Fill-in-the-blank Thanksgiving

I’m looking forward to an uneventful Thanksgiving this year. Thanksgiving was our main holiday when I was a kid. Christmas was exciting for the gifts (which Santa left on our dining room table, since we had no tree), and we had a meal for each holiday – roast beef for Christmas, ham for Easter – but it was usually just my parents and us three sisters. I get to make up my own stories about why, since I didn’t ask when my parents were alive and now there’s no one to ask. I assume it had to do with religious holidays being a loaded topic in a family of mixed religious background where no one in fact practiced any religion. Plus both my parents came from small families, and neither of my parents much enjoyed spending time with their own (or each others’) parents.

My mother worked at one of the Smithsonian galleries from the time I was in first grade, and the Smithsonian is open every day of the year but Christmas. This was something my mother often objected to – “The Smithsonian is an American institution so if it is going to be closed on just one day per year it should be an American holiday like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, and not a religious holiday like Christmas” – but I don’t recall her actually objecting to working on the day. Maybe because when she did, my father had to do most of the holiday cooking.

We had very traditional foods when we were all still living at home. Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, canned cranberry jelly, Pepperidge Farm bread stuffing from a bag. Probably green beans – it seems the vegetables have not stayed in my mind. Something green, for sure. Not sweet potatoes; I think I was in my twenties before I ever tasted a sweet potato. My favorite things to do to prepare the meal were making the roux for the gravy and ricing the potatoes for the mashed potatoes with the already ancient potato ricer which lives on in my kitchen today, discolored metal, chipped orange paint on the handles and all.

We were more likely to have friends of my parents over for Thanksgiving than other holidays. At some point when I was not much older than ten, we started having all holidays with my father’s friend Stan, after his wife died in her early forties. The holidays I remember more specifically tended to involve Stanley (I wrote about one of my favorite Stanley Thanksgivings in The Pack – it was Rose’s first holiday with my family and I’m still amazed she didn’t run screaming into the night).

We also started to drift from the more traditional elements of the Thanksgiving meal. My oldest sister married a vegetarian, my middle sister moved to the other side of the country and then to the other side of the ocean, Rose and I started to develop our own traditions at our own house. A fairly common Thanksgiving meal at my parents’ house became a chicken, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce from Boston Market, several tofu and vegetable options from a Chinese restaurant, and pumpkin pie made by my brother-in-law.

Rose and I have gone back and forth with the traditions. More often than not, we have made the traditional meal, though not always on the traditional day. Our kids often had the actual Thanksgiving meal with their father’s family, and then we’d have our celebration with them on Friday or Saturday. Rose makes the world’s best stuffing, and I think any of us would be just as happy eating only that. One year we were all fed up with holidays and we ordered Thai food from a local restaurant. The restaurant was closed on the holiday but the owner insisted that the spring rolls would not be good the next day. He and his wife came in on Thanksgiving just to make our food despite our best efforts to talk them out of it.

By the time both of my sisters and I were doing our own Thanksgiving things, my parents started going to my mother’s sister’s house for Thanksgiving weekend. It was during these events that the individual years began to earn names. There was the Ten Cat Thanksgiving, when my aunt was fostering seven tiny kittens in her jacuzzi tub, in addition to her regular three full grown cats. There was the Appendicitis Thanksgiving, when my cousin’s husband had to have an emergency appendectomy. We unwittingly continued this tradition three years ago with the Home from the Hospital Thanksgiving, when my middle son (then 29) had a stroke four days before the holiday, and thankfully recovered brilliantly and was released on Thanksgiving day.

So yes, I’m looking forward to an uneventful day. I know it will be the Pandemic Thanksgiving just by definition, but I’m hoping for a low drama day. It will just be me and Rose. Our kids are now doing their own things, too, though in a normal year we would see at least one of them. We are going to have a scaled down traditional meal. Well, at least the turkey will be scaled down to a breast. I look forward to doing something called spatchcocking it, which sounds far more entertaining than it is. Rose will, I sincerely hope, make enough stuffing for the whole family. And if we need a little excitement, maybe I will cook another spaghetti squash whole. The Exploding Squash Thanksgiving has kind of a nice ring to it.

Home Comforts

Fans and contestants of the Great British Bake Off seemed equally horrified by this week’s technical challenge, Sussex Pond Pudding, but I was delighted. I’ve never eaten it and there’s a good chance I never will, but I will always remember my introduction to it via the late, great, Laurie Colwin in her wonderful book Home Cooking.

Laurie includes Sussex Pond Pudding (as Suffolk Pond Pudding) in her chapter called Kitchen Horrors. It has very few ingredients – a suet pastry crust, a whole lemon, sugar, and butter. She uses this particular recipe to show that a kitchen horror can be in the eye of the beholder. She was thrilled with it – she described the interior as “lemon-scented buttery toffee,” but the friends she was visiting for dinner were less thrilled. Her host said “This tastes like lemon-flavored bacon fat,” while her hostess said “I’m sure it tastes wonderful. I mean, in England.” Judging from the Bake Off constestants and viewers, I’m not sure the English would agree.

My mother introduced me to Laurie Colwin, first with Home Cooking and later with her novels and short stories, as she introduced me to so many authors and books. Reading was our main family activity all through my childhood, and my mother gave us books for just about every gift-giving occasion. When we were kids, she always seemed to know the kind of books we would each like. She would never have given me Ballet Shoes, or given Darcy All Creatures Great and Small, but we had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on two walls in the living room of the house we grew up in, and plenty of books if we wanted to branch out of our regular interests.

We moved to a different house when I was sixteen and both my sisters had gone off to college. It was a house my father had owned and rented out for many years: a townhouse converted into seven efficiency apartments, so it was me and my parents and two cats rattling around on four floors with seven kitchens and seven bathrooms. The apartment we used as the living room also had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves – as did the apartment my parents moved to after that, as does the house Rose and I live in now, come to think of it. Even after having to dispose of dozens of boxes of books after my father’s death, I am still horrified when I hear people suggest downsizing their book collections.

At some point my mother’s book gifts changed from books she thought I would like in a general way to her using books like I used mix tapes. Books that told me she saw something about me that I hadn’t found the words to tell her. Books that told me things about her that she didn’t have the words to say. Books that told me she understood me, or that helped me understand her. I can only remember one time where the message went completely awry – a book about a woman whose son came out to her, and her journey from all the very wrong things she said at first to becoming an activist. It was hard for me to hear past the son’s pain to realize that she was probably trying to tell me the mother’s side of the story. It wouldn’t be till my own child came out to me that I realized all the completely wrong things to say come out of fear for your child, and out of wanting your child’s life to be easier.

The last two years I lived in my parents’ house, my senior year in high school and the year I took off before college, I wasn’t home very much. When I came home late in the evening, usually my father was in the living room, watching TV, reading, listening to music, falling asleep in his chair, or once, memorably, doing a midnight dance with an invisible partner, clad in his ratty old brown terry bathrobe, as light on his feet as Gene Kelly. My mother was usually in bed reading, and as I climbed up to the apartment on the top floor that served as my bedroom, I would look in to say goodnight to each of them.

Sometimes I would sit on the edge of the bed and my mother would read to me from whatever book she was reading at the time. I still hear whole chapters from Sue Hubbell’s A Country Year in my mother’s voice. I think it was a book that really touched something in her, and it would become the same for me a few years later when I left college feeling like the wheels were coming off my mind. Two books from my mother, A Country Year and Mary Morris’ Nothing to Declare, helped me put the puzzle pieces back together in something resembling order.

It was also in this post-college time that my mother began giving me cookbooks. Some classics from her own kitchen: The Joy of Cooking, Fannie Farmer, The Silver Palate. Some funny and useful: The I Hate to Cook Book, good for the days I just didn’t feel like it but still needed to eat. And some that are wonderful books for reading about food, and that also contain some good (and some odd) recipes: Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and John Thorne’s Simple Things.

I have always both cooked and read for comfort. I don’t really understand people who just read a book once, and I have many books that I have read the covers off of. Home Cooking and Simple Things have stood up to my many readings, though both are a bit food-splattered from being too close to the mixing bowl while I made something from their pages. I will always draw comfort from rereading certain favorite childhood books – A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Red Sky at Morning, Dandelion Wine. But nothing will ever quite soothe me like reading Laurie Colwin’s words about the good (curried broccoli soup, lemon rice pudding), the bad (starry gazy pie made with squid, scrambled eggs with mace), and the weird (Sussex pond pudding), hearing my mother’s voice repeating the words, with the soft sounds of music and my father’s dancing feet drifting up from the floor below.

Dream On

I have a very active dream life. Some dreams I remember as if they really happened to me, and some I wake up from feeling like I lived a whole lifetime during the dream but I don’t remember any of the details. When I was too young to be worrying about such things – maybe nine or ten – I used to worry either that I would wake up and find that I was still an infant and my whole life so far had been a dream, or that I was alive only in someone else’s dream and when they woke up I would die, or disappear.

I don’t have recurring dreams, but I do dream of recurring places. There is one house that is my grandmother’s house, though it is nothing like her house or any other house I’ve been to. There’s another house that is my aunt’s, though it is also not like anywhere she lived or that I have been. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen either my grandmother or my aunt in their dream house; I just know where I am when I am there. There are several recurring farms, though those tend to be at least loosely based on farms where I worked in the past.

A few nights ago, I almost had a dream about my mother. I was driving to have dinner with her, though I did not get that far from my house before I woke up. I have friends whose mothers have died who have dreams about them with some regularity, or they have something special happen every year on their mother’s birthday. Though I am torn between thinking dreams or signs from dead loved ones are just that – something from them – or things my mind makes up to make me feel better, I am always a little envious of these friends. I think it’s possible I have had dreams that featured my mother in the past fifteen years, but I can’t say that I have had a dream that feels like any kind of message.

My first experience with death and my first experience of dreams like this involved my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who died when I was in college. Several years after her death, I dreamed that I was with my family at the beach – my parents, my sisters, and my grandmother. Everyone else was distracted but I was watching my grandmother swim. I was worried that she was getting knocked down by the waves, but she looked back at me and dove into a wave, and I saw her mermaid tail flash as she swam out to sea. My family was furious at me because I was supposed to be watching her and they all thought she drowned. I was trying to explain that she was fine, she had just turned into a mermaid, when I woke up crying.

Eight years ago my aunt and my father died within two weeks of each other. Eight years ago and twelve days, to be precise, for my aunt, and eight years less two days for my father. I have had one dream about my father in those eight years. He appeared at some kind of gathering or party I was attending, and he was completely silent (a good way to tell he was dead – we have that in common). He pointed at himself, and then he pointed at me, and then he pointed to a mirror. He did not say, but I clearly understood: if you want to see me, just look at yourself. I am always there. I found this both comforting and disturbing, as I have always found my similarities to him.

I have had two dreams about my aunt since she died. The first one was very soon after she died. She called me on the phone, and I started crying when I heard her voice, and she asked why I was crying. I told her it was because I was sad that she was dead, and she laughed and said “You can talk to me any time you want! Just pick up the phone.” This is partly literally true – at least I can hear her voice, because I still have a message from a few weeks before she died. I also do always feel like she is nearby, though I also miss her tremendously. In the other dream I had about her, two of her closest friends were driving an enormous SUV unlike anything either of them would actually drive, one in the driver’s seat and one riding shotgun, and my aunt was looking between them from the back seat. I exclaimed “Becca! Becca is in the back seat!” and they said “Of course she is, honey.”

I’m not surprised that my mother has been on my mind recently, in election season. It used to drive me crazy that she was the most neutral person I ever met. When I was upset about something and I wanted her to take my side, I very much did not want to hear about how the situation might look to the other person. My father used say “There are two sides to every story, and the truth is somewhere in the middle,” but he only believed this if they were two other people. If he was one of the sides, there was only one true side to the story, and it was his. Most of the time I can see that there are two sides, or rather, most of the time I don’t see in terms of sides. But when I do see sides, and when I take a side, there’s not much chance of moving me off my position, or even making me hear or see anything else.

I’ve been thinking that my mother has been on my mind because I could use her perspective, and because now is a time when I would find it really helpful to hear about the other side. But the more I write, the more I realize it’s been a really long and anxiety-ridden and exhausting year, and I just want my mom.

Signal Lights

Dia de los Muertos is not a thing I knew about until I read about it in a Barbara Kingsolver book in my 20s. Over the years, as beloved animals and people died, Rose and I began to celebrate it as our main fall holiday. I’ve never been much of a Halloween person – I think I wore my last costume when I was ten. But I like the process of connecting with the dead, and of deliberately remembering them and celebrating their lives.

When we started our Dia de los Muertos traditions, we did the candle-in-a-brown-paper-bag version of luminaria. I love the way they look, but even stabilized and weighted with sand, they are a bit of a hazard in windy weather (which we almost always have at this time of year), and they are a fiasco in the rain. A few years ago, Rose started making ceramic luminaria, and we keep adding to the collection. We have over twenty of them now, and they make a beatiful display whether we put them at individual graves, group them by species, or line them all up around the edge of the patio. We have photos of each animal and human, and we take a moment to remember something about each of them as we light their candle.

I’ve heard a lot of people this year saying that the only reason they are glad their father, mother, sister, brother is dead is that they don’t want them to see the shitshow that our goverment, society, or political process have become. I get this. For me, it’s the newspaper industry. My parents met when they were both working at the Washington Post in the 1950s, and I can’t imagine what they would have to say about so-called news stories that involve quotes taken entirely from Twitter. My father has been dead for eight years, and he still had plenty of occasion to say “This isn’t NEWS!” in response to much of what he read in the papers or saw on TV.

When I think about it, though – and I’ve been thinking about it a lot with the election coming up tomorrow – I believe they had a long view that we don’t have. My grandparents were born before World War I. Both of my parents were born and raised around the Depression. My father fought in World War II when he was a teenager. Both of my parents were journalists during the McCarthy era, and during the Cold War, and my father stayed on at the Post into the Vietnam War years. I don’t doubt that they’d see a lot of what is going on now as a shitshow, but I wonder if they might not see it as the End Times so many of us feel are looming over our heads.

In the absence of my parents, or for that matter any of my elder relatives, I have gotten a lot of my perspective in the last four years from my colleagues in different countries. I was in Nairobi during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. When we stumbled into the office that Wednesday after staying up all night watching election returns, dazed and incoherent with disbelief, our Kenyan colleagues told us to get over it (that’s a direct quote), which still seems like pretty decent advice. They reminded us that it’s not everywhere that gets to protest the results of an election, or to know that there will be another one in a set number of years. They have a sign in their lunch area that says “What you take for granted, someone else is praying for” and I try to remember that.

We’ll be lighting our luminaria again this evening, and looking through our photos, and remembering. I’ll take a little time to think about what I take for granted, and I’ll take a little time to think about what I pray for, and I’ll hope for just a little bit of perspective.