Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving with my mom

There was no Thanksgiving like a Thanksgiving at my mom’s house. We were planning to return to her place back in 1981 -- my husband Rich, daughter Gretchen, new baby Ben and me. It’s a long way from North Dakota to Ohio, so it wasn’t something we did every year. But it was our destination for that year. When November began, I was anxious for the days to pass quickly so that I would soon be home again. As it turned out, I ended up there much too soon.  

On November 7 I heard a voice on the other end of the telephone telling me that Mom had been taken to the hospital in the night and wasn’t doing well. So I hopped on the first plane with my two children. When both my brother and sister met me at the airport, I knew I was too late. So much for Thanksgiving.
That’s been a lot of Thanksgivings ago. And now, I have to say that every year on the fourth Thursday of November, no matter where I am, who I’m with, or what I’m doing, a big part of me is still back at 435 Edwards Avenue in Hamilton, Ohio.

I never realized how small the house was until I went away to college and came home again for the first time at Thanksgiving. As I stood in the foyer looking into the living room, I laughed aloud. What a teeny tiny little house! Just four rooms and a bath, with a converted attic upstairs. There was no dining room, although that never prevented us from having a huge Thanksgiving feast.
My mom had what was once a beautiful mahogany table with a stack of leafs we inserted for special occasions so that it stretched the entire length of the living room. It had endured a lot through the years; part of our holiday ritual was bringing the leafs out, which were in mint condition, and comparing them to the rest of the table, which looked like it had been used as a shield during the Revolutionary War.  Mom would always point this out to us. As I recall, she wasn’t complaining about it, just making an observation. In recent years, my sister Wendy has made that table her own and refinished it so that it is beautiful once again. I have had the honor of pulling my chair up under it again during Thanksgiving dinner at her home in Massachusetts, not far from the site of the original Thanksgiving feast.

My sister got the table. I got the platter. It’s a plain white platter that was only used at Thanksgiving to serve the turkey. Every time my mom pulled it out, she would say, “Be careful with this. It has been in my family for generations.” I’ve moved it from place to place for the past thirty years, and I’ve always been very careful with it. I have no idea how old it is, or if it’s worth more than a few dollars. But it is the one priceless item I own.
I know, in some families there is a kiddy table where all the little ones eat at Thanksgiving. Not so for us. We ALL sat at the table. There was usually a highchair or two, but we were all there. So, of course, a Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t complete without someone spilling a glass of something all over the table. And it was a table laden with food. My mom wouldn’t think of a serving buffet-style. The biggest challenge was passing the food from person to person. To this day, I can’t remember, is it left to right or right to left? Every year Mom had to give us directions.

There were always the usual Thanksgiving dishes: turkey, stuffing, giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, succotash, cranberry jelly, sweet potatoes, brown-and-serve rolls, and  pickles and olives that we pulled out of jars and carefully placed on a fancy plate only to return most of them to their jars after the meal. Then there was one other odd item that my mom insisted upon: mashed rutabaga. To my knowledge she was the only one in the family who ate it. Apparently it was something she grew up with and Thanksgiving wouldn’t have been Thanksgiving to her without it. Dessert had to be pumpkin pie with whipped topping in a spray can, of course. And all of this was served on her best dishes. 
Many of the serving dishes were silver and came from a time when my dad gave my mom a new one every year for their anniversary. I was the one who got to spread them with silver polish and clean them up. There was a silver pitcher, and a platter, and a gravy boat, and a bowl, and a big dish with a fancy lid. One year for Christmas Mom divvied them all up and gave them to us kids for Christmas as a memory of our father, who had died back in the 50s. I got the one with the fancy lid. Rarely do I use it; whenever I do, I have to get out the polish.

My family wasn’t much for drinking and I don’t ever recall having hard liquor in the house. But I do remember that on Thanksgiving we had wine with our meal. The kids had grape juice and the adults had near-grape juice from a guy named Mogen David. Somewhere in my mid teens I was allowed into the wine-drinking group on this once-a-year occasion. I remember thinking the stuff was god-awful and could hardly get it down. I still do, but for different reasons.
Throughout my sixty years of Thanksgivings, I have celebrated in a variety of settings: as a newlywed in Toronto, Canada, in my own home with husband and kids, with my in-laws eating from a T.V. table, at Denny’s because it was the only place we could find open after a football game in Detroit, in North Dakota at a church with other pastors from Ohio in exile, at my sister’s house, in a London pub with Gretchen and Ben, with my dear friends Donna and Jerry.  It’s all been good.  This year, I was completely alone on Thanksgiving. And I found myself going to the Thanksgivings I loved the most. There was no Thanksgiving like a Thanksgiving with my mom. I’m thankful for those memories.

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