25 November 2009

A Real Thanksgiving Treasure

Audiences loved 1972's The House Without a Christmas Tree enough that a sequel was made for Thanksgiving of 1973.

The original special was based on the childhood memories of Gail Rock, a Nebraska native who later worked in Hollywood. For this sequel, Rock also drew on her Nebraska schooldays, but star Lisa Lucas added something to the mix. She reportedly asked Rock if she could add a horse to the story, and that's how the pinto horse, the titular Treasure who combines with the story to make a double meaning, was included in the mix.

Addie Mills is a bright and artistic 11-year-old with dreams of becoming "a painter and living in Paris" growing up in 1947 Nebraska with her dour widowed father and supportive grandmother. Her mother died when she was just a few months old, leaving her father withdrawn and embittered. Things had come to a head the previous Christmas, told in The House Without a Christmas Tree, and father James' character is just beginning to thaw in this outing. But he won't thaw to crusty curmudgeon Walter Rhenquist, an elderly farmer who owes him money for digging a pond. The pond, states Rhenquist, leaks. Of course, retorts James, I told you that you chose the wrong place for it.

In the meantime Addie, along with taking part in a radio play about the first Thanksgiving and using her talents on a mural of the event at school, is absorbing some of the real meaning of the holiday. She broaches inviting Rhenquist to Thanksgiving dinner, with the predicted response from her father, and ends up hiding away leftovers and biking them out to the old codger. While he also initially responds with hostility, Addie's charm and her best pal Cora Sue's quirky honesty wins him over. Eventually he allows Addie to ride and groom his horse and, although he calls her bossy, becomes friends with her.

Like its predecessor, Thanksgiving Treasure tells a very low-key story, one of real people rather than fantastically handsome/beautiful folks in big apartments with lots of expensive clothes, or comic idiots. Sadly, in a cost-cutting measure, CBS filmed all the Addie Mills stories on soap-opera quality videotape, which gives them a very cheap look. Conversely, it gives the stories a reality-TV quality, as if you are peeking into the life of a child in 1947.

To me these peeks bring back so many childhood memories that it seems there are two nostalgia factors, the show itself and the life it reminds me of. I knew very few "new" homes back then. Our 1951 Cape Cod, my Confirmation godmother's home, and my Uncle Nicky's house were three of the newest homes I knew. All of my other relatives lived in older homes, with furnishings and decorations that harked back to Addie's era or earlier. Several of my D'Ambra relatives lived in the old company homes for the Cranston Print Works ("the Village"), built much earlier in the century. My godmother's home was built in the mid-1920s and my friend Penny's house appeared to be from the 1930s. My dad's childhood home dated from the turn of the century, as did the triple-decker that my aunts lived in, made with the kitchens bigger than the "parlour" that was only used for best or for television. My Maccarone cousins lived in a home that had been a wealthy man's showplace years earlier.

So when I look into Addie's home I see familiar things: beadboard in the kitchen, and the big black cookstove with the stovepipe that goes into the wall, the vintage wallpaper in the living room and the homey knicknacks, Grandma's wringer washer (almost everyone had one still tucked away in the basement for when the automatic washer didn't work) and James' stand ashtray. It brings me back to old-fashioned candle fixtures, metal kitchen cabinets, worn paisley-patterned wallpaper on stairwells with dark marks from years of hands touching it, Bakelite radios and treadle sewing machines and iceboxes pushed away in corners, lopsided sofas, traditional Morris chairs, Christmas trees still hung with lead tinsel and World War II-vintage clear Christmas ornaments paired with newfangled bubble lights, stark iron radiators with valves that needed periodic bleeding, glass paneled doors with glass doorknobs, stoves with warming shelves and hot water tanks, linoleum floors, braided rugs on hardwood floors that need refinishing, all overlaid with the faint scent of baking, coffee, and furniture polish. Warm smells and memories of family gatherings at Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving: hot coffee, steaming macaroni with homemade "gravy," freshly-baked apple pies, chatter, warmth...home. In the end it's why Addie is not just a friend I visit with each year, but part of a family I remember and rejoin each year, if, as the song says "only in my dreams."

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