I’ve been wracking my brain to think of a memorable Thanksgiving, because that’s our theme this week at the Debutante Ball, and around here, we Debs do enjoy a nice theme.
(I’m certain it was a Deb ancestor who first conceived of the Under The Sea or Over the Rainbow themes of prom and country club dances. Because as everyone knows, getting dressed up is way more fun when you do it with purpose and cardboard fish.)
The reason I’ve had such a difficult time coming up with a memorable Thanksgiving is because my Thansgivings have all been memorable… to the point that they all blur together.
We would go to my Great Aunt Thelma’s house, or my mom’s cousin Sandy’s house, and some years my mom would host. It was the same group of 45 relatives, aunts, uncles and cousins, telling the same hilarious stories until their eyes watered about my Uncle Jack jumping off a dock and waterskiing around the lake without ever spilling his drink, or how my Grandma Vernie and her sisters worked at a candy factory during the war. We’d look at old pictures, angle for the best seat from which to snag the corner piece of cornbread, and late into the evening, a game of Yahtzee would likely break out.
The hours before dinner were spent with ten or twenty women crammed in the kitchen — stirring this, or checking on that, finger-testing the pie filling, giggling and laughing and telling stories. When I think of Thanksgiving, I think of this, snug in a knot of my mother, aunts and cousins, smelling the most wonderful smells, helping to make the feast, hearing the stories that bound us all together.
My older, handsome boy cousins would arrive late, just in time for dinner, having already made a Thanksgiving stop at the homes of their glamorous high school girlfriends. They would, after we were all stuffed, offer ping pong lessons to me and the other young cousins, charm their aunts, or create some mischief by lifting an uncle’s Honda on its side on the lawn.
No matter whose house we ate at, the food was the same every year. My grandmother had four sisters, so all the daughters, aunts, nieces, and cousins were trained from toddlerhood to make the same cornbread stuffing, the same grandma rolls, the same mouthwatering pecan and pumpkin pies, and cook the spectacular golden turkey in the same exact way.
No one got wild and crazy with the recipes, or tried to introduce any trendy new idea they’d read about in Good Housekeeping or Woman’s Day. The food was pretty damned near perfect, and my family is a traditional bunch (well, at least where food is concerned, in life matters, we’re anything but). Why would you fool with perfection?
The last new recipe to be introduced into the holiday lineup was Nancy Carrots, which was unanimously approved by the family and inducted back in 1966. (Vegetables, sugar and butter, it’s really a no-brainer.) And the lime jello salad featuring an **interesting mix of avacado and sour cream, went uneaten for 23 years before it was dropped from the menu. (My mother, I’m sure, is reading this, saying to her computer screen, I LOVE THAT JELLO SALAD.)
**my mom always told me, “Don’t say ‘weird’, say ‘interesting’.”
But my most memorable Thanksgiving came during a year when I wasn’t with my family — I was just about to start a new job in Virginia, and spent Thanksgiving morning packing up my apartment in a rush to move into a new place in another city before my new job began Monday morning. My brother, his wife, and their two very young daughters were living in Arizona, and my mother went to spend Thanksgiving day with them.
My mom called me on Thanksgiving morning to wish me a “Happy Turkey Day,” and passed the phone around to my sister in law, and my nieces Cassie and Lizzy. Forty-five minutes later, my mom was back on the phone, telling me to hold on to talk to my brother, as I eyed the unpacked boxes and calculated how late I would have to stay up to clear out my apartment by the time the moving truck arrived on Saturday morning.
“Mom, can you tell him I’ll talk to him a little later?” I asked, impatiently.
“Ohp! He’s right here!” laughed my mom, “just say hi.”
My brother was on the phone in an instant, and we had probably the best conversation we’ve ever had. I forgot for thirty minutes about the packing, the new job and the moving truck, and wished I was in Arizona with my family instead, smelling the turkey, tearing up the biscuits for the stuffing, pinching the pie crust my mother made — my grandmother’s pie crust — with my fingers.
On Saturday morning, as I waited for the moving truck, my mother called.
My 26 year-old brother was dead.
Killed in a traffic accident on Black Friday.
I think of my brother every Thanksgiving, and sometimes it makes me cry to smell the stuffing baking, his favorite. Many of my older relatives are gone now, and the younger ones are spread out over the world. And for a long time, Thanksgiving was just so sad I couldn’t bear to get together with my extended family. It just made the fact that Todd was gone more obvious.
I still make all of the Thanksgiving foods from my childhood, even when I’m just cooking for my husband and kids. At Christmas, the menu is repeated. My mother and my aunt and our Mary gather in my kitchen, pinching the pie crusts, peeling potatoes, telling our stories and making each other laugh so hard we’re in serious danger of wetting our pants.
When I see my own children hanging around the kitchen, putting olives on their fingers, helping to whip the cream, or sprinkle the paprika on the deviled eggs, I am joyful that I belong to my family. That my children and husband belong to my family.
For me, the most joyous place in the world is with them, in the kitchen.
And in those moments, pumpkin pie gives me peace.