Sunday, November 25, 2007
I've been thinking a lot about my mom this last week. Or maybe she's been thinking about me? Whatever, she's been on my mind with all the preparation for Thanksgiving. She passed on almost 24 years ago now. That's hard to get my brain around at times - that she's been gone from my life for that long. A massive stroke took her just a little over two years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's. But that's another story for another time.
Thanksgiving was Mom's time - her big show. She was upfront and center stage which was an uncomfortable place for her to be. Life for her revolved around Dad and me, you see. Mom was the support staff in the family - chef, housekeeper, secretary and accountant, decorator, maitre'd, event planner and activities director. All that wrapped up in a 5'2", plump, white-haired, smartly dressed and tidy package. She was much more comfortable working behind the scenes than having the lead role.
But at Thanksgiving, Dad and I were the go-fers to her Director status. It was her yearly grand production and her anxiety over it vibrated through the house and the two of us for the weeks ahead.
Depending on the year and who lived where, who was in town, who married, and who had passed away, we could be entertaining 20 to 30 people for Thanksgiving. This was how it was for the 22 years I lived with my parents. We also entertained on Christmas Eve, but that was a different show which revolved around a Swedish meal, complete with Lutfisk and Glogg, and was mostly for my father's side of the family. That was more a combined effort with Dad directing. Another story there, too. But that's Dad's story.
I don't remember the menu ever changing. Those in attendance expected and eagerly anticipated Mom's expert, Francios Pope trained, Thanksgiving cuisine.
Roast Turkey, (of course!) basted by strips of bacon
Mashed Potatoes and Gravy (cornstarch gravy, never flour)
Candied Sweet Potatoes
Mashed Turnips (loads of butter)
Cranberries (made with fresh cranberries, but also the canned jellied ones for the lesser trained palates)
Mom's wondrous homemade Pumpkin and Mincemeat Pies with hardsauce (I've never managed her Mince, never!)
And her Piece d'Resistance, Stuffing
Fresh rolls, garnishes of veggies and olives filled out the table along with bottles of Champagne served and sparkling enticingly in Mom's prized crystal.
Dad would be in charge of vacuuming every square inch of the house (walls, curtains, furniture, and every nook and cranny) and scouting out enough chairs. I was bathroom cleaner and duster. The house had to sparkle. We knew it. We'd suffer mother's moaning agony of guilt afterward if it didn't.
On THE DAY Dad was charged with Bartender duty and had better have everyone's favorite liquor of choice and enough ice on hand or sleep in the family room later that night. (Or wish he had!)
I had the distinct and dubious honor, as daughter of the house, of table setting. As a child of eight or ten this was indeed an honor. I adored mother's exquisite Marshall Field's gold threaded table cloth and napkins. That thing was incredibly heavy and draped beautifully. I even loved the smell of it. I'm not sure what it smelled like, exactly. Maybe years of Thanksgiving dinners, Woolite soap and the blue tissue paper mom wrapped it in for storage, but it was a nose-treat for me each year. I'd wince with each drop of gravy or cranberry that our guests would later so blithely splatter on it. I knew what it would take mother to get those spots out! And how she'd agonize over them. I'd always feel somehow responsible, no matter who did it. After all, I was tablecloth proprietor.
I'd lovingly lay mother's Franciscan Bone China (Harvest Wheat pattern with gold inlay and platinum trim) at each place. Place the silver plated flatware from the inside out (right - knife edge towards plate/large spoon/small spoon, left - dinner fork/dessert fork on top of neatly folded napkin). Make sure matching silver plated salts and peppers were filled. And the most painful and harrying part - checking the crystal to make sure there were no chipped water goblets or champagne/sherbets. I dreaded this. If there was a chip my memory would be grilled by mother to find out the how, when, and who from the previous year. I had to be on crystal alert through the entire event.
When the family came, though, most of my duty was over. The aunts and women cousins would be Mom's arms and legs for the duration. I was freed to fend off my continually fighting boy cousins and keep them from murtelizing each other until they departed for home. Another dubious distinction that sometimes resulted in bruised ribs and split lips.
When all was readied for the table after Dad had carved the 20+ pound bird, the crew settled in for their yearly taste bud extravaganza. Grace was said, a Thanksgiving champagne toast was made, and we chowed down. In my experience, nothing has ever compared. Even sitting at the kid table, an ancient wooden card table battered from boy-cousin oxfords and laid with a garishly flowered, lesser tablecloth and our everyday china, my mother's cooking expertise quieted my monster cousins. The first couple of minutes of the meal were always spent in a meditative silence of appreciation. Then the "ooohs" and "aaahs" and "well done, Margarets" broke in and the voices and laughter of family together reverberated off the immaculately vacuumed walls and dusted furniture for the next hour and a half.
She'd done it again. And exceedingly well, as always. Applause!! Applause!!
I've resumed Thanksgiving cooking these last couple of years for my partner's clan after several years' hiatus. This last week as we shopped and cleaned, and as I planned and cooked, I felt Mom closely with me. Bacon draped turkey went into the oven. I made her unique stuffing and got rave reviews and requests for the recipe. I sweated timing and kept an eagle eye on the rolls, though the bottoms burned again, so I know it's the baking sheet and not me.
It's a totally different feeling, different people, and different era of my life, but Mom was there with me while I cooked, and it was good and right. And I am Thank-full. Mom, I love that you stepped out of yourself for one day a year and produced a memory, a lesson, and a charge in bringing family together through sitting at table and enjoying a special meal.
Thanks, Mom. I love you.