Turkey Day

It was November. We were inching along to Thanksgiving. We were staying at home this year for Thanksgiving, because things were not well up there. My great uncle, the newspaper editor, had been in and out of the hospital and was not feeling well. Since we normally stayed at their house, our presence there would be more disruptive. One of my great aunts was also sick, recovering slowly from a cold that knocked her right out. No one else was coming in from out of town, and everything was somber. So we were staying home.

My mother was trying to make the day as festive as possible. She invited my sister’s boyfriend, and my sister’s friend B would be here, we were all going to be together. She and I went to the Great Scott supermarket and bought a turkey, cranberries, celery, onions and potatoes.

I’d never really seen my mother cook a big meal. All of our holidays were usually spent with the Grand Rapids relatives, and my mother helped, but didn’t have any primary responsibilities. My mother could cook, she just rarely had time to do so.

The day before she started with the cranberries. Rather than turn them into a sauce, she was making them into a frozen sherbet. This was family tradition. It wasn’t dessert, it was a meal starter, to “cleanse the palate” and get you ready for the dinner. I watched, interested and mystified as she cooked the berries, ran them through a strainer, added sugar and Knox gelatin from an envelope, and popped the Pepto Bismol pink mixture into the freezer. She explained that her mother made this for every holiday. The recipe card was in her mother’s handwriting. Since my grandmother had died just before my fourth birthday, I had no real memory of her, or this concoction. This window into my mother’s past, through the food, was intoxicating.

The next morning I woke up early to gaze through the window again. My mother pulled the innards out of the turkey between cigarettes and put them aside to make giblet gravy. She readied the turkey. Then she started chopping celery and onions, as her mother had done, for the stuffing. Her mother always cooked the stuffing in the bird, and it made no sense to her that anyone would say it was unsafe. You only cooked stuffing outside of the bird if you had leftovers. And so she showed me how to stuff each cavity of the rinsed out bird with the heavenly scented bread crumbs she’d just put together.

I asked my mother why we’d never done this before, why we never had Thanksgiving at home when she could cook everything so carefully, so well, so easily.

“Why? Because it’s my least favorite holiday, that’s why.” I was astounded. Really? How could that be, I asked.

“Because my father died the Friday after Thanksgiving,” she told me. “He was in the hospital that year for Thanksgiving, and he died the next day. I can never get through Thanksgiving without thinking of him and how awful that Thanksgiving was. That’s why we’re always with everyone in Grand Rapids, because they understand. They’re his family, his siblings. They understand.”

I’d never really heard my mother talk about the deaths of her parents. I knew she was very young to have lost both parents. Her father died when she was just 25, of lung cancer. I looked down at the ash tray next to us filled with cigarette butts and swallowed.

“I’m sorry, Mom. I had no idea. I’m…sorry.”

There was nothing left to say. My mother put the turkey in the oven and we sat together, in silence, as she pulled out another cigarette. She was remembering, and I was looking through the window, again, fascinated.

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