T-Day Traditions

Love, Lies, and Otto’s One-Legged Turkey

How one family makes a cherished tale of a turkey mishap its Thanksgiving centerpiece.

Light like sheets of glass, filtering through the window at magic hour. Granny in her leather club chair, smoking Chesterfields and sipping Manhattans. Her hands were veined and elegant, and she would speak in a gravelly voice about church, or Port Washington, or family.

I’d position myself at her feet like a basset hound, waiting to see if she’d remember to eat the cherries. My brother Peter was smarter and sat closer to Pop-Pop, with his crystal candy bowl full of Werther’s Originals and peppermints. When he was feeling generous, which was often, he’d palm one to Pete, with a smile.

This was Long Island in the 1980s, where my mother had grown up one of seven siblings three decades earlier. Granny and Pop-Pop met while working at J.C. Penney—she in the mailroom, he as a toy buyer—in Manhattan just before World War II. I have a photo of them, snapped by a stranger, on their first date in 1936. They’re strolling down 5th Avenue by Central Park. Her hand tucked into his elbow. His hat at a jaunty angle. Laughing, in black and white—already smitten.

They married soon after, and he left to fight for the army. He sent scores of letters home to his beloved, and returned with a Purple Heart for valor and the determination to start a family. The children arrived, one hard on the heels of the next, and their parents raised them Irish and Catholic, drawing a hard line with them about honesty and treating others as they would want to be treated. Which is why the tale of Otto’s turkey bowled me over.

It came up at one of our family Thanksgivings, when the storytelling goes off the rails as the day goes on and bottle after bottle of Chardonnay is kicked. The four girls—now in their late sixties and seventies—were 7, 9, 10, and 11. Pop-Pop still worked at J.C. Penney, and had nine mouths to feed on a toy buyer’s salary. My mom remembers Granny stretching a pound of meat into slider-sized burgers for the kids, and going to bed only after making a jam sandwich to soothe her rumbling belly.

So it was a big deal that one of the men who sold toys to Pop-Pop—a German gent named Otto—sent him a fat Vermont turkey for Thanksgiving every year. It was very exotic for the Long Islanders. (One aunt remembers, “Vermont was like another country to us!”)

The carving of “Otto’s Turkey,” as they came to call the beast, was accompanied with great pomp and circumstance. As he sharpened his knives and wound up to carving it for supper, Pop-Pop—generally a modest man—would make a great show of it.

Every year, like a record skipping: “You can really taste the difference between Otto’s turkey and a store-bought turkey!”

Every year he’d haul the bird home from Manhattan on the Long Island Railroad, and every year Granny would make room in their tiny refrigerator, pushing aside the logs of liverwurst and tubs of mustard her husband loved.

But one year, the bird was too big to fit. Granny, a mother of seven, was nothing if not resourceful, so she stashed it, right in its cardboard box, in a promising-looking snowbank outside her home’s back door. There Otto’s turkey sat for three days.

Every morning, Pop-Pop would look out the window over his morning coffee. “Aren’t you going to bring that bird in?”

“I will!” Granny would say brightly. And then she wouldn’t.

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The morning before the big day arrived at last. Granny woke up and walked outside to fetch her turkey. “Dear God and Heavenly Father!” Some animal had gnawed an entire leg off Otto’s turkey, and taken a healthy portion of the box with it, leaving a wet, ragged hole in its wake.

Granny—crafty and frugal, always—called the children’s pediatrician, a stout cardiologist who always had a pack of Lucky Strikes in his front pocket. Could she buy a turkey leg at the supermarket, she inquired, and sew it on to Otto’s turkey, thus restoring its bodily integrity?

“Absolutely not,” said Dr. Lucky Strikes. A rabid raccoon could have bitten off the leg, and she could poison her family. “You need to throw it away.”

Throw away her husband’s beloved turkey trophy? It was terrible. Granny called Ralph, the butcher at Bohack’s down the street, to order a new bird. By the time her children returned home from school, she had hatched a plan.

They were to bury Otto’s turkey in the woods, and never speak of it to their father.

I see the four girls in my mind’s eye. They’re wearing their matching coats, dark gray with red trim. They are wide-eyed and astonished, with their mother leaning over them, detailing her agenda. One of them was to carry Pop-Pop’s spade, and the three others were to lug the one-legged body deep into the woods behind their home.

They trembled at the idea of lying to their father, but their mother’s word was law, so the quartet of grave diggers set off, pulling the bird by its remaining leg, taking turns when one got tired. They dug a shallow, half-hearted grave, pushed Otto’s turkey into the ground, covered it with Port Washington dirt, and ran home—Peanuts cartoons, legs spinning up the earth, matching coats all aflutter.

The big day arrived, and with it the usual ceremonies. Pop-Pop picked up his fork and knife over Ralph’s turkey. “You can really tell the difference between Otto’s turkey and one from Bohack’s,” he said with delight, doling out slices.

The girls screwed their faces on tightly. My mother was racked with guilt, and had no appetite. “I was so traumatized by this whole thing,” she recalls. The only one to enjoy the meal were Pop-Pop and the little boys. Granny’s sleight of hand had worked.

And so the tale of Otto’s turkey became one of the family stories, stacked among the others—the funny ones, the strange ones, the sad ones—as neatly as a card in a deck. The girls longed to tell their father the story. Every year, they asked Granny’s permission.

“No, it’s too soon,” she would tell them. A decade passed. Fifteen years. Somewhere around the 30-year mark, it was at last deemed the right time to tell the tale.

The sisters were all at the dinner table, home in Long Island. Three of them had married, and their husbands were with them. They were grown-ups, with a wonderfully funny story to tell Dad, all about how Granny had saved him from that terrible disappointment about Otto’s turkey.

No one remembers who actually told the story, but they all remember their father’s reaction: He was furious. His own wife had deceived him. Everyone had been laughing at him.

And Granny? Did she apologize?

Here, the kaleidoscope of memory twists and spins: Two of the four sisters are certain they asked Granny’s permission to tell this story to their father, and that she granted it shortly before her death in 1994. (She preceded Pop-Pop by many years.)

But two other sisters, including my mother, are just as certain Granny had already passed, taking the secret of Otto’s turkey to her grave.

“We would never have done that to her,” says my mother, sternly. “Never.”

My aunts’ memories are, to a woman, sharp. We’ll probably never know who was right; stubbornness runs down the bloodline.

There’s something so very “of my family” about this story, with its secrets and the white lie that cements it. I can see how proud the sisters are of their mother: She was trying like mad to stretch the family’s meager finances. She told a lie made of love to preserve my grandfather’s ego, and his pride in being the breadwinner.

The story will surface again at our boisterous Thanksgiving this year—which has been at my aunt Gere Lou’s house in Connecticut for as long as I can remember—along with dozens of other tales. The sisters will needle each other and their brothers, and everyone’s worst moments will be resurfaced and mocked, with much laughter.

Gere Lou’s husband Vern will make his Bourbon Sours, which are strong and made with real Vermont maple syrup. They’re good. I’ll ask for extra cherries in mine—as an adult, I remain obsessed with bourbon-soaked cherries—and take a quiet moment to toast Granny, Pop-Pop, big love, little lies, and Otto’s one-legged turkey.

Vernon’s Bourbon Sour

INGREDIENTS:

1.5 oz fresh Lemon juice

1 oz high-quality Maple syrup

2.5 oz Bourbon

Garnish: Cherries, optional

Glass: Cocktail

DIRECTIONS:

Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with cherries, if desired.

This makes one strong drink, and it’s on the sweet side. Depending on guests’ tastes, you might amp up the lemon juice by a quarter ounce or dial down the maple syrup by a quarter ounce.