One of the first songs I remember my mother ever playing on the piano was “Sentimental Journey,” a jazz standard made popular by Doris Day around the time the Second World War ended.
Gonna take a sentimental journey.
Gonna set my heart at ease.
Gonna make a sentimental journey.
To renew old memories.
The song served as an unofficial homecoming tune for troops returning from war and I’m sure my mother learned it as a young girl from my grandmother, who also played the piano.
As a child, I would lay on the orange shag carpet floor of our living room and listen to my mother play that song over and over.
Got my bags, got my reservations,
Spent each dime I could afford.
Like a child in wild anticipation,
I long to hear that “All aboard!”
I think it was that early introduction to the concept of tradition that is to blame for the sentimental soft spot that remains inside me today.
Tradition and old-school sentiment has found its way into nearly every aspect of my life – even into the lives of my children. Or at least into their names.
Son No. 1, Bynum, was named after my maternal grandfather. Sons No. 2 and 3, Matthias and Graham, were named after a pair of community patriarchs from my hometown back in Oklahoma, and Son No. 4, Solomon, was named with a traditional Biblical slant.
In addition to passing down old-school names to my sons, I love antiques and have a number of sentimental favorites including a bound volume of Maine newspapers from the 1860s, a beautiful 1943 tube radio manufactured by the Phillips Petroleum Company, a vintage Hammond organ from the 1960s, and a first-edition copy of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, given to me as a Christmas gift by my thoughtful wife.
But when it comes to the holidays, I’m particularly sentimental and always searching for traditions to pass onto my children.
Thanksgiving has always been a favorite.
Ten years ago, I moved to the Hattiesburg area from southwest Iowa, and while my sons wrapped up the school semester up north, I found myself here alone for the Thanksgiving holiday with no one but Martin the Dog to keep me company.
Needless to say, any and all Thanksgiving traditions that existed were immediately thrown out the window.
In what was most likely one of the most pathetic displays of holiday anti-traditionalism the world has ever seen, I spent the day alone at my nearly-empty home near the Hattiesburg Country Club watching football and eating a Hormel turkey and dressing microwave dinner.
It was awful. And downright embarrassing for a traditionalist such as myself.
The day was a disaster from the get-go.
When you live in a house with no curtains (and no furniture), you rise when the sun comes up and that year, Thanksgiving Day was no exception.
After a brisk walk around the neighborhood with Martin the Dog, we meandered our way back home just in time to catch the end of a get-rich-quick infomercial hosted by Richie Cunningham’s father from Happy Days.
You know the drill.
“But wait, there’s more.”
The cable company had not made their rounds to my neighborhood quite yet, so with nothing but a cheap “rabbit ears” antenna to work with, my viewing options were limited to say the least.
For old time’s sake, I watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and recalled my family’s visit there in 2005 when, while standing in the middle of Times Square, we were nearly killed when a passing balloon’s guy-wire became entangled with a street lamp and sent it crashing to the ground below just a few feet from where we were standing.
Although I was glad we weren’t hurt, secretly I would have loved to have written that headline:
MS newspaper publisher killed by giant M&M balloon
Watching the parade would have been a highlight of my day, had it not been for the on-again, off-again television reception courtesy of the cheap antenna.
The end result was “soming lit thi wat ing ah the pa de went ro ing do th New Yo k eets.”
By lunchtime, my trained appetite was in the middle of a battle with reality. My internal hunger clock knew it should be expecting smoked turkey and fresh ham, mashed potatoes, assorted casseroles, salads, breads, wine, and of course, pumpkin pie.
However, no matter how many times I looked into the refrigerator, there was never anything there except for the frozen Hormel turkey dinner, a 12-pack of Dr. Pepper, and a half-eaten jar of Claussen dill pickle spears.
After what seemed like an eternity, I gave in and threw the Hormel dinner into the microwave, cranked the timer to a robust 90 seconds, and filled my glass with some ice and Dr. Pepper.
In an attempt to make the pitiful-looking meal less pitiful, I tried unsuccessfully to cut up a few of the pickle spears with some pinking shears I found in a drawer to give it a fancy restaurant feel.
With a plate full of butchered pickles, I snatched my dinner from the microwave and sat down on a wooden barstool to choke down my Thanksgiving “feast.”
Within minutes, I was sick to my stomach – not so much from the frozen turkey dinner, but rather from the realization that there were plenty of other people out there eating equally non-traditional Thanksgiving meals.
It made me sad to think about all of the people sitting down to eat Thankgiving dinner alone and I longed to be sitting down at the table with my family to enjoy a taste of tradition with people I loved.
I sat there staring off into space for what seemed like forever when my cell phone rang and jarred me back to reality.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Dad” proclaimed Son No. 2, who was seven years old at the time. “It wasn’t the same here without you. We had turkey and black olives and we went outside and played football and…”
As his voice trailed off with an emotionally charged recap of his day, I thought about my frozen turkey dinner and smiled at the sound of his voice.
“I really miss you, Dad. How was your day?”
I thought about it for a moment or two and – given the recent turn of events – answered as honestly as I could.
“My day was wonderful, son,” I said. “My day was absolutely wonderful.”
Gustafson is the not-so-mild-mannered editor and publisher of The PineBelt NEWS.