It is Thanksgiving, and no one is happy.
It began each holiday morning, My Mother in the kitchen, chopping, peeling, basting, baking. She is less happy than any of us, or so she thinks. Every year she is possessed by the Spirit Of Family Togetherness and Tradition (patent pending) and decides that she MUST make a full holiday dinner, she MUST make everything from scratch, and she MUST make herself miserable in the process. I never knew what took hold of her, maybe a sense of needed normalcy or a latent Americana gene that manifested every November. But there she was, working herself into a state, and our feeble attempts at offering help were batted away like a spider landing on a toddler’s nose.
Every. Single. Year. From 1975 – 1995. I kept track.
My father would “helpfully” suggest that maybe she simplify the menu. A mix of exasperation and genie-in-the-bottle hostility would bubble up, and my father would slink away with a mumbled “Okay, let me know if you need anything…” and a trip to the basement family room. I would give it a go a bit later, with a quiet, “Can I do that for you?” only to be met with a sigh and, “No, thank you, it’s easier if I. Do. It. Myself.”
“Can I —“
“No, just no.”
Thanksgiving is a holiday of no.
My brother we just kept out of her way. No good would come of it otherwise. He always knew just what buttons to push and they always dialed a melt-down.
Turkey, check. Stuffing, in-bird, check. Extra stuffing, in casserole dish, check. Candied sweet potatoes – good lord, the potatoes, how many was she cooking for? Peas and pearl onions – Birdseye, thank goodness, although if she had had the wherewithal to shuck those peas I’m sure she would have. Crescent rolls, from the can, thank G-d. Pie crust from scratch in the early days. Alone, all alone in our Harvest Gold-plated kitchen, bubbling with hostility and domesticity, the pressure rising until it was all too much.
She went to her room. Every year. We could practically set our watches by it.
This happened regularly around 3pm, as everything was pretty much finished and my Dad and I were setting the table, using the Good China and keeping a six-foot periphery around my mother before Covid-19 was a fever dream in our collective consciousness. The cork would blow, and she’d whisk herself upstairs like her lump-free gravy and slam the door.
We knew dinner would be a little late.
And so we waited, quietly, patiently, sipping water from crystal glasses and wondering why it was called “Thanksgiving” and not “Nervous Breakdown Thursday.” The tension would hang over the dining room like a wet blanket, warm and stifling a just a tad itchy. We’d wait, silently, for Mother to collect herself. I always wondered what she did up there. Meditation? Secret flask? Planning her escape? I tried to imagine her like a Buddhist Monkela, counting breaths until she knew the pie had to come out or it would burn.
“We will wait for your Mother,” Daddy said. “We will wait.”
She would eventually come down, apparently cleansed of the angst, and proceed.
“Smells wonderful,” we’d say, and she’d nod and agree.
“The turkey turned out nicely. Look how browned the skin is,” she’d say. Then she’d make a joke about the turkey’s pupach (or “pope’s nose,” actually quite offensive, she’d warn, so as not to use the phrase outside the house.) Things got cold so fast, but it was always delicious.
I never found the source of her holiday obsession. I knew it was the one holiday I never found confusing, as Thanksgiving was for everyone – no guilt about a Christmas tree, or Passover Seder, painting Easter eggs or lighting the menorah. Thanksgiving was for everyone. I think she relished that, grasping for a sense of normalcy in our odd little familial unit with her stubborn little boy and alien child daughter. Once a year, we had Thanksgiving.
Someday, I’ll learn not to tense up at the smell of turkey.