Thanksgiving 2016

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This morning was a rare morning, cool and brisk with only wisps of clouds overhead and the sun lighting up the rolling hillsides in their autumnal yellows as if it were summertime again and they were alive with wildflowers. Instead, it is the fall, Thanksgiving day, 2016, and I walked with a steaming cup of coffee in my hand past the old sheds and outbuildings of my grandparents’ ranch, past the new little greenhouse my father built for my mother last year, into the clearing where the stables once stood. Today there is an orchard, and I stood in the orchard and listened in wonder to what I thought at first was rain, falling hard from a cloudless sky. Only later did I realize that it was ice, melting from the trees in the morning sunlight and falling in huge drops upon the hard earth, beating it like a child with no sense of rhythm might beat a drum.

My own child, my only, at least for five more months, was inside taking his morning nap, and his mother was likely to be doing the same. I walked through the orchard and past a gnarled and foreboding oak that hangs low over the old wooden fence frosted in lichens like a scene from a Cormac McCarthy novel. On the other side, my father’s old vineyard, dilapidated, with the long-forgotten vines growing like weeds in places, not at all in others. An old windmill stands guard at the far end, a sentinel, and all of it surrounded by a fence that might well have kept the deer out, but did nothing to protect the vines from smaller varmints, erratic late spring freezes and, finally, the limitations of the human spirit.  Rather than tearing them out, my father allowed the vines to take over the trellises, and our ghost vineyard stands to this day on the outskirts of the family ranch, reminding me of what might have been.

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One by one, I heard cars rumbling across the auto gate to the west of the house, and my relatives began to arrive. First was my cousin Scott, a genius programmer who used to let me sit in his Corvettes when I was a small child, and then my Uncle Willard and Aunt Judy, along with their daughter Angela, her husband Jim, and their daughters Bethany and Hannah. It was when Angela and her family had stopped in Omaha this summer on their way back to Indiana that the plan had been formulated to try to get the family together again for Thanksgiving. When my grandmother was still alive, we would convene like clockwork on major and minor holidays alike. She died when I was a senior in college, having outlived my grandfather a full twenty years, and after that the family had begun to drift apart. Over burgers, Angela, Jim, Hannah, Bethany, my wife Sonja, my tiny son Titus, and I had schemed a bit and, even if we didn’t fully believe it ourselves, promised to meet up for Thanksgiving at the ranch, “like the good old days”.  Sometimes, I keep my promises.

Angela’s brother, Chris, arrived shortly thereafter, along with my dad’s cousin Barbara. Chris restores pianos and spoke of little but Chopin, but we drank coffee together and, as ever, I learned a lot.  After them came my Aunt Linda and Uncle David, whom I hadn’t seen in far too long. The non-cooks like me drove my mother crazy standing about in the tiny kitchen until eventually she and Aunt Judy, busy with salads, shooed us all out and finished with dinner. As mom pulled out the Turkey, I pulled out my own offering. Most Gudgels cook fairly well, and I have my moments of culinary aptitude, but there’s little I can do with food that my mother can’t do far better. Knowing this, I provided the wine for our Thanksgiving feast, and was pleased with what I had to share.

A few days earlier, I had received a shipment from Buehler Vineyards in the Napa Valley. I had visited John Buehler at his winery this past summer, high up in the mountains east of St. Helena, where the golden hillsides and rural atmosphere reminded me somewhat of my home, but where the vineyards were undeniably better kept and the property values substantially higher. His place was what mine might have been, if the Sandhills of rural Nebraska had won a blind tasting in France with their Chardonnay and Cab Sauv. I hold it against nobody that the Sandhills aren’t so famous as the Napa Valley. I think John would agree with me: sometimes it’s nicer when nobody knows you’re there.

John’s family reminded me quite a bit of my own, in some ways. This past summer, as my friend Zach and I stood bellied up to the bar in John’s beautiful tasting room, chatting amiably with John, his son strode through the front door and across the room towards the stairway leading up to the offices. “How’s it going down there?” called John. “Fuck you!” his son called back, as if this were the customary response to such a question. John looked at us unapologetically. “We’re bottling,” he explained. “Hard work.”  Zach and I chuckled. The blatancy and candor had quickly made real life out of what might otherwise have been just another Napa Valley tasting room with a marble bar and a pleasant view. We spent the next two hours with John, learning about his excellent wines, swapping stories, telling jokes, and touring the facility. If you ever get the chance to visit the place, I’d highly recommend it, though in lieu of such an opportunity, Buehler Vineyards wines are pretty easy to find or order, and offer as much bang for your buck as anything I’ve had coming out of the Napa Valley.

In the box from John were two bottles each of three wines: a 2015 Russian River Chardonnay, a 2014 Napa Valley Zinfandel, and a 2014 “Papa’s Knoll” Cabernet Sauvignon.  Along with a bottle of St. Julian sparkling white grape juice, a Michigan classic for my pregnant wife, I brought these wines along with me to accompany our Thanksgiving feast, the first real Gudgel Family holiday gathering that I recall in more than a decade.

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Buehler Chardonnay is a favorite of mine because, unlike so many from the area, it’s subtle and understated. The presence of oak is noticeable, but far from overwhelming, while stone fruits and some floral notes reside on a balanced wine that’s light yet slightly creamy in the mouth. This paired terrifically with Turkey and was the favorite of my mother and my Uncle David. The Zinfandel, too, is nicely balanced, more of a food wine than the hot, in-your-face Zins that are becoming so popular these days. With terrific notes of baking spice and gingerbread on a juicy, fruit-forward body, it paired well with glazed ham and even held its own with sweet potatoes and pecan pie, my Uncle David’s choice, while Uncle Willard joined my wife in a flute of the St. Julian sparkling.

Later in the afternoon, my cousins Matt and Albert, Linda and David’s children, arrived. Matt had spent the morning and part of the afternoon at work, but I was pleased that in spite of this they’d med the nearly three0-hour drive from North Platte to the ranch. It was the first time either of them met my wife or son.  As the day progressed, we got caught up a bit; it had been a good decade since I had seen either of these men, once the fondest playmates of my happy childhood. By evening, it was time to eat again, and this time the Papa’s Knoll Cabernet stole the show. The tasting notes John sent along informed me that the wine is named for a land formation in front of the late John Buehler Sr.’s residence, a steeply terraced plot of land that is home to the only dry-farmed Cabernet vines on the estate.  Planted in 1971, there’s a heritage to this wine, and I couldn’t help but to appreciate that as I shared it with my cousins around the dinner table in a house my grandfather built with his bare hands, paired as much with conversation and reminiscences as with the leftovers from our lunch feast. Mom stood at the stove and made grilled cheese with ham in it until everyone was full.

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The family has all cleared out as I sit here to write this all down. My wife and my child have long since gone to bed, and our awful little dog has gone with them. To my right, my mother drinks a Newcastle and reads something on her phone. In the office room, once a bedroom, my father sits at his computer, most likely studying the weather or rereading The Economist.  I tip my tall, slender glass, and the last of a whiskey-Coke drains into my mouth. I have a great deal to be thankful for.

I’m thankful for my family. They’re an odd group, and one could argue I’m the oddest. (One could also argue I’m the only sane one in the whole damn gang. One can argue anything one wishes.) I love them, though I rarely see them and, even when I do, often fail to say it. But Angela and I had a moment tonight, as we hugged goodbye, in which she told me she loved me and I reciprocated. I think that we both realize this may not be bound to become an annual tradition, though deep down I hope it does. I know it wears on my mother — whose steadfastness, willingness to play the host, and love for my son Titus I am most thankful for, and I hope that next year, if we do all reconvene, I may somehow help alleviate some of the burden from her shoulders.

Titus. I am ever thankful for little Titus. Now more than 14 months old, he walks a few steps at a time, and babbles “Dad-o” whenever I step through the door at daycare to pick him up on my way home. His mother, too, I am thankful for, though we’re currently annoyed with one another. Being cramped in a small car and, later, a small house, for several days can do that to a couple, but we’ll survive it, and in the end I’ll be all the more thankful for all that she does as an amazing mother for my wonderful little son.

I’m thankful for this ranch, founded over a hundred years ago, and for people tougher than me who made life work on the plains. I’m thankful for the hard work and vision of my Grandfather, who died shortly after I was born in 1981. I’m thankful for my grandmother, who instilled in us all the value of being a family. And I’m thankful for the lack of cellular reception in this isolated area of the world, and for the ability it lends me to be more present with the people around me.

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Pictured: My Grandfather, Francis, and my Grandmother, Helen, in front of their sod house with their oldest son, David, my father’s eldest brother, circa 1940. 

I’m thankful, too, to have shared the holiday with the Buehler Family in this way. Though I’m certain they had their own celebration, they were present in ours today as well, and I enjoyed being reminded of the terrific afternoon Zach and I spent with John from this past summer. I’m thankful for people like John, the honest and genuine people we encounter in life, those with whom we may share a laugh or create a familiar memory. Of all that I have to be thankful for, I am thankful most for people.

Today was a rare day, a day spent with family and people I rarely get to see. Even my parents, lately, have been less familiar, as the excitement of Titus’s birth has worn off some, and they’ve begun to make the 300-mile drive to Omaha less frequently. Today, I saw people I almost never see, and my infant son met many of his relatives for the first time. Today, my wife and I announced to my family that we are having a little girl in April, and I ate more than one slice of my cousin Scott’s incredible pumpkin and pecan pie without concerning myself with calories.  Of course, great wine played a part in the day, the perfect pairing with everything from turkey to ham, and from reunion to conversation. I sit at this table now, typing away, and I remember sitting at it decades before, eating the mac n’ cheese that my grandmother used to make me whenever I would ask. She and my grandfather built this family, for all our greatness and our faults, and I’m certain that she’s as thankful as I that so many of us gathered here again today, at the ranch house she called home.

Happy Thanksgiving 2016,

Mark

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