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Personal Essays

Heads of the Family

At Thanksgiving, a family takes stock of what they’re thankful for by weighing the most valuable things they own: their heads.

This year in southern New Jersey, Thanksgiving will offer no shortage of family theater. My mother, holding court as reluctant matriarch, will offer backyard advice on relationships as she puffs away on her Marlboro Light 100. My cousin, who just eloped to Philadelphia with her chef co-worker, will introduce her husband for the first time. He is a Mexican-American, and it’s only a matter of time before someone makes a joke in a Speedy Gonzales accent or asks about drug cartels or his green card status before they realize their faux pas. My 13-year-old nephew will play his jazz saxophone in a confined space.

And everyone will weigh their head on a meat scale.

This tradition of head weighing on Thanksgiving began 27 years ago. The depressed economy and politics of 1983 reminds me of our current landscape. The unemployment rate, then as now, the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells me, hovered around 9.6 percent. People wanted to lower taxes, the legislature was split, and boys dressed as girls played synthesizers with serious intent. Then as now, our blue-collar family brought together casserole dishes, placed plates of those oddly small pickles on side tables. Cans of beer were opened in the living room, a game of musical recliners commenced of uncles tricking nephews out of their seats. (“Hey Danny, I think your girlfriend just called.”) We all prayed the Cowboys would lose.

The sit-down portion of the meal proper consisted of pitch meetings for get-rich schemes or Jobs You Can Do With Your Truck, where words like “Amway” and “Herbalife” were said with straight faces. This was not a think tank or Steve Jobs and Bill Gates writing code in a garage, not by any measure. Back in 1983, the big talk around my grandparents’ table was about my Uncle Tom’s new business: selling meat door-to-door.

The scale rested on the sideboard in the dining room, a kind of prop for Tom’s monologue while he discussed his business model.

The job worked like this: Tom bought meat in bulk at the Philadelphia terminal and sold it out of a wooden box in the back of his pick-up, filled with dry ice. He then drove door-to-door in the ritzy neighborhoods of the Delaware Valley—Cape May, Haddonfield—explaining that he supplied premium cuts of meat to some of local finer restaurants, happened to have some extra inventory, and was wondering if he could show you some of his meat, which he could sell just a little above cost.

Before he could show his meat to the Real Housewives of the Main Line, his inventory needed to be packaged and boxed, all in such a way that it looked like it was meant for restaurants—not too jazzy, but with words like “PRIME RIB: BEST CUTS” scrawled in studied but casual handwriting.

That’s where the meat scale came in. Our paterfamilias, the late Daniel Curtis Little, a Pacific World War II veteran, who saved our country from kamikazes, who had just retired from a series of mind-numbing printing jobs where he produced New Jersey Turnpike toll cards, would spend a large part of his golden years making extra money weighing filets and placing them in white boxes just so on his dining room table.

I worshipped my Uncle Tom. That summer down the Jersey Shore he lent me his binoculars so I could peek at girls in their bikinis. And now he was providing my grandfather with a 44-pound-capacity meat scale. Things were happening in this family.

The scale rested on the sideboard in the dining room, a kind of prop for Tom’s monologue while he discussed his business model. My grandmother adorned the industrial centerpiece with dried flowers and shellacked gourds.

To get an accurate weight reading of the human head, you must lower yourself slowly onto a scale while being held upside down. The instant the vertebra starts moving toward the skull, you stop and read the scales. Because your neck is not imparting any force onto your head, this isolates your head from your neck.

It is during these times that the women take over and keep things together. They scraped lipstick out of the bottom of the tube and went to office jobs and bought dented cans in the corner of the Acme. They listened to the men dream.

I actually just learned that from an article in New Scientist. But the protocol we started 27 years ago on Mecray Lane wasn’t so different. We lifted one family member after the other into their air, such that only the side of our heads rested on the stainless-steel flatbed. Someone wrote our head weights on turnpike cards. I recall the coldness of the plate against my ear that first time. My head over the years has consistently weighed just over 9.5 pounds, or a box of 30 filet mignons.

Looking back, I think the first head-weighing ceremony was our way of laughing through hardship, a specialty in our family. The men were looking for work. My dad had just been laid off from his good union job as a truck driver. People were nervous. These were men who wanted to feed their kids, dreamed of the easy life or at least gaming the system in some way. The men of our family were trying to be entrepreneurs without being entrepreneurial. They didn’t want to come up with the next great invention; they were content to convince people to slightly overpay for cuts of meat. They didn’t just sell things—they sold items, objects nobody had and nobody wanted. Over the years, they read books like Og Mandino’s The Greatest Salesman in the World to prepare them to sell outdoor concrete pool tables, shrieking compressed-air rape alarms, chinchilla farm supplies, vending machines with specialty crackers, Yellow Pages ads, soybean stock.

It is during these times that the women take over and keep things together. They scraped lipstick out of the bottom of the tube and went to office jobs and bought dented cans in the corner of the Acme. They listened to the men dream. And that year at our table—or rather, a large, ping-pong-table-sized piece of plywood brought up from the basement and put on top of the table—one woman suggested we all weigh each other’s heads.

By the end of my Uncle Tom’s tenure in meat sales a few years later, he had gotten tired of going down to the docks and instead stocked up at the local BJ’s. More than once he would spot one of his regular customers in the freezer section, and he’d duck out of sight, frozen packs of Perdue chicken under his arm.

This Thanksgiving, I can count on several adult females to pee their pants laughing at our own misfortune. My Aunt Chrissy will begin our meal with a prayer of epic proportions, equal parts Catholic Kaddish and Litany of Illnesses Major and Minor Our Family Has Endured Since the Last Thanksgiving. Cancers have been survived, ugly divorces endured, children born. Someone will make a snoring sound.

The meat scale remained in my grandparents’ dining room till the very end, next to the wedding photos, next to dishes filled with olives. My Uncle Tom and Aunt Terry keep the meat scale in the family room now, ready for its yearly duty.

Daniel Nester is the author of How to Be Inappropriate, a collection of humorous nonfiction. He lives in upstate New York and online at danielnester.com. More by Daniel Nester