Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thankful At The Beach

Hal's last Thanksgiving.
Our big holiday is Thanksgiving. For years we’ve been setting up our traditional feast on the beach, on picnic tables, with lovely tablecloths and silverware and flowers. We always bring the turkey. Michael cooks it and I make the gravy. By doing this we are always assured of those precious leftovers. This will be our 15th year at the beach party we call the Hal Walsh Memorial Thanksgiving at the Beach.
Michael: Hey, where is everybody with the food?
    Hal Walsh was a guy who came to Key West via Connecticut and New York, where he’d spent the first half of his life going to the right schools, then working as a stockbroker, doing just what his stuffy parents expected him to do. At around age 50 Hal learned his heart was winding down pretty quickly. And so he decided to spend the remainder of his life doing exactly what he wanted to do. He moved to Key West. He got two cocker spaniels, and treated them like the children he never had. He was unapologetically cantankerous. He loved history and got a job managing the Truman Little White House, which he performed with true grace. He was single, and so we always spent Thanksgivings together, in somebody or other’s home. One year I had the idea of Thanksgiving at the Beach. Hal loved it; I think because it was so very different from how he’d always done it before, up north. Hal brought the cranberry sauce.  For Hal Walsh, Thanksgiving on the beach was a rebellion.
    Hal’s heart finally gave out just before our second Thanksgiving on the beach. He’d phoned to assure me that he was bringing his famous cranberry sauce. He added that he was having some problems with a new heart medicine. “I hope I don’t drop dead at the table,” he said. But he didn’t make it to the Thanksgiving table. He died that night. We learned from his sister, when she came to town to manage his affairs, that he’d told her several times about how much he cherished Thanksgiving on the beach, and about how much he was looking forward to our next Thanksgiving. And that’s why we call it the Hal Walsh Memorial Thanksgiving at the Beach.
Rocky, Mom, Paula, Merle, June
    Of course the year Hal died, we didn’t have cranberry sauce. Then, for years after that, somehow the cranberry sauce didn’t make it to the feast. And, as everybody knows, you can hardly call it Thanksgiving dinner without a bowl of cranberry something on the table. Somebody forgot to bring it. Or somebody didn’t get the word they were supposed to bring it. And whenever that moment arrived when we once again realized that we’d somehow not arrived with cranberry sauce, I swear I heard Hal chuckling at us.
    Through the years we’ve had quite an assortment of people at the Hal Walsh Thanksgiving at the Beach party. A regular part of the gathering was Rosie Jones and her daughter Aja. They came because Rosie’s husband Michael, the singer, always worked on Thanksgiving. Now that he’s a senior staff member, he gets Thanksgivings off. And prefers to have his turkey at home with his little family. My mother joined us a few times, too. One year she yelled at one of our guests, an oncologist, because her sisters had both died of cancer.  Many of our guests have come and gone from Key West, that is they've moved on to other places and other things. Mom is with Hal now, in the great beyond.
Thea's last Jersey blizzard!!
    This year my son is going to New York City for Thanksgiving. A week ago an old friend from New York called to ask if she might invite herself to Thanksgiving on the beach. Hell, yeah! Come on down! The joy of sharing the day with someone I’ve known since kindergarten has relieved the sadness I feel at not having my son with me on the holiday.
    Our summertime neighbor Thea, a teacher retired at last and finally ready to live forevermore in her Key West house, just arrived in town. It’s so good to have her back because there’s nothing gloomier than an empty conch house except perhaps the sad e-mails that come from the homesick owner of said house, stranded in New Jersey trying to sell the house she owns there.  This will be her first Thanksgiving on the beach.
    I just made the cranberry sauce. Here’s the recipe: 2 cups whole raw cranberries, washed. 1 small onion. 3/4 cup sour cream. 1/2 cup sugar. 2 tablespoons horseradish from a jar.  Grind the raw berries and onion together in a food processor. You want it chunky. Not pureed. In a bowl combine this raw mix with everything else. Put it in a plastic container and put it into your freezer.  On Thanksgiving eve take it out of the freezer and place it into your refrigerator to thaw. Serve it cold or at room temperature. The relish will be creamy and bright pink and absurdly delicious with turkey and also good on turkey sandwiches the next day.
    Today, as I was grinding cranberries, I wondered what Mom and Hal, my favorite rebels, might be doing for Thanksgiving this year. I had a vision of the two of them, in a Chinese restaurant, sipping martinis and enjoying the air conditioning.

 To see Hal's 5-minute tour of the Little White House paste this address into your browser:


  1. Hell, yeah! This is from the thankful initiate of the Tablecloth of Turkey on the Beach. Oh to be barefoot in the, and not worrying if your gravy dribbles a little on the, sand! See you soon Joon!

  2. How awesome would that be to have Thanksgiving dinner on the beach..Hope you have a great time!

  3. Oh my goodness, you made me famous again! You'll never have to worry about cranberry relish in the future because that was my job back in NJ. It was always so awful that only my Mom, now joined with your Mom and Hal, and I would eat it. I'm sure Hal and our Moms will be chuckling every Thanksgiving from now on when whoever you invite for your Thanksgiving on the Beach Feast tastes cranberry, Thea style!

  4. WOW - I just learned about this blog and this entry about your Thanksgiving on the Beach. So great to see Uncle Jeff's photo (that Hal to most of you or Jeph to others). It was about that time my Mom (who is with Hal now) also began adding horseradish to canned cranberry sauce (she wasn't quite the gourmand Hal's was!) and it was hit among the various people in CT as well. Thanks for sharing your memories of Hal at his favorite holiday. - Marna (Hal's Niece).

  5. Marna: How lovely to hear from you. And crazy, too, as just yesterday, not 24 hours ago, we ran into a friend at the grocery store who was one of the guests at that Thanksgiving Day just after Hal died. He mentioned that day and Hal. And we all thought about Hal for a minute or two. His favorite song was "The White Cliffs of Dover" so of course whenever I hear that song I think of him. That and cranberry sauce. I think I met your Mom when she was here taking care of Hal's things. She gave me a painting that had been in Hal's place. I hope they're having a good time up there. June