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Matilda taught me to live without spite and malice, unless you want to play cards
Matilda Campbell Tillie to those that knew her pushes around the daughter of a girl that grew up with her grandchildren. - photo by Photo Contributed

So what are we doing for Thanksgiving?” my girlfriend asked.

Well, traditionally nothing.

I’m not just saying that as a “cram yourself full of tryptophan and veg out on the couch for the afternoon watching Tony Romo choke one away and the 49ers beat the Seahawks” kind of nothing. I literally mean that we – my immediate family – don’t really have any solid or concrete plans when it comes to the holidays.

No big family gatherings. No timed arrivals or airport trips or traditions that we’ll pass down through the generations.

There are multiple reasons for this. For one, my mom is from New England and all of my family on that side is 3,000 miles away. My only cousins on the West Coast live in Washington, and two years ago was the first time that I had seen them in over a decade – and it was at the funeral of my grandmother.

And I think that right there – her passing – popped one of the major balloons that kept the idea of family holiday gatherings floating for us, the small family of four functioning just fine out in California.

It’s hard to encapsulate Matilda Campbell into words. I’ve tried to describe her demeanor to people – ridiculously cheerful, outgoing and friendly while at the same time fork-tongued and crotchety as all get-out – and as the words roll I know that they’re not doing her any justice.

My family lost a generation. My grandfather was 45 when my dad was born, and when my grandmother passed away she was 96 and fully kicking until the last week of her life. I have people in my life today that are great-grandparents and they aren’t even 70, so the dynamic is hard for me to encapsulate.

She was a Depression-era baby. She grew up in Pennsylvania’s coal country and used to carry buckets just so she could help her mother put food on the table. She joined the Army Nurse Corps and served in World War II in the South Pacific on a hospital ship – where she met my Merchant Marine grandfather. The story goes she wanted a phone in her stateroom and he kept coming up with reasons why he couldn’t do it – didn’t have the tools, couldn’t find the wires. All the while he was coming back just to see her. I have World War II to thank for even writing this today.

What, might you ask, does any of this have to do with Thanksgiving?

Well, my grandmother was the one family member that we consistently spent Thanksgiving with. It was always dinner, dessert and then a fierce game of “Spite and Malice” – a lady that would give anybody in the world that cracked a smile a complement had no problem hustling her grandchildren in cards for nickels. Go figure.

That Depression-era attitude never went away. My dad always had to save the turkey bones so she could immediately put them into a stockpot on the stove – sometimes even before we were done eating dinner – and boil them with celery to make broth for “turkey soup.” Then it was placed in Ziploc bags – or empty butter, sour or whipped cream containers if they were available – and frozen until they were needed.

“Dad, I’m sick. I feel terrible.”

“There’s turkey soup out in the garage.”

I bet if I dug hard enough I could find a bag out there right now.

Life happens. People that you get close to and play a major part in your life are going to pass away – it’s inevitable and it’s not something that can be avoided.

But as the holidays approach it’s hard not to feel like I’m going to be playing chess without one of the key pieces on the board – the ace of spades in the hole that’s going to get me half the pot.

Maybe it’s because it took me almost 28 years to realize the importance of that bond, and by then the clock was already winding down to its final seconds. It’s hard to cram all of the facts of a game into the last 30 seconds. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t try.

This Thanksgiving I’m going to be a little bit more thoughtful. A little bit more grateful. And a little bit more cheerful to those around me. For a lady that brought joy to nearly everybody she met, I think the best way to encapsulate her memory and everything that she’s done for me is to keep her spirit and her energy alive and well.

I’ve got the three decks of cards and a bucket full of nickels on the ready. Someone has to hustle on Thanksgiving now that she’s no longer with us. Might as well be me.

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.