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Love in the Time of Turkeys

“Poor turkey.” My mom says it every year at Thanksgiving as she pats the naked, headless bird on her kitchen counter. She says it while massaging the skin with nutmeg and butter in preparation for the oven. Until now, I thought it was funny to feel so bad for a bird we were about to eat.

“Poor turkey.” My mom says it every year at Thanksgiving as she pats the naked, headless bird on her kitchen counter. She says it while massaging the skin with nutmeg and butter in preparation for the oven. Until now, I thought it was funny to feel so bad for a bird we were about to eat.

“Poor turkey.” My mom says it every year at Thanksgiving as she pats the naked, headless bird on her kitchen counter. She says it while massaging the skin with nutmeg and butter in preparation for the oven. Until now, I thought it was funny to feel so bad for a bird we were about to eat.

But now, I can’t stop thinking about that dead bird’s pale, sticky skin – so pink, and so much like human skin. Also, the sticky sound it makes when you pat it gently – like a sweaty rear-end peeling itself off the viny of an old car seat in the summer.

I started thinking about the endless conveyor belt of Thanksgiving turkeys on my mom’s kitchen countertop a few weeks ago, after I discovered a dead mouse in a live trap I’d left unattended in my own kitchen. Winter had brought the mouse in from the cold, looking for a few crumbs and a place to stay. And the truth is, I killed that mouse. I casually and carelessly left that live trap under the cupboard, hoping it would do its job, but I failed to check on it even once. What a half-assed effort to preserve a life. How long did the mouse flounder there – silently dying? Its little body had wasted away under the cupboard at my feet while I stood there in my warm kitchen and made dinner.

Maybe the turkeys have been on my mind for more reasons than just the mouse. I’ve been having moments with my dog lately, when I hold him and feel his heartbeat in my hand and think about how much it beats like mine. I stared at him for a long time the other day, just thinking about how similar we are to these animals. We have eyes and hearts and lungs – our insides are basically the same. We have brains, and we eat food, and we have best friends that we’re excited to see. How can we pretend to separate ourselves from these animals?

My dog, Joey Hotdog, is a wiener dog. He’s loyal and very attached to his pack, which consists of my husband Henry, our son Jones, and me. He will defend us to the end, sitting watchful in the front room and launching an oral assault at anyone who comes anywhere near the house. On walks, he bounds over to his favourite dog friends in the neighbourhood and sniffs and licks them with a fervent perversity. But when he sees two dogs walking together, he has another instinctive reaction. I can feel it at the end of the leash – it’s fear – which he immediately masks with barking and a threat to strike. Fear and violence are never far apart. He walks with a whipkick when he’s got our whole family behind him. We are his gang, and with us, he gains confidence. The prejudice, the fear, the violence, the bravado – it all seems so human.

As for the poor turkey, it just sits there, dead on the counter. My mom truly feels bad for the turkey, even though, on the food chain, we’re omnivores, and I’ve never had much trouble eating a bird or a fish. Her expression of compassion, her recognition of this carcass as something that was once alive, is perhaps an offshoot of the empathy she’s developed over a lifetime. My mom is Armenian. She was born in historic Palestine, and in 1948, her family left her big, beautiful home in exile when political lines were drawn beyond almost anyone’s control. I grew up hearing very little about this part of her life. I think she kept most of her feelings inside until she could understand them better. When she came to Canada, she studied psychology at Queen’s University, and I grew up with the benefit of a very wise mother. We have talked about the current war in the Middle East, and I have not been surprised by her perspective. Instead of modeling hatred and resentment, she has modeled love and compassion. Something inside her knows anger about the past can only make the fighting worse. Last Thanksgiving when she was patting that turkey just after the war began, who knows what was on her mind? I cannot help but wonder if, as she held that carcass in her hands, she had her mind on death – and not the turkey kind.

What a complicated brute am I, that I can eat a turkey, but care for a dog the way I do. I let a mouse die of starvation in my kitchen for gods sakes. How can I categorize living beings in this way? We do it, though. We do it to humans as well. We put people into categories and measure their worth based on our own belief systems. Wealthy people in big houses with decadent food herd together, segregating themselves and reinforcing each other’s unfounded sense of superiority. Some seem to care about the less fortunate, but the wealthy are forever leaving the poor to languish in live traps. Members of the same race or religion band together in a show of solidarity that easily devolves into acts of segregation, walking with a whipkick of confidence when they are supported by those in their own pack. Warring factions teach their children the humans on the other side of the conflict are not worthy of life. The so-called enemy can be killed as thoughtlessly as a Thanksgiving turkey.

We need to hunker down and show some love and compassion in these turbulent times of disparity and destruction and leaders with no courage and no conscience. If we can’t figure out we’re the ones left naked and headless and paying the price of power for leaders who care only about themselves, then we are lost. In the end, we are all mice, we are all dogs, we are all turkeys.