The Thanksgivings of my childhood had much tradition tied to them. The origins of some remain a mystery; others are burned into my brain as “the way” to do things. I’ve collected a few scenes from the turkey days of my youth.
Here’s to the people, food, rituals and familial idiosyncrasies that make each Thanksgiving so wonderfully perfect, flawed, complicated and simple. Happy Thanksgiving.
The night before Thanksgiving:
Mom thaws the semi-frozen turkey in bit of tepid water in the kitchen sink, which is scoured to surgical-level sterility. I periodically walk into the kitchen and poke at the thawing turkey’s naked self, presumably contaminating the otherwise sterile environment.
Mom wakes us early to help with the polishing of the silver, setting of the table (good tablecloth, pressed cloth napkins, china, water and wine glasses), and the washing of cooking utensils, pots and pans (Mom is a “clean-as-you-go” cook).
We watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (whilst dusting, vacuuming and fetching).
We de-vein shrimp. I don’t know who started the shrimp cocktail Thanksgiving appetizer tradition, but my Mom insisted on it. Related: I could eat shrimp cocktail all day long, as could my brother. Reality: Everyone got five. Lesson: Shrimp is expensive; Get a good job!
We never light the politically incorrect but TOTALLY CUTE Pilgrim and Native American candles. Why? Because then we couldn’t use them every single year, silly! We handle those candles with the same care and reverence as we handle the family china. Do. Not. Break. Do. Not. Drop. White bread Hallmark heirloom? You decide. Mom still has them.
The family, now faint with hunger and overwhelmed by the heady smells emanating from the oven and stove, is warned against eating anything that might “spoil your appetite” for the eating extravaganza that awaits.
Dad sneaks a butter and peanut butter sandwich. We are all jealous.
Time for the feast:
Dad is beckoned to carve the turkey. His brow furrows in deep concentration at this mighty task. Also, his tongue sticks out ever so slightly: evidence that this feat requires the precision of an expert marksman.
We fill water glasses. (Hand blown red glasses that my parents received as a wedding present. Reserved for holiday use only.)
We fetch serving dishes and utensils for Mom who is frantically moving from one burner to the next to the stove to the refrigerator. She barks orders and physically moves us where she wants us to be.
We WASH OUR HANDS FOR CHRIST’S SAKE! Thanks, Dad.
We usher grandparents, aunts, uncles and other guests to the table like royalty.
We help Mom serve the shrimp cocktail. Did I mention that everyone gets five? Savor ’em, people, because that’s it until next year!
Lots of “please,” “thank you,” “this is delicious,”and “are you sure you want that last shrimp?”
We kids have a moment of quiet dread when we realize that we have to hand wash, dry and put away every single plate, glass, salad fork and hand blown water glass that sit before us. We die a little.
Mom rises to clear the dinner plates and gives us the eye to help her.
Coffee is brewed and served; dessert plates are carried to the table.
The pies are presented. There are always several. The most popular response to the question, “Pie?” is “I’ll try a sliver of each!”
Homemade whipped cream, people.
There is a massive clearing of the table that enlists the help of all females present. The men retire to watch football. I realize how antiquated this seems, but that’s how it was in my house when I was very young. Years later, there was much more male participation. And by participation, I mean dish washing.
Tupperware madness. Mom has the uncanny ability to size up the leftover food in a bowl and find the corresponding Tupperware into which it will snugly fit. It’s a gift.
There is endless dish washing, dish drying, dish putting away. We go through at least eight dish towels and steam up the kitchen windows from the hot dish water and ceaseless activity.
Finally satisfied, Mom releases us from our servitude, and we collapse onto the floor of the family room where Dad and all the males are watching football/slipping into turkey comas.
Today would have been my Dad’s 83rd birthday. Early this morning, my sister called to tell me that she dreamed of Dad, our aunt, and grandparents. She dreams of them all often. I began to cry while she was telling me the dream, overcome by a wave of missing, not yet awake enough to try and stave off the sob. The suddenness of the moment reminded me of Holly Hunter in that scene in Broadcast News, when she sits on her bed, holds the phone off the hook, and cries…hard, for a minute or two…daily. Hard cry. Done.
A little later, I spoke to my Mom who was heading to yoga (I love this), then to the cemetery to visit Dad’s grave, and finally to a one-year-old cousin’s birthday party, which somehow all seems appropriate.
On my way to work, I phoned my brother, also at work. We made small talk, and I eventually told him that I called because it was Dad’s birthday. I guess I just needed to talk to everyone that I knew loved him as much as I do. I asked my brother if he remembered Dad eating Entenmann’s Hot Cross Buns, a seasonal item only available around Easter…and Dad’s birthday. He remembered, and laughed, and I did too. “Those were AWFUL,” I said. (I love you Entenmann’s, just not your hot cross buns.)
As was standard with any bread product or baked good my father devoured, he generously buttered each piece before eating it, and washed it down with lukewarm coffee.
I can see him in my mind, sitting at the kitchen table, sunlight streaming through the windows, the Sunday paper spread out everywhere, eating those hot cross buns, sipping coffee. Content.
In some ways, it didn’t take much to make him happy. In other ways, I’m sure it was the hardest thing in the world to do.
That’s who we all are, I guess. Simple. Complicated. Content. Wanting. Ever so beautifully flawed and flawless.
Before they were married. Before they moved to Chicago, then back to Houston, then to New Jersey. Before he switched from cigarettes to a pipe. Before she told him she wanted children someday. Before any of us were thoughts, dust, molecules.
They were just two people sitting on a couch wondering what might come next.
There are things you come to accept as “the way” to do things, because that’s how they were done by your parents. It necessarily follows these “things” subscribe to their own irrefutable logic. This is a story about one such “way.”
My Mom became unfortunately ill while visiting my brother and sister-in-law over Mother’s Day weekend…dizzy, nauseous, feeling ever-so-close to vomiting.
As Steve was taught to do, as Mom had done for all of us, he helped Mom to her bed, a bucket in hand.
As he passed his wife in the hallway, she asked, “What’s the bucket for?” He stopped for a moment and said, “Oh, it’s a thing from my childhood. I’ll tell you about it later.”
As he tucked Mom into bed and set the bucket on the floor beside her, (You know the function of the bucket now, right? Wait, it gets better.) Mom said, in a weak, sickly voice, “You did remember to put about an inch of water in the bucket, didn’t you?”
Steve relayed this story to me over the phone as we were both driving home from work the other night. I immediately began laughing.
Me: “You forgot the inch of water?!”
Me: “How could you?”
Steve: “Do you remember what it’s for?”
Me: (Cackling with laughter) “Yes!”
In unison: “To make the bucket easier to clean!”
As I struggled to catch my breath from laughter, Steve pointed out how incredible it is that Mom not only perfected a “way” to protect and nurture the sick and pukey, (Who has the energy to run to the toilet to puke when you’re that sick, anyway?) BUT ALSO had the foresight to be clean about the whole situation. (Hey, you can still be tidy; yes, even when there’s vomit involved.)
The good news is that Mom actually never needed the bucket and is, in fact, feeling much better, thank you.
Should you have any “this-is-the-way-we…” stories to share, I’d love to read them. Mostly so I can feel a smidge less weird. Thanks for sharing.
I’ve written a number of posts about my Father. His life and death have served as my lens since that day in July, 2009. I talk and write about my Dad because it helps, because honestly I think I might go crazy if I didn’t. It’s also a way to keep him part of my life.
I worry sometimes about talking about him “too much.” Worry that friends and family will grow weary of me and my occasional tears. The other part of me thinks, why do we ever stop talking about those we’ve lost?
I’ve negotiated and endured grief the past year and eight months since he died. I’ve read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and you should too, by the way. I’ve had long conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances about people they’ve lost. I’ve even asked friends to write about their grief. Maybe there’s a book in here somewhere for all of us.
I’m always fascinated with each person’s grief, as unique as their fingerprint and just as beautifully complicated.
Here again, is some of mine, from a journal I keep. Thank you for reading, and please feel free to share your thoughts.
March 22, 2011
Grief is not orderly – it follows a path only it knows. Talking to a friend the other day about her Dad’s dementia, I told her about the day we left Dad at Birchhaven. I use the word “left,” because that’s what it felt like to me. I felt as if we abandoned him. I felt as if we did what he said as my Dad he would never do – leave. I wish I could forget the way he hung his head when Steve so calmly explained things. I wish he hadn’t seemed so lucid that day – that it didn’t seem like the world’s biggest mistake to leave him in someone else’s care. There’s nothing natural about leaving your Father behind like that. It was the worst day of my life. Worse than laying my head on his still-warm chest after he died. Worse than imagining him in the frozen ground. Worse because I feel like we broke him. Worse because we have to find a better way to care for each other than this.
March 29, 2011
Dad’s birthday. He would have been 82 today. A terrible night’s sleep. Up at 5 am and cried over coffee. Huge spider in the bathroom that I caught with a glass and plate and put outside. I sang my heart out to Adele on the way to work. Korean for lunch with the boys. Ate bee bim bop – rice, five kinds of veggies, spicy pork. Delicious. Tried a taste of red bean ice cream. Lovely with a slight chocolate flavor. Will tells hilarious (though alarmingly awful) story of a centipede he encountered while living in Hawaii. They are large and move as if on ball bearings. Listened to Purple Rain on the drive home. Called my brother to talk about Dad and asked him for a story.
When Steve was 13, we spent a few weeks on North Lake. One day, Steve, Dad and Grandpa Ray took out the neighbor’s aluminum fishing boat. Three quiet men; lines in the water. Grandpa Ray suddenly passes gas, and the sound reverberates so much in the aluminum boat that Dad looks up and says, “Did you say something, Ray?” Without missing a beat, Grandpa says, “I said, ppfffffftttt!” mimicking the sound of his own gas. Steve cracks up with laughter and our Puritan father who never felt comfortable acknowledging bodily functions, blushes red with embarrassment.
Later, I kill an enormous bug, obliterating it to pieces. Which reminds me of how I relied on Dad, because he was the killer of bugs. The righter of wrongs. That evening, friends send me text messages telling me they just toasted Dad with a bit of whiskey. Little by little, I find ways to celebrate him.
April 6, 2011
Yesterday, I spoke with two friends at work about the moment he died. I talked about how surprised I was at how quickly after he died that he no longer “looked” like himself, how it has assured me all the more that our bodies are vessels for the energy, spirit or soul within.
I say that, though it’s nearly impossible to parse, because it’s their flesh and blood, hair, skin, laughter, smell that we miss. In the thick of life, body and soul are hopelessly, undeniably tangled. We forget where one begins and the other ends.
As I finished the story, one of my friends began to cry – and immediately began apologizing. Then, I apologized for upsetting her. And we all struggled for a moment: she embarrassed; me apologetic; the other friend nervous. It’s easy to forget how very close to the surface we carry our pain and losses. They exist like a first sub-layer of skin, so incredibly resilient you ignore them almost entirely. And then, like finding a massive, deep bruise on your skin that you have no recall of how you obtained, there too is that flash of pain, the sub-layer penetrated, bleeding now, tear ducts springing into action, your body reacting in turn.
While drying between my toes after a bath the other night, I remembered how the four-year-old me used to stand on the closed toilet lid and hang onto the towel bar as you dried me off after my bath. “Left leg,” you’d say and I’d hold it out for you to dry. Each limb in turn.
You dried toes vigorously, and it’s that moment that strikes me. The thought of my own small toes in your large, towel-covered hand, how you meticulously dried each one, your brow slightly furrowed in concentration, how I could still feel the strength of your hand.
And I, standing tall on the toilet seat, obediently following your instructions, waiting for you to look up, pleased with yourself and me.