The guests had arrived. Just like every thanksgiving since the beginning, there was a flurry of last-minute preparation and a jump to answer the door. But this thanksgiving was an American thanksgiving abroad.
My first. So far my only.
19 years old, with my two parents and my two brothers, we were living in the town of Mirnyy, in Yakutia. Never heard of it? It was the diamond capital of the Soviet Union. It’s still a diamond-mining town, but the Soviet Union is long gone. In 1992, the year I’m talking about, the Soviet Union was newly gone. We had come to teach in a Bible-based school, and had only planned to stay January through June.
Surprise. It was November and we remained. We must have a thanksgiving feast! Regardless of the lack of food supplies–everything was defeetceet–we must have Thanksgiving dinner. And we must invite guests.
Mark opened the door. Nicholai, Tamara and their friend Oksana were here. Mom scurried past with the samovar. We took their coats, fur hats, mittens and all, placing them across the bed of the one bedroom.
Nicholai was the founding teacher of our new school. His constant support and graciousness made our transition here not only easy, but possible. His wife Tamara hosted us so many times at their flat, feeding us tea and borsht and every delicious thing the town could offer. She was delighted to accept our invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. When we explained that Thanksgiving was about guests, she said, “I shall bring my friend Oksana. She will enjoy this. You will love her!”
Every week of our stay so far someone invited us to their home for dinner. We’d feasted and grown fat in this town. This was the first time we’d invited guests for dinner at our home.
I was scared. How would we do this? Mom started to plan. As the only daughter and the experienced food shopper I paid close attention. What could we assemble into a feast? I said I had seen whole chickens at least twice at one shop, and that could stand in for a turkey. For Cranberry sauce we could use local berries. Berries were easy because the forest around had plenty and people shared what they picked. Bread for stuffing was also easy; Russians protect their bread supply.
So then, finding enough space around the table was another problem. We did not have the beautiful dishes that Tamara had; we scrambled to be sure we had an ordinary plate for everyone.
“Come into our dining room!” We led our guests into the living room spread with the dining table. The couch served as seating on one side, and the other side was assembled stools and chairs. Samovar on one end, with soup as first course ready to be served. It wasn’t done to skip the soup.
“You have done an excellent job,” Nicholai said as he entered.
“This is very wonderful!” Tamara said. “You have laid the table so nicely. Look Oksana, isn’t this nice? I can see the care you have taken with every small thing.”
Everyone seated now, our plates empty, Dad took this pause to make a formal occasion:
“When the Pilgrims first came to America, in pursuit of religious freedom, they has a very hard time of it. They didn’t know how to get food in this new land. The Indian people who lived there helped them. The Pilgrims would not have survived without the help of the Indians.
“So, during harvest season the Pilgrims planned a great feast for their Indian friends. That first thanksgiving, the Indians and the Pilgrims feasted and shared all they had. The Pilgrims were very grateful.
“Since that time, America has celebrated thanksgiving day. Well. Lincoln made it a holiday during the Civil War, but it was celebrated before then.
“It is a tradition for everyone around the table to take a moment and say something we are grateful for.”
He concluded and gestured to our guests. Engrossed in the story, and shook themselves free to try to understand what was expected of them.
Mom spoke up, from her place next to Dad. “I can begin. I am so thankful for welcome we have received from everyone here in Mirnyy and all the friends we have made.”
We took turns, my American family coming up with our thanks. After a few examples, Nicolai and Tamara were able to easily respond. “We are thankful to have a chance to take part of this American tradition and eat this lovely dinner with our friends.”
Oksana said, “I am thankful to meet new friends and learn about American stories.”
Dad then led us in prayer. Now we could eat!
Mom dished up the borsht. We ate it Russian style, soupspoon in one hand and bread in the other.
After the soup, we should eat the bird. But there was a problem. I hadn’t been able to find a chicken after all. That week we had wondered what to do, how could we have Thanksgiving without a bird? Would we make the shape of the turkey out of of stuffing? Was that even possible?
The answer came from some Yakut friends of Chris. These men embraced my youngest brother, and had taken him hunting the month before.
“They had these military grade ammunition. If they shot one in the sky, it flashed light and you could see everywhere. The sky was all lit up. They were crazy! I didn’t catch anything though.” They enjoyed showing off their guns and hunting skills to the American.
Then that Tuesday night, late. we heard a knock on the door. A big Yakut man came in, and he was carrying two very big dead birds.
“Glooxa!” he said. That was the name of this kind of bird. The word literally meant stupid or deaf. He had a successful hunting trip and wanted to share with us. These were very dead and very heavy. The feathers shone with iridescence.
A Thanksgiving miracle: a real dead Russian turkey miraculously dropped off in time for our feast!
We put them in the bathtub to prepare later. Mom declared she would pluck them and get them ready the next day. As it happened, plucking is a lost art. She skinned them.
So after the soup, she brought out a lovely skinned and roasted bird body to share. We told them the story of how we received them and our guests were delighted to eat the tender dark meat.
Dad carved the turkey while my mother explained that the carving of the turkey had a special significance, usually done by the male. She even explained that some people used electric knives. Oooh! Aaah!
We feasted, we laughed, we remembered. Then it was time for pie.
The pie was my contribution. Weeks earlier someone brought over a baby food jar of pureed carrots. It was a novel gift, from one of the teenagers who came over to practice their English. Baby food? She said it tasted good, and it was unusual.
Unusual tastes were so rare for the locals. Of course, all tastes were novel to our foreign tongues. We put it in our cupboard, not knowing what else to do with it. But I thought it could be made into a custard pie. Not pumpkin, but orange at least.
I’d made a crust and a custard filling. The pie came out bright orange. I hadn’t tasted it but I handed it round with the tea, nervous at what might be in store.
Tasting a sweet butterscotch flavor, the diners declared it a success.
We achieved the stretch-bellied satisfaction of Thanksgiving dinner we were hoping for. And here was another potential problem. After dinner, the Russians traditionally began to toast. Dad had decided we would continue our teetotal lifestyle in Russia, so no way were we going to serve alcohol after dinner.
But what, then?
“Let’s play moose moose!”
This was a silly youth group game. Each person would choose a motion and a sound to indicate an animal. The starting animal was a moose; the person playing the moose would put their hand-antlers up to their head and say “moose moose.” The other people in the circle chose their animals with a sound and a sign. The moose began the game, saying his word, “moose moose” and then another animal: “bow wow.” The dog would have to answer quickly with his sign and the sign of another player or he was out.
Once the dog was out, the circle would all move up, swapping animals to match the location in the circle. It was easy to forget that you were now the dog.
This game transcended language barriers. We played again and again, and laughed way more than I ever had during drinking times. Tamara’s friend Oksana was hilarious and fun, and everyone departed feeling very friendly and satisfied.