Cataloging Thanksgiving

Words by Sloane Citron

Photos by Annie Barnett

Most of the kids at my prep school, Andover, were from wealthy nearby towns in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. But there were also a number of us from disparate places including Amarillo, Texas, my hometown. As the Thanksgiving vacation approached, and we were off for a few days, I desperately wanted to come home, miserable as I was stuck there at Foxcroft Hall, friendless, depressed and anxious.

But my Dad said, “No, it’s too expensive,” and my Mom was always too busy to make time for me. Students were allowed to stay in the dorms over Thanksgiving, but I badly wanted to leave the campus. I had an uncle who lived outside Philadelphia, and so I asked my mother to contact him to see if it would be okay if I went there to celebrate the holiday.

Though I had met my uncle a couple of times, we were not a close family, and I didn’t know him well. He was an affable balding man whom we called Uncle Bill and his wife, who chain-smoked and had a raspy voice because of it, was Aunt Kat. They had three children, two daughters who were out of the house and a son, Danny, sort of a mysterious boy my older brother’s age who—according to my parents—had “issues.” 

Midway into November, it was arranged that I would spend Thanksgiving at their home in West Chester, a suburb about an hour outside of Philadelphia. On the Wednesday before the holiday, I took buses from Andover to Boston and then from Boston to downtown Philadelphia, where Uncle Bill met me. He was the head of Gray and Rogers, a substantial advertising agency at the time. He good-heartedly greeted me, and we drove in his rather unkempt Ford to their home, an old ramshackle place in the country. 

I was shown to the attic, where Danny normally stayed. Since he was “not home at the present,” it would just be the three of us. I was creeped out, as the saying went, to sleep 1) in this old, dusty attic and 2) where the Danny with “issues” normally stayed. The home, while comfortable, was cold and drafty and begged for maintenance. There was no television, and every surface was littered with books, magazines and catalogs, most of which had recently arrived to introduce holiday buying opportunities.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Kat were quiet and apparently spent most of their time reading, resting or going for an occasional stroll around their grounds. Though they made a successful living, they were seemingly content with little and were happy as they were. Uncle Bill would smile at me when we talked and asked about Andover and how it was going. Not wanting to stir an uncomfortable conversation, I lied and said that it was terrific, and that I was very happy.

I quickly found my position there, among the quiet of the house. There was a heating vent on the floor, tucked into a corner in the back of the room where my uncle read, sitting in his old, frumpy leather chair. On either side of the chair were piles of books and several weeks of newspapers. I settled into the spot by the vent that Wednesday evening and claimed it, like a cat would do with a sunny spot on the top of a couch. 

On Thursday, Thanksgiving, a big fire was lit in their living room, and we settled into the comfortable chairs there and spoke of what we were grateful for and about our families and friends. It didn’t occur to me as a 15-year-old to be grateful for my very life and so I lied, again, about my gratitude, since at that time I felt rather ungrateful about everything. Later, we had a fine meal and I remember that Aunt Kat made three kinds of pie, and I ate about half of a pecan pie that day.

My big discovery that evening, in a kind of precursor to my life in magazines, was the large piles of catalogs, everything from toys to fashion to electronic gadgets. Sitting on the floor of this rickety-rackety home, trying to keep myself warm, I uncovered the nuances of printed catalogs—the different paper stocks; the use of staples or perfect binding; the unique fonts that were employed; the design of the pages; the quality of the photography and printing. I was also intrigued by the copywriting—how some of the catalogs were sparse with their words and others sought to sell you on a product. Seeing and comparing all those catalogs sparked the entrepreneurial publishing part of my mind.

For the first time since I had left home several months before, reading those catalogs gave me some joy, like kissing someone for the first time and feeling a giddy buzz that burns through your body. Making that November journey to West Chester turned out to be a fortuitous decision. The next year, I started the first satire magazine at Andover, the vision of which was clearly inspired by those Thanksgiving days sitting on the cold floor at Uncle Bill’s, perusing that year’s offerings from Hammacher Schlemmer.