The possibility that I would have a blast, however, was questionable. We’d been going up to his sister Wendy’s house for Thanksgiving ever since my twins were born. This would be my eighth year as designated cook for the extended weekend. And like a designated driver, it was not for my love of the activity that I volunteered; it was simply a desire to avoid disaster that had me take control.
As I contemplated our first Thanksgiving meal at Wendy’s house, I was a bit concerned that while my family indulged in a five-star food extravaganza, my husband’s family could conceivably be consuming a meal inspired by a Swanson frozen dinner entrée. Envisioning a canned assortment of diced starches named Vegetable Medley, I picked up a knife.
Should I turn it on myself, or wield it against some butternut squash?
These were my options.
Fortunately, my survival instinct kicked in and we feasted like kings in a formal dining room overlooking the ocean. My brother-in-law dutifully toasted his wife, thanking her for the lovely meal and for hosting the affair. I shoved a few forkfuls in my mouth and then rose to clear the dishes, wrap up the food, and drop into a coma some time around 11:00 pm.
“It was just fantastic to be all together like this. I think this should be a new family tradition!” Wendy had said after our first Thanksgiving.
And so it was. Each year, like the year before, we would travel up to Massachusetts where I would plant myself in the kitchen for so long I grew roots.
But this year would be different.
This Thanksgiving would be Wendy’s last. Diagnosed with stomach cancer and in the final stages of this terminal disease, she would not live to see another bountiful table surrounded by her family. I wanted to prepare this meal to give thanks for the fantastic tradition she had begun. And so, I loaded up the minivan with my husband, the kids, some groceries, and the spirit of gratitude for which this holiday is named.
Thanksgiving morning as I was preparing a bowl of hot cereal for my kids, my sister-in-law bustled into the kitchen. “I’ve already put the turkey in so all we need to do are some side dishes. Here’s what I thought we’d make,” she said as she pulled out a half dozen pages torn from The New York Times and Gourmet Magazine. There were a whole lot of directions. And I don’t really do directions. Still, I always looked forward to cooking together. “I thought you could get them started and I’ll be back to help after my swim,” she said in her easy, breezy style.
She gave me a little squeeze on the shoulder and departed, leaving me alone with a pile of culinary ambition, my menacing eight-year-old twin boys, and their five-year-old raised-by-wolves sister, who were just now loading oatmeal missiles onto their spoons. Then, as though someone had yelled “And action!” The Cousins began filing into the kitchen, dodging the now air-bound whole grains as they asked what was for breakfast. Apparently, my standing closest to the counter made me It. And once you’re tagged, you’re It, touch black, no penny tax, no going back. We all know the rules. I dutifully responded to their requests, spinning out buttered bagels like a pitching machine. But for a minute there, I got the spirit of gratitude knocked out of me.
After breakfast, I cleared the plates left behind by the morning rush and returned to the recipe pages I had been given. This here was some fancy food with names I can’t pronounce phonetically and ingredients that I’m not even sure are really food like say, violet petals. And then there were those pesky directions involving techniques that were somewhat beyond the scope of my incredibly masterful Mix It Up and Flip It Over.
The thing about Technical Food is that it requires Technical Devices, which technically, we didn’t have. Basics like a sharp knife, a carrot scraper, or a can opener were nowhere to be found, let alone electrically powered gadgets like a mixer or food processor. A meal prepared in this kitchen was made in the spirit of Girl Scouts on an overnight cookout, stopping just short of rubbing two sticks together to make a fire.
I searched through the recipe pages for something limited to a mere twelve steps and recited the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to skip the things I cannot make, the courage to choose the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I rifled through the recipes and paused at Chocolate Meringue Cream Pie. Just like me to start my technical binge with dessert.
Step 1. Melt chocolate in a double boiler.
I filled a saucepan with water and covered it with a handle-less frying pan.
Step 2. Wisk in cream and sugar.
I forked it.
Step 3. Separate eggs for meringue.
It now occurred to me that whipping up a meringue by hand would be an activity of Olympic proportions. I had not trained for this event. I trembled; a fork in my throbbing hand as I assaulted a bowl of foamy egg whites.
Faster, faster, I must produce speed, wind, centrifugal force. Meringue these eggs. Do it for Wendy!
My biceps bulged as I flexed and rotated my wrist at top speed for nearly thirty minutes, at which point I became concerned that my right forearm would become disproportionately large. I attempted to switch into left gear to even out my limbs but this proved to be a bad decision as the barely frothy egg whites leapt from the bowl and slid in a mucousy trail from the counter to the floor.
No meringue for you today. I thought of Wendy. No meringue, ever.
As promised, the Girl Scout leader returned from her swim just in time to see me scooping up the egg whites. I apologized for my inability to be a human Cuisinart and poured the remains into the drain, watching the disaster slip down the dark tunnel along with my heart. Wendy gestured a Don’t-Worry-About-It wave and opened the oven to check on the 27-pound turkey.
“Oh no.” she said.
I want to say emphatically that “Oh no” is not what you want to hear when you are looking at a 27-pound Thanksgiving Day turkey scheduled for decimation by twenty five hungry relatives at 4:00 pm. “Oh no” should not be an option.
No “oh no’s.”
But she said it again and I came up beside her have a look at what appeared to be a featherless, beheaded, and possibly still living bird in a STONE COLD OVEN.
“You forgot to turn it on?” I asked hopefully.
“It’s ON she replied, but it’s not ON.”
So the Girl Scouts were now up to the Rubbing Two Sticks Together part of the cookout. There was no getting that oven started. It was old and tired and just not in the mood for turkey, I guess. But Wendy was no quitter and she had an idea. A scary little delusionally optimistic idea. I wanted to run but then I remembered my non-resentful, spirit of gratitude and dug in my heels.
“We can put it in the microwave,” she said confidently.
I looked at the big foul fowl, out and about since sunrise, and then glanced over at the small microwave oven.
Wendy hoisted the turkey out of the oven and up toward the microwave. The turkey, in all its slippery, pimply glory scoffed at the small opening, but Wendy did not falter. She simply removed the bird from the roasting pan and jammed it in the way one might overstuff a suitcase. Her breasts (the bird’s) were pressed against the ceiling, thighs and wings against the door as Wendy shouldered it closed. Illuminated and mashed up against the microwave window like a convict in an armored bus, the turkey appeared to be pleading to get out. Wendy set the cook cycle for three hours; a number selected not because this would be an adequate cooking time but because that’s when dinner was supposed to be.
Well, now that we have that settled…
When the timer rang three hours later, I opened the door with sadistic curiosity. “Wendy,” I said, “There’s no juice in here. It’s not cooked. No juice is no good.”
“No, I’m sure it’s fine”, she said. “Look, see how it’s brown on the outside?”
I was going to point out that it wasn’t brown but actually black and blue from our earlier altercation, but I didn’t have the heart to quash her optimism. Instead, we let the bird rest and cool for thirty minutes and then she began the carving ritual.
“Oh no, no, no”, she mumbled.
I think maybe I heard a cackle of some sort but perhaps that was just me trying to suppress a gag reflex as I witnessed an autopsy right on the kitchen counter. I am quite certain that a wild turkey run over by a car and left to bake in the sun in the dead of winter would be more thoroughly cooked than this unfortunate platter of road kill.
It hurt my heart in this deeply remorseful I-Can-Never-Fix-This kind of way. My offering on this final and most precious Thanksgiving was to be nothing more than some beaten up bird pleading; can’t you see I’m not ready yet? Which is just precisely how I was feeling.
Then there was a thumping, pounding beat in my brain (was that my heart?) and Donna Summer’s voice (which I cannot explain).
“Someone left the cake out in the rain.
I don’t think that I can take it, 'cause it took so long to bake it,
And I’ll never have that recipe again…
I was beginning to get a little absorbed in what lyrics came next, something about a yellow cotton dress, I think, when a scary situation whipped my brain back into the kitchen.
My brother-in-law was kneeling in front of the disabled oven; his head plunged deep inside like that old woman in Hansel and Gretel just before she gets shoved in. There was some muttering inside the chamber and then extracting himself, he announced that the oven was back in service again. It was a little late now, what with the tepid turkey just festering on the counter, but at least now we could have more than salad for dinner. Maybe a multitude of sides could fill in the gaping hole in the center of the table normally reserved for completely dead birds.
I turned to show Wendy a nice recipe I’d found for grilled vegetables with balsamic vinaigrette. To my horror, she had slid the brutalized victim onto a stretcher/baking pan and was shoving it into the now hot oven. Even the bacteria dancing around in pools of blood were pleading for mercy.
“I don’t think you can do that,” I said as politely as I could, trying not to let my revulsion leak. “I mean, because it’s been basically sitting out since about 7 am, with a couple hours of radiation and at least an hour of relaxation here on the counter and…”
I got the Wendy Wave. “It’ll be fine” she reassured me.
I forced my head to move in an up and down nod. “Oh…”
The turkey had endured our relentless attempts to make a meal out of it, and still, if we’d called a veterinarian, I’ll bet it could have had its gobble rehabilitated. At this point, we were running out of time and preparations took on a decathlon quality. Somewhere around side dish number six, I hit The Wall, my legs cramping up and my back in spasm. But still I forged on, mincing onions with a butter knife, shaking up a batch of whipped cream in a plastic container. On occasion, a well-meaning cousin would come in to compliment me on how good everything looked or offer to lend a hand but before I could lunge forward and grab them, they would suddenly be called out of the room with an emergency like I-Don’t-Feel-Like-Doing-That or Excuse-Me-But-I-Have-To-Go-Relax-Now.
Nine hours after the starting gun, I limped across the finish line, my kids still in their oatmeal-hardened pajamas practicing karate chops on each other. The turkey was still screaming as I pulled it from the oven, stuffed it in the trash, and hailed The Cousins in for dinner.
Thanksgiving without a turkey is hard to swallow. It’s unnatural. It’s tragic. I looked at the table, a sea of side dishes and salads, and I felt queasy. There was no focal point. Just a gaping emptiness where the turkey should have been. But that poor bird was
gone now, ravaged beyond recognition, and there was nothing I could do to fix this disaster.
Wendy had a different take on the situation. “Oh, look at this table! Everything looks so amazing, just spectacular!” She said it like she’d won the lottery. She smiled as she looked around at the family gathered at the table. Then she leaned over to me and whispered, “It’ll be fine without the turkey. We have so much here. It’ll be fantastic.”
Three months later Wendy was lying in a hospice bed in her bedroom. Brian and I had gone up to see her knowing that it was time to say goodbye. Family and friends surrounded her, praying and crying and wishing as she lay there, ravaged by cancer. We had tried so hard to turn this disaster around. There were studies and books and specialists and inspirational stories. We shared our photographs, our insights, and our hearts. We propped her up, and fluffed the pillows, and smoothed the covers, and combed her hair. We brought the rabbi, the guru, the Evangelical home care attendants, and the gospel choir. We offered macrobiotic meals, chemotherapy, morphine, and a Thanksgiving feast. We tried and we tried and we tried and we didn’t give up, no matter how ill equipped we were or how bad it looked, but we couldn’t fix this disaster. In the end, we stood by weary and heartbroken as she strained to keep her eyes open, begging for each breath as if to say, can’t you see I’m not ready yet?
Which is just precisely how we were all feeling.
We have continued our Thanksgiving tradition every year since Wendy’s passing. Even as I fill my plate, my heart feels a little empty. But as I look around the table, I feel the air shift as her memory surrounds me. “It’ll be fine” she whispers, reminding me that even when disaster strikes and our best and most heartfelt efforts have been in vain, our traditions will guide us back to the bounty of being a family. And when we gather together what we still have left, we can make it like winning the lottery.