Legend of the Snow Turkey


It had become one of those family legends that you just don’t fool around with.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Families get together and really enjoy being with each other. But Thanksgiving is more than just a dinner party. Family traditions are what make the holiday unique for me.

Telling funny stories at the dinner table is part of the ritual at my family’s Thanksgiving celebration, and there are a few stories that are told only on Thanksgiving. We tell them again and again, and they seem to get better with the years.

Some of the stories are about other Thanksgivings. They deal with trips to my grandparents’ ranch in Idaho on snowy roads and getting stuck. There is one about bringing a new kitten home and having it crawl up and get stuck in the dashboard of the car. We spent hours taking the car apart to rescue the kitten.

Another favorite is about all of the cousins coming down with the measles or mumps (the disease depends on who is telling the story) between the turkey and dessert.

The best Thanksgiving legend is the great snow turkey story. It has become a family myth. As the story has developed, it was the first year that we celebrated Thanksgiving at the ranch. This was over my mother’s objections that the house would be cold and drafty, which it was; that the roads would be icy, which they were; and that the electricity would go out, which it did. But there were also about two feet of snow, and it was just right for snowballs, forts, and snowmen—or snow pilgrims in this case.

Where there are snow pilgrims, there are snow turkeys. We sculpted a snow turkey right there on the front lawn. It had giant tail feathers, dyed with food coloring. For support it had elephantine legs and feet that looked like clown shoes. The recollections on its size vary but seem to grow bigger each year.

It was a long afternoon because, as mother had predicted, the real turkey would not thaw because the kitchen was too cold. We filled the afternoon taking pictures of everybody standing beside or riding on the snow turkey. My father’s photographic skills are nearly as legendary as the snow turkey. Not a single photo made it back from the lab. Either there was no film in the camera or the setting was wrong, but it ended up that there is not a single picture of the mythical snow turkey.

As the story is told and retold, the size and quality of this piece of art grow. At the last telling, the snow turkey was ready to take flight on its icy wings, almost as lifelike as Michaelangelo’s statue of David.

Over the last few years, the younger nieces and nephews have wanted to build another snow turkey. They have heard so much about it, and we have made that Thanksgiving sound like a perfectly fun afternoon. There is no mention of frozen mittens or the sun coming out and melting the turkey away before dinner was over. All we remember, or at least retell, is that it was beautiful beyond imagination and lent a warmth to the holiday that has been with us ever since.

The nieces and nephews can get the older kids and grownups out for snowball fights, fort building, and a snowman or two, but somehow when it comes time to sculpt a new snow turkey, we head off on the cross-country skis instead. We know that any reconstruction would only cheapen the memory of the first Thanksgiving snow turkey and show it to have been the work of soggy wet mittens, not inspired artistic hands. No, we have never attempted to reconstruct the snow turkey, and it’s probably best that the pictures did not turn out. There are, after all, some symbols that you just don’t fool around with.

[illustration] Illustrated by Richard Hull