Learning to cook for a Thanksgiving crowd is an art. The menu planning, the shopping, the several days of prep, and the timing of the actual cooking is as close as I’ve ever come to being a chef, and as close as I’ve ever wanted to be.
At some point during each holiday, I reach critical mass and whilst everyone else claims work demands, school demands, and travel demands, I will have my Annual Shoutfest, after which all will skulk away, pissed off at me.
Hmmpf. Such is life, I've learned.
In my late 30’s, I was as lonely and adrift when we lived in Fresno as I have ever been in my life. Holidays were challenging with 3 little ones who missed their grandma, aunts and uncles. I was too young and sad to let all the trappings go and invent a new holiday style for us. I only knew the way I had been raised.
I'll never forget peeling chestnuts at Thanksgiving as the heavy scent of roses from my neighbor's garden filled the kitchen and in my sensory disorientation, all I could register was the lack of wood smoke and falling leaves. I insisted on a traditional holiday meal with 3 courses, the best cloth and china, and everyone dressed up. Nothing spells Thanksgiving more than 3 adults and 3 kids sitting in a large empty dining room, and watching your family chew dry turkey, with the little one crying that she wants to watch Barney.
Of course, it wasn't all seasonal affective disorder.
All I could see and feel and hear were what we were missing. Actually, what I was missing: my father, recently deceased; my mother and aunt; my sisters and their families; my quilting group, my best friends; my garden; and even my uterus (it was a tough year). My entire sense of who I was, who my husband was, and who we were as a family, even as New Yorkers, blew up when we moved to the Central Valley where the only daytime sounds were pool filters kicking on and off, gardeners trimming hedges, and garage doors remotely opening and closing as unknown neighbors left in cars with tinted windows.
I was starting to feel that same sense of loss in the last year. Isolated, cut off, alone, yet this time I was right in the midst of family, work and friends. I was focusing so much on what wasn't here and what who wasn't here and how little I wanted to adjust to it all. It comes in waves, those moments when I realize with a start that there is no one home to to set the table or clean the shrimp. When my feet ache, my bones complain, and I snap at the dogs, I wonder how on earth I will get through the rest of this life, with just my husband and I listening to urselves chew our food in such a quiet house at dinnertime. It all comes out at holiday times, when that that loneliness rears it head front and center and I i raise my voice and everyone skulks off and is pissed at me for the rest of the day.
If I let it, I will spend the holidays regretting the best of what is past and lamenting what is missing from the present.
If I let it, I will spend the rest of my life regretting what is past and lamenting what is missing from the present.
I am very good at telling others to learn to be in the moment, but the truth is that I too easily slip into nostalgia and melancholy. It is my deepest character flaw and I find myself haing to work on this lesson over and over again. Since the death of my mother last year, I have had to go back to the beginning and start the journey anew.
This year, I find I just can’t get carried away with the stress anymore. I hope the meal is all done and done well by the time we sit down. I outsourced all the pies to any family member who will want to eat one and my sister always brings many of the sides. I hope there’s room for 12 people to sit in the living room without anyone having to sit on the floor.
And I have really, really tried to stop counting the empty places at the table.
During a quiet moment last night, I emptied a bag of fresh, gleaming cranberries into a sauce pan, sectioned an orange and a red grapefruit, added a glaze of orange juice, a dusting of ginger, and turned up the heat. The red marbles of berries looked so beautiful against the gleaming stainless steel pot and I waited for the moment when I would hear the berries pop. Music played in the background, the youngest made it home from college safely in the rain, and I worked quietly in the bubble of task lighting above the range. I felt my stomach unclench, a smile play across my lips, and I generously flipped pieces of stuffing baguettes to the dogs as they danced under my feet, eagerly awaiting scraps because their last meal was 5 minutes ago and they are starving.
I have accepted that I am the matriarch of my own family now. That it is my responsibility, at least for these years, to get us through the holidays with a minimum of stress but without martyring myself. I enjoy this role and I am learning to relax into it and create a holiday that is sustainable for all.
I can only do this by grabbing some of the hours that fall through my hands like autumn leaves and carve out time to write. It’s not a luxury or an option or a hobby. It is the essence of what makes me a loving person and prevents me from devolving into an angry, irritable woman who huffs and puffs and pushes the dogs off the bed.
So this afternoon, when I should be prepping, cooking, stirring, and dicing, I will shut the stove, close the office cell phone, outsource the dogs to the youngest, and sit for several hours at Starbucks writing with my headphones on and laptop open.
I want to leave my own children not just the secret to the cornbread chestnut herb stuffing, but the secret of a life of happiness. I only know that when I am writing, I am living word by word. I am not sentimentalizing what words I used in my childhood, nor am I lamenting a paucity of words in my future.
I am simply proceeding word by word into a simple, full life.
I wish you all the most satisfying of Thanksgiving days, ask that you be blessed with having those around you who bring you laughter and love, and thank you all for giving me this forum to chronicle my life to you, word by word.