apartment my first day in town, a job in two months' time, but it took a little longer to cultivate friends of the close, long-lasting kind.Such were Loy Beth and Tammy Evans, a pair of sisters I met at church.Loy Beth, the youngest, was close to my age and we became fast friends, attending dances, concerts, plays, going skiing and horseback riding.She and Tammy even worked for the same company as me for a while, as did their mother Cora, and all of us spent lunchtime together every day.
One November, knowing I'd be alone for the holidays, the Evanses invited me to spend Thanksgiving with them, and I readily accepted, excited to share Turkey Day with people with whom I felt comfortable.On that day I met Loy Beth's older brother Neldon.It was not to be the ordinary, run-of-the-mill Thanksgiving.We all piled into Neldon's van and made the three-hour drive to Wendover, Nevada for a little gambling excursion.There's not much to look at in the way of scenery between Salt Lake City and Wendover, but they were sure to draw my attention to the 'tree in the desert,' a huge concrete tree in the middle of the salt flats, bearing brightly painted balls for branches, someone's work of art, which we couldn't understand, but to which we attached enough curiosity to waken anyone who was asleep to view and comment on it.
In Wendover we engaged in 'casino-hopping,' moving on up the street when the nickel slot machines in one casino didn't pay what we'd like.Loy Beth was the lucky one.With her sixty dollar jackpot she bought dinner for all of us at one of the many tasty holiday buffets.All too soon, it was time to cross the desert again, putting us back home after dark, tired and with just a few leftover nickels as souvenirs of the day.
The Evanses, true turkey connoiseurs that they were, felt that a Thanksgiving dinner at home was still a necessity, and so on the Sunday following our Wendover trip, I was again invited to a dinner held in the clubhouse of Neldon's mobile home park, where I met aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.During that gathering and another like it the following year after another Wendover trip, I never felt like an outsider.The family took me in like they'd known me all my life.I was included in their plans every year."It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without you," they said, and no matter what went on anywhere else I never made other plans for the fourth Thursday in November.
While some people's memories of Thanksgiving blur together from year to year, no two holidays were alike for the Evanses and me.One year, Loy Beth, Neldon, Cora, and I visited their Aunt Marie's in Salt Lake City, and while the kitchen was filled with helping hands, Loy Beth and I 'jigsawed' puzzles, as Cora put it, and built reindeer and sleighs with Legos in the living room, eagerly awaiting our summons to the dinner table.
One of the most exciting holidays we shared was the year we took a four-day trip to Southern California.By now, Tammy had a husband, Terry, and a two-year-old son, Kenneth, who joined us in that now-familiar van of Neldon's.All through the long night we drove through sagebrush-covered desert, eager for the delights that awaited us at the end of our journey.When Thanksgiving morning dawned, our fitful night of sleep was quickly forgotten as we headed directly to Knotts Berry Farm and spent the afternoon riding the rides, being entertained by Old West shows and music, and feasting on a turkey dinner in Mrs. Knotts' Chicken Dinner Restaurant that would rival any home-cooked feast.Knotts Berry Farm is famous for their boysenberries and no trip there is complete without a boysenberry pie or tart.
Neldon, the official 'trip planner,' had arranged motel reservations, and our group took up three rooms at the Penny Saver Inn near Disneyland.
The next day, Friday, was spent in Disneyland, beginning with the Disney Character Breakfast, where costumed Disney characters visited with all the guests.More rides and entertainment filled the agenda, and Kenneth had his picture drawn by a caricature artist.Christmas decorations were already on display, and if there's two subjects on which the Evanses and me were self-proclaimed authorities, it was Disney and Christmas.We took in the fun sights and sounds like children at a circus.
The next day consisted of a drive to San Diego and a visit to the Nut Farm, a big candy store where Neldon jokingly threatened to leave Loy Beth and me.That night we entered Disneyland one more time to see the trees and buildings lit up with thousands of tiny lights and to ride the new SplashMountain in the rain at after nearly all the other revelers had gone home.
We didn't leave California until we absolutely had to, then we drove straight home and arrived back an hour and a half before I had to be to work on Monday morning.Being back to work so soon after a memorable trip seemed to me much like Clara awakening from her wonderful dream in my favorite ballet, "The Nutcracker."
Thanksgivings at home were just as wonderful as our trips to Wendover and California.How could I forget Neldon's mobile home where Christmas decorations filled every available nook and cranny, and for each one there was a story as to when and where it had been acquired.Amidst tinsel, elves, angels, and two-foot-tall Christmas dolls, I even spied ornaments from our Disneyland trip.
Cora and Loy Beth's quaint brick home, shared by Peanuts the cat, was equally welcoming."Our home doesn't always look like this," said Cora, motioning to the assortment of children's toys on the floor."Sometimes it's worse."
It was never mine or Loy Beth's job to help with the cooking.The small kitchen was already
with experts who were up to the task, and we were provided with Christmas ornament kits to while away the hours until dinner.Every year I came away with a different set of ornaments to add to my growing collection and in which I could feel the pride of making them myself.I have sequined balls, bells, stockings, and candy canes in red, green, and gold, but my favorite one is a ceramic ornament of two smiling mice riding in a red sleigh which I painted.These and others which the Evanses gave me as gifts remind me more of Thanksgiving than Christmas.
Lively conversation accompanied our dinners, and usually the subject got around to Disneyland at some point.I still smile at the memory of Neldon standing up, putting his foot on the chair, and lifting his pant leg to show us the Mickey Mouse socks he was wearing.
"If you leave hungry, it's your own fault," was the statement that always preceded the feast, and it certainly held true .Along with the heaping bowls of dressing, mashed potatoes, and yams, there was always a different gelatin salad each year.My favorite was the one made with raspberry gelatin, blueberry pie filling, and pineapple with a sour cream topping.Their homemade and home-canned mustard relish was like nothing I'd ever tasted--a tangy concoction of pearl onions, cauliflower, pickles, and peppers in a mustard sauce.Then there was a gorgeous cut-glass relish tray with a silver liner and handle and a miniature silver spoon.It was filled with crunchy raw vegetables and a dip.
Of course, most people eat pumpkin pie to top off their Thanksgiving feast, but I doubt very many cut their pies into fourths like the Evanses.I shouldn't have mentioned that pumpkin was my most favorite pie because then it became the yearly ritual to tease me by placing a whole pie in front of me with a fork.I just laughed and said that might be just barely enough.Nevertheless, I was given a whole pie to take home with me at the end of the day.
At my ninth Thanksgiving with the Evanses, my new husband David joined the fold.Our going to the Evanses rather than spending the day by ourselves at home seemed to be a natural progression and nobody ever questioned it.To the Evanses he was a long-lost son, and as for David, one bite of Cora's mustard relish and he was hooked.They presented us with a wedding gift that day, a beautiful cut-glass candy dish and lid.
The very next year, mine and David's sweet little six-week-old son Taylor came with us.Cora promised to save a drumstick for him.Taylor got plenty of attention that day as he was passed from one set of hands to the next, and he wiggled with pleasure.It was a bittersweet holiday, however, for shortly after Taylor's arrival, David and I had made the decision to move to faraway Tennessee where he had gotten a job.The food, as always, was delicious, and we listened fascinated to Cora's stories about what life was like when she was a little girl, but threading its way through every moment of the day was the realization that a well-seasoned and well-loved tradition was about to pass into memory.We recalled incidents and people from the last nine years, and we knew that Thanksgiving would not be the same again.Cora's tears broke my heart as we hugged goodbye.The sound of their laughter in my mind and the memory of their warm home in my heart would have been enough to carry with me, but they showered us with parting gifts as well--mustard relish for David, pumpkin pie for me, a baby book for Taylor, a small ceramic sculpture of a mother and her children for our new home...and the biggest surprise of all, the prettiest relish tray I ever saw, identical to the one that adorned their own Thanksgiving table.They told us to remember them when we used it for our holiday dinners, and we assured them we would.
David and I loaded the gifts into our car, put Taylor in his carseat, and took our places in the car.It was a quiet ride home in the dark that night as I reflected on Loy Beth, Tammy, Neldon, and Cora and their relatives--angels from heaven who had been carefully placed in my life and had become my second family.And it was then that David suggested I put my story on paper and present it to the Evanses as my gift to them.
We are settled in Tennessee now and making new friends.One of the first things we unpacked was the little ceramic sculpture, and it has a place of honor on our mantle.The relish tray stays packed away.It is only taken out and used one day each year.As Taylor grows older it will, no doubt, prompt stories from David and me about how the kindness of one family so positively affected our lives.
Perhaps one Thanksgiving yet to come, the relish tray will stay packed and we can journey back to spend one more Turkey Day with the Evanses.What a fine holiday that will be.