Remembering Thanksgivings long past

They were filled with cigar smoke and poker.

Back in the day, I had a great uncle, Sylvester Gaydeski, who died in 1970 at the age of 96. (Naturally, I hope I’ve inherited his genes.) In and of itself, this isn’t especially astonishing until you realize he migrated to this region via a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail and he lived long enough to watch the moon landing. I find this quite astounding. I dare say, there are relatively few people in the entire history of mankind who have witnessed such an incredible technological change within their lifespans.

In retrospect, I wish I’d spent more time with uncle Syl. (Isn’t that always the case with our older relatives.) A couple times I stopped by his funny little house and he mixed us a “hot schnapps” or two, but mostly I’d see him at family gatherings over the holidays. On such special occasions, he wore his suit — his only suit — that was reserved for holidays, funerals (including his own) and one or two evenings a month in the town’s taverns with the boys. (In the 1930s and ‘40s, men dressed up for their Saturday night excursions.)

In particular, I remember him seated at the poker table (seven-card stud, low whole card and one-eyed jacks wild) where the male relatives used to gather after Thanksgiving dinner. There, in a cloud of cigar smoke that was thick enough to kill a cockroach — eventually tobacco smoke was probably responsible, direct or indirectly, for the death of half the players sitting in it — they’d play cards, relay community gossip, tell risqué jokes, and get drunk.

I recall one afternoon in that foggy, poker-smoke cloud when everyone around the table, myself included, had passed or checked until the final decision came to rest with uncle Syl. (As it turned out, he had three kings.) He leaned back in his chair, took a deep drag on his cigar, and loudly and emphatically declared: “Hell, no! Different here!” and he threw four-bits into the pot. Another uncle, Ed Semanski — who, as some of you may remember, owned the local ten-cent store — and my father matched Syl’s bet. They were gambling on a long shot and neither connected.

Anyway, they’re all dead now, my parents and all my uncles and aunts. I have a few cousins, a nephew, and a sister, but they’re scattered all over hell and we rarely get together in one setting at the same time. (Extended family gatherings died with my mother.)

However, I still enjoy Thanksgiving with good friends. I’ve become an elder statesman now. Something like Syl used to be. And we still have a round of poker after dinner, but the air isn’t nearly as polluted as it was back in the day. (Yet, despite the improved air quality, I must shamelessly admit that I miss the smoke.)

Somewhere in the course of last year’s card game, everyone at the table passed around to me. It might well have been a setting arranged by divine providence, if you believe in that sort of thing. So, with a tip of my make-believe hat to uncle Syl, I boldly and happily seized the moment: “Hell, no!” I declared, “Different here!”

Cheers, and a happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

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