Woman’s Giving Spirit Survives Her St. Mary’s Carries On Holiday Tradition
They’ll begin showing up in the early afternoon. The first arrivals will pick at a salad, maybe drink a cup of coffee while they wait for the others.
Before long, the buzz of conversation will fill the room. Somebody who’s good with kids probably will gather up all the youngsters from underfoot and organize a game.
At some point, Carolyn Aschenbrenner will cast a veteran cook’s eye over the throng, decide the time is right and announce dinner is served. There will be a prayer, and a real family-style Thanksgiving will commence - except that before today, most of these people never will have met.
Cassie Tartoue’s little miracle is being renewed.
For 14 years, people from Moscow with no place to go for the holiday have come to the St. Mary’s parish center to celebrate Thanksgiving as a family would because Tartoue’s heart was bigger than her apartment.
Her lifelong affinity for collecting strays for the holidays exceeded her ability to entertain them personally, so she drew on the resources of her church and the community and organized a free Thanksgiving dinner for anyone who walked through the door.
“She wanted to make it like the first Thanksgiving,” said her sister, Anna Dixson, of Moscow, “when everybody came.”
Tartoue died four years ago. But the dinner has been carried on by her friend Aschenbrenner as a memorial.
“Bring your thankful spirit and a container for leftovers,” proclaims the flier announcing this year’s event.
“After Cassie died, I didn’t want to see this die.
“I waited for somebody to take it over, but nobody did, so here I am,” said Aschenbrenner.
Like anyone preparing a big Thanksgiving dinner, she’s been a bit frazzled this week keeping on top of details. St. Mary’s parishioners have donated 20 pies, nine salads and 10 turkeys of varying sizes.
There’s a crew of volunteer food servers to organize. The University of Idaho Food Service is cooking the turkeys for free and turning 75 pounds of spuds into mashed potatoes.
“We tried to mash them ourselves one year,” said Aschenbrenner, “but everybody had sore arms.”
She’s a cook at Washington State University and before that cooked for St. Mary’s School and the Moscow School District. Feeding large groups is her specialty.
“Not everybody feels real comfortable taking what comes in the back door and putting it out there for food. I guess that’s my gift.”
Cassie had the same idea: “If we run out of food, God will multiply it. Well, I don’t have quite that faith.”
But she plans on food for 100, and every year that’s been enough - with leftovers.
“We have anybody and everybody,” said Aschenbrenner. “We get people who have just moved into town and have no family here and can’t get home for Thanksgiving. We get foreign students from the University of Idaho.”
“One year we got a family who’d had a fire at their house,” she said. “They were having a big Thanksgiving, and they had no place to go. The police had one of our fliers, and they sent them all over here.”
About 10 percent of guests register with Aschenbrenner or at the church before the event, but the doors of the parish center are open to everyone. She relies on fliers and word-of-mouth to get the dinner advertised.
Tartoue grew up in Oklahoma, Oregon and Idaho. She moved to Moscow in 1974 to be near family. She wrote poetry, and she worked as a secretary at St. Mary’s and she could talk to anybody, said Aschenbrenner.
“After Cassie died, people were writing back to the parish, not knowing she was gone,” Aschenbrenner said. “Thanking her for the meals she bought or the tires she bought or God knows what all she bought or just the kind word she gave them as they were passing through.”
Tartoue would have liked to have been remembered as a poet, said her sister. But the Thanksgiving dinner she began that is carried on in her name is as elegant a comment on the human spirit as any turn of phrase.
“It was important to Cassie for the dinner to be a family atmosphere rather than like a soup kitchen,” said Aschenbrenner. “We’re all together having a good time - eating.”