Like many households, we have a division of labor for Thanksgiving duties. I put the leaf in the table; my wife roasts the turkey. So we're about even, right?
C'mon, without the leaf, that turkey would take up the whole table. If I pull the table apart but don't put in the leaf, the turkey falls right through, lands on the floor, the dog gets it and Thanksgiving is ruined.
That sounds like the plot for the cheaply animated holiday shows of yore. There's some minor setback, and an adult says, "Looks like Christmas will be canceled this year." But then Rudolph steps up and says, "My convenient genetic anomaly can help! I'll be a headlight." Because Santa never thought of that.
Anyway, Thanksgiving is never in peril. Even if the turkey isn't ready when everyone's on their second glass of spumante and getting loud; even if someone forgets to put out the Obligatory Relish Tray so you can enjoy the annual event of rejecting celery (it's nature's dental floss!). Even if someone brings along a stray guest, and it doesn't seem like there will be enough room.
There's always enough room — if you have the leaf.
I'm not saying that leaf duty is as labor-intensive as preparing the turkey, but there is work involved. You have to get it out of the closet, which means parting the coats like the Red Sea. You have to fit it in the slots just so. Then you have to turn it around because you put it in the wrong way, again.
Same as it is every year. Except this year, someone on that side of the leaf will ask Daughter: "Have you decided on a college?"
And then next year: "So, how's college?"
You think: The leaf will go into the closet after Easter and not come out again until November. And while it slumbers behind the coats, everything will change.
"Is the table set?" I hear from the kitchen, where Wife is caramelizing yams, or yaminating caramel. Something. You can't say, "No, I'm momentarily stunned by the heedless rush of time" because that's your answer for everything these days.
"Almost," you say.
You could set the table with the inherited silverware, but it has two qualities: precious and hideous. There will come the day when you hand it over to Daughter with the whispered words of guidance: "These have been in the family for generations. You are the chosen one who can break the curse. Sell them."
The table isn't set yet because the leaf isn't quite sitting right. There are screws you can adjust. So you go to the kitchen, where the womenfolk are punishing the potatoes with a mixer, and you make a great show of getting out the screwdriver.
"The leaf," you say, "requires adjustments."
They don't care. They're worried about gravy. They're always worried about the gravy, but when isn't there gravy? Relax, already.
You adjust the screws, humming over the river and through the woods, since that's the only Thanksgiving song, really.
When you were a kid, you literally went over the river (the Sheyenne) and through the woods to Grandmother's house. Her table had leaves. It shuddered and squealed like an elephant giving birth when pried apart.
At some point, Thanksgiving shifted to your house, and of course as a kid you don't question that. It never occurs to you that Mom finally convinced her mother that half a century of turkey-work had entitled her to stand down.
Wonder how Grandma felt about that. Relief? Resignation?
It occurs to you that your life can be told by the opportunity to use the leaf. Young married couples don't need a leaf — just each other's company is more than enough.
You buy a bigger table when you get the first house — the good table for the dining room, the ceremonial table you'll dust every week for the rest of your life, fretting over scratches and water spots. It's like buying a car you drive twice a year.
You invite the family, and you only need one leaf in the center, because nieces and nephews are at the Kids' Table, arranging their mashed potatoes and pushing green beans off to the side.
Then the kids are old enough to sit at the good table, and another leaf goes in. The kids do not quite regard the promotion as a blessing, because grown-ups are boring and ask about school, which is the least important thing in your life. No grown-up ever asked about Pokemon! On the bright side, no grown-up ever asks about Pokemon.
Then the kids are gone. You downsize and move. None of the kids wants the table, which is a shock. It's an heirloom. It's beautiful. And so practical — look at these leaves. But they have their own tastes, their own table, and it's some modern thing that automatically elevates a hidden leaf when they press a button on their phone.
You wonder what next year will be like. You see a headline from November 2018: "Storms Ground All Planes; Many Daughters Stuck at College With Boyfriends You Don't Know."
There: The leaf is level and fits perfectly. You put the screwdriver back in the drawer and announce that Thanksgiving has been saved. And now the leaf will fit when you put it in for Christmas. You know, the last Christmas. Before college. Then the last Easter.
Adjustments will have to be made. You wish there was a screwdriver to fix that.