Prior to the 19th century, a wishbone was called a “merrythought.” I much prefer this term as Thanksgiving is the veritable prelude to a Merry Christmas.
In childhood I celebrated Thanksgiving in my grandma’s kitchen, but I don’t recall wishbones airing out on her counter top. Perhaps my grandmother was too squeamish to twist and pluck a magical bone from the bird’s breast. Maybe she dried the bone secretly, snapping it later, guaranteed a merrythought of her own.
My mom, on the other hand, tugged wishbones loose from turkeys, chickens, and ducks she basted November through March for special and not-so-special occasions. I loved the aroma of succulent meat clinging to our skin like poultry balm, as the birds turned edible in the oven. The smells hydrated our hearts and hands against the itch of long Midwestern winters.
Anatomically speaking, a wishbone is a bird’s furcula. Latin for “little fork,” it sheaths a tendon connecting a bird’s clavicles, allowing birds in a vast array of sizes to flap their wings, ascend sky-ward, and fly. Superstitious European cultures placed such symbolic value on flight that they used wishbones to divine weather patterns and to strategize for war.
Breaking wishbones in half is an old tradition that long pre-dates modern Thanksgiving.
But online today one can find “Wishbone Hacks.” Grip the bone as close to the nexus as possible; let your opponent do the pulling. Some vague instance of losing the wishbone duel to my brother is baked into my memory, like a hint of anise seed in a pumpkin pie. Did I drop and stomp on my lesser bone fragment? What wish did I imagine denied?
Hang gliders and airplanes aside, humans can’t fly, but anatomically speaking, our bone structures share traits in common with birds.
The hyoid bone in humans, for example, is similarly thin, stretchy, and durable like an ossified rubber-band. It stretches between ours chins and larynxes in support of the vocal chords and tongue. The hyoid bone is U-shaped, as opposed to V-shaped, but functions in the same way as a bird’s furcular does.
The wishbone helps to buttress birds in flight whereas the hyoid bone underpins the vocal chords, allowing for humans to speak, sing, and lift their voices up to the heavens.
Recently Irie’s pediatrician, pulmonologist, and speech therapist hypothesized, confirmed, and solidified that despite an impressive 138-percent pulmonary capacity, their patient -- my daughter -- is suffering a classic case of Vocal Chord Dysfunction, characterized by shortness of breath, especially when singing. Her left vocal-chord flap is swollen, causing asthma-like symptoms.
At her first physical therapy appointment, her therapist asked Irie to wiggle her hyoid bone and to loosen up the muscles in her throat. A bad case of bronchitis last winter, exacerbated by her constant singing – in bed, in the bathroom, on the treadmill, in math class, at the cafeteria lunch table, on the bus, and of course on three stages at once – had damaged the flap of skin that should otherwise open and close succinctly as she breathes.
The prognosis is not horrifying; physical therapy and allergy treatment may help to restore or send her VCD into remission, but at the first appointment, I felt shockingly lightheaded and squeamish as Irie learned to palpate and knead the inflamed muscles bulging around the hyoid bone. I’d given birth to five babies, for God’s sake, never once feeling woozy or feeble. Now, I considered lying down on the therapist’s floor. I could not stomach this vicarious therapy.
“Mom,” Irie said. “Get over it … Geez.”
She manipulated that wishbone-thin part of her skeletal system valiantly, singing along, using her fingertips to feel the vocal-chord vibrato.
It wasn’t until yesterday, at the Oshkosh Public Library, selecting holiday books with Fern and Gus that I realized why I’d acted like such a ninny at Irie's appointment, as if I were a bad nursing student fainting at the sight of blood. I pulled a book from the shelf about Turkey Day. Cover art for Thanksgiving Wish by Michael J. Rosen shows two hands wrenching apart a wishbone. Immediately, I thought of Irie’s hyoid bone, nestled inside her throat muscles, safe but snap-able, or so it seemed.
Though as a child I had loved snapping the wishbone, especially when I won the larger portion, the act was always, though we never mentioned it, possessed of an unspoken savagery. Eating a turkey – chicken, duck, goose – was civilized; breaking the bird’s sacred furcular was not.
If you’ve ever lived with a singer, whose instrument is her voice, you’ll understand that every note, sharp, flat, or in between, is a merrythought unto itself. At that appointment, I'd been irrationally sick, worried my daughter would break her own bone, rendering herself mute.
And that’s what I’ll be wishing for this Thanksgiving season, should I be presented with a wishbone, or throughout the remainder of the year, a shooting star, an eyelash, a penny, or a dandelion puffed to seed. May that slender little hyoid bone remain strong enough to bear the weight of Irie’s thoughts, stories and songs, which goes for Leo, Fern, Frank, Gus and their merrythoughts too.