Every family has it’s folklore; those stories which get told over and over at family gatherings. Cat Thermometer is told nearly every Thanksgiving, and usually from several perspectives. My brother, Paul, has told his version in sermons. My aunt Pat tells a version at family gatherings upon request. My version includes a scene that no one else witnessed but me.
During my late childhood, my family had a wonderful tradition of travelling to San Antonio to stay with my Aunt Pat’s family for Thanksgiving. I have so many vivid memories from this time in my life. We developed traditions which I looked forward to every year, and which I now cherish in my memories.
The ride from Oklahoma is still so fresh in my mind. For much of my childhood, we traveled in a Ford Fairmont station wagon; first a yellow, and then a powder blue. My brothers and I rode in the back on comfy palettes of blankets. We listened to cassette tapes on our Walkman knock offs, and played road games such as the alphabet game and the car game. The car game was when each of us picked a color and we counted cars with our color to see who could spot the most. It really wasn’t a great game because we knew which colors would probably win from the very beginning, but we didn’t really care.
The windows of the car were generally cold to the touch in the autumn air and it was almost always cloudy. My dad would try to time our departure to avoid the traffic in Dallas and Austin, but there were many times when we were bumper to bumper due to accidents and construction.
Upon arrival, we could expect a chili and tamale dinner. It’s easy to get homemade tamales in south Texas, but these were special. I believe an Hispanic woman named Rosa made them fresh for us. The adults drank cocktails and played cards late into the night while we slept. There was something marvelous to me about the fact that my parents had a social life that didn’t involve me.
We watched the lights turn on at the River Parade on Friday after Thanksgiving, and ate an awesome meal at cousin Tammy’s on Saturday. Sometimes we attended church on Sunday morning at St. George’s Episcopal before we returned home.
But, of course, Thanksgiving Day was the main event. Parades, football, the smell of turkey drifting out of the kitchen, special family recipes being prepared. One year, when I must have been in high school, I was sitting at the breakfast bar off the kitchen eating the traditional Goliad (Grannie Floss) sausage. Grannie Floss, my great-grandmother, lived in Goliad, TX. There is a store in Goliad which sells excellent, locally crafted, mesquite-smoked sausage. My grandfather used to cook it for us, and we adopted it for Thanksgiving mornings along with cheese grits or buttery scrambled eggs. When Grannie Floss died, I began to feel uncomfortable calling it Grannie Floss sausage because it brought to mind horrific images of cannibalism. So I call it Goliad sausage.
My dad sauntered up to me, unshaven, in his robe and slippers.He had a very anxious energy about him, but I could see that he was trying to appear cool.
He said, ever so casually, wiggling his jaw with his hand. “How do you know if you have lock jaw?” He said it as if he was just curious, like if he’d asked, “What’s the capital of Angola?”
I shrugged. “Maybe your jaw locks up? Why?” I asked.
“Well, I stepped on a nail last night and it may have been a little rusty.”
My dad is a bit of a worrier. There are many tales of his hypochondriac worries, all of which I loved to hear.
“Dad, I’m sure it’s nothing. Did you have a tetanus shot?”
“Well. It’s been a few years.” He held his jaw with his hand again and wiggled it around. “It feels just a little stiff.”
“Dad, it is nothing. It’s all in your head. I promise.”
“Hmm. You’re probably right. No biggie.” With that, he shuffled away.
That was the last I heard about it until after dinner. We were all sitting in the living room visiting and eating pie when my dad walked up and casually leaned against the entry way. He had a long thermometer in his mouth, and once again he was trying to appear calm and cool.
Then my aunt Pat noticed him. “Jack? What’s the matter?”
“Oh, I just wanted to check my temperature. I stepped on a nail earlier.”
“Where did you get that thermometer?” she said, her voice rising.
“I got it from the cabinet by the kitchen.”
“Jack! That’s the cat thermometer!” she exclaimed.
He shrugged, leaving it in his mouth.
“Do you know what part of the cat that goes in?”
He shrugged again.
“Jack!! It goes in it’s… it’s…it’s…anus!”
He pulled the thermometer out so quickly that he nearly dropped it on the floor, which was a big deal then because thermometers used to contain mercury.
The room exploded with laughter. It was classic Jack. He grinned sheepishly and let us enjoy the moment. We loved collecting these kinds of stories about him, and we knew immediately that this one would be one of the greats.
I don’t know how he feels about being the butt of these stories. He seems to take it all with a humble sense of humor. We’ve told it many times over the years, perhaps even to the exclusion of other stories. Maybe it’s because this story represents every element of the other stories in one neat package. He never did contract lock jaw.
I call it folklore, but it won’t truly be folklore until my children tell it to their children on Thanksgiving one day. I’ve been hesitant to write this down because folklore is passed down orally, but I think the thermometer stands alone as oral enough.