Thanksgiving is more than just turkey, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie. Sights, smells and recipes conjures childhood in a way nothing else can. As my mother’s daughter and caregiver I became the woman in the kitchen.
The roles shifted and I wore the apron but I kept my mother alive–by making dishes from my childhood–Waldorf salad, Daddy’s pound cake recipe, and the best dressing on the planet. I would set my mother in a chair at the kitchen table while I scurried around the kitchen–offering her a taste of this or that and smiling when even with Alzheimer’s she’d suggest a bit more sage.
And then my mother was gone. She passed on a warm June day in our home with the lace curtains swaying and a cardinal on a branch just outisde her window.
That next Thanksgiving was tender.
Whether you still have your mom or dad, or if they’ve passed, I hope you’ll enjoy this Thanksgiving essay.
I get out Mother’s enamel fruit bowl, the one painted with apples and grapes and pineapples. I know it must be from the fifties. I get out the potatoes and peeler and begin scraping the brown strips that fly and stick to the edges of the bowl. The white chunks are placed in a Revere Ware boiler that Mother gave me as a wedding present twenty-three years ago. I fill it with cold water and a dash of salt, and as I turn on the burner I suddenly feel five again and can see the small mound of salt crystals in the center of Mother’s palm and the quick turn of her wrist.
This is my first Thanksgiving without Mother here.
Sometimes she would stop right in the middle of her cooking, turn the pot upside down for inspection and lay it on the edge of the sink. She sprinkled it with salt and baking soda, then squeezed a little lemon juice from the yellow plastic lemon. Her fingers made little scrubbing circles with a sudsy Brillo pad, her shoulders hunched, her face intent and her whole body pressing down as if she could cleanse the world of its sin. I hung around to watch the quick rinse under the faucet. She tilted the pan for me to see the copper as it gleamed. Satisfied, I’d head outside to swing.
She’s been gone five months now.
I watch and wait for the potatoes to boil, for the familiar starchy foam that gathers first around the edges, turning the water opaque as the potatoes dance. I carry the heavy pot to the sink. The kitchen window fogs from the hot air that rises as the potatoes hit the strainer. With a shake, I pour them back into the fruit bowl, and blend the soft squares with cream, salt, and butter. They give way with each press of the old masher, the red stripe of paint flaking on the handle.
I spoon the fluffy potatoes into the green flute-edged bowl then remember, this bowl was used for the Waldorf salad, not the potatoes. I’m too tired to find another bowl, so I take them to the table, already set with my mother’s grandmother’s crocheted tablecloth and tell myself, no one will notice. Besides, does anyone but me like apples, walnuts, mayonnaise and raisins anyway?
With a snap of the Tupperware lid, I place a dozen cold deviled eggs into the heavy divided egg plate. I see Mother’s hand take two, three, four, then another after a slice of both the pumpkin and pecan pie. Aromas of turkey and pole beans fill the air. I cut up bacon to flavor the beans and watch them simmer with crescents of translucent onion. Mother liked her vegetables tender—they tasted like mush to me; for Thanksgiving, I cook them a little longer.
I would stop and cry, but it would take too long, and the rolls would burn.
The buns, too hot to simply pick up, get shoved or tossed from the aluminum foil-covered cookie sheet into the silver bread warmer, the round one with penguins carved on the sides. I wonder, how many dinners of my childhood did I spend staring at those flightless birds? Each year, my head slightly higher, I viewed life from a different perspective. I can’t find the top of the warmer, it probably got lost in the move, so I fold a napkin over the rolls to keep them warm.
I put out the turkey on its tray and set it in the middle of the table. I get out a pale yellow organza apron, stiff with starch. Mother must have ironed it some ten, maybe twenty years ago, and although it’s a bit musty and dinner is ready, I tie it around my waist. I remember the slam then the slide of the iron, and that sweet, hot steamy fragrance of starch on cotton. I used to watch Mother take the tip of the silver triangle and go around tiny buttons, pressing Daddy’s white Sunday collars. A strand of her hair slipped across her forehead as she warned me to step back. I brought my crayons and paper and drew at the old-fashioned school desk she put in the kitchen and that Daddy had painted gold. They loved gold. I liked hearing the phish sound the iron made after each burst of steam, as if exhausted from its labor.
I call everyone to the table and pull out a chair, the chair Mother sat in last Thanksgiving, and sit down.
I pour red wine into crystal goblets, given to Mother by her sister-in-law for a wedding gift some sixty-seven years ago. Mother never used them, but I’ve already broken one. We fill plates and my husband, our daughters and our guests all take hands, and we bow our heads in thanks.
I never knew I’d miss her so much.
~Carol D. O’Dell
Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle
Hold those you love dear–in your arms–and in memory.
Have a blessed and joy-filled Thanksgiving.
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