Thanksgiving with the two Roses

Thanksgiving DinnerThanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays but it’s taken a backseat to Christmas and the 4th of July now. But 60 years ago I anxiously looked forward to the holiday.

A little background is necessary here. My mother, Rose Purcell Billies, was the daughter of Rose Caton Purcell who was the daughter of Rose Smith Caton. Rose was and still is a common name in my extended family. I have three nieces with Rose as their middle name: Gabrielle Rose, Emily Rose, and Caroline Rose. I have a cousin named Judith Rose who has a sister named Rosemary.

As a child we lived in the house in Brooklyn that my grandparents bought in 1945. Unfortunately, my grandfather died in the front bedroom in February 1948 knowing that my mother was pregnant with me. I was born in September.

The preparation of Thanksgiving dinner was a family affair. My grandmother supervised the preparation of the turkey. My mother and occasionally my father helped with the side dishes. I was responsible for the basting under the supervision of the two Roses.

By 1955 we has three children in our family. I was seven, Barbara was three (just barely) and John was 8 1/2 months old.  That left me to carry the banner for the younger generation.

I can still remember the menu of our feast, not the least of which was because it was the same every year until my mother died thirty years later.

The main course was, of course, the turkey. Usually it was in the 15 to 20 pound range. In the ’50s and the ’60s you cooked the bird with the stuffing inside the body cavity after it was washed out with salted water.

I then helped with the stuffing. I can still remember the two Roses making sure that I didn’t overstuff the bird or , so they said, it would explode. Visions of our dinner exploded inside the stove was a nightmare for a seven-year old.

The two Roses made gravy from the dripping, flour, salt and pepper.

Then came the side dishes. My mother made her favorite, green bean casserole. The recipe has been passed around for the past 60 years. She only made it a couple of times a year which increased its desirability.

Then we had mashed potatoes. The potatoes were skinned and boiled. Then came the heavy lifting. This was before electric blenders and beaters. Usually, my father was called in to mash the potatoes with a hand-held potato masher. Butter was mixed in and they were ready to serve.

My mother loved sweet potatoes or as some would call them yams. No one else liked them but she made them anyway using the same steps as the regular mashed potatoes.

Our last vegetable was usually carrots. They were skinned, cut into pieces, boiled and served with butter on top.

Then, of course, we had cranberry sauce, the jellied variety.

Finally, we had heated rolls. The rolls became such a fixture of the meal that one year, maybe 15 years later, my mother put the rolls in the oven and forgot to turn it on. Another year, the oven was smoking, the rolls were blackened and as hard as stones.

Dessert was usually pumpkin pie and apple pie made by the two Roses. All in all we had a wonderful feast every year that I can remember.

My grandmother died in 1968 and my mother in 1985. Tomorrow we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving physically apart but bound by our family’s history.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Richard, Rick and Rose Billies, circa 1951 at Breezy Point

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