Thanksgiving nostalgia is a special kind, particularly as we get older. I hold close my memories of the parade on TV in the morning, throwing football outside in the cold with my big brother, mom smacking my uncle’s hand as he picked at the stuffing in the turkey as soon as it came out of the oven, the dreaded “What are you thankful for this year?”, eating sandwiches only minutes after the meal was finished, everybody passing out on couches, chairs, and the floor, just happy to be full and together as a big happy family, which we seemed capable of achieving only on this one special occasion each year. They have become not just memories of those specific holidays, but also my lasting memories of those family members who are no longer with us.
For my Mom’s final Thanksgiving, which my wife and I hosted in our Brooklyn apartment on the day before our city-hall wedding, joined by my brother and his growing family, my mom and dad and soon to be in-laws, I orchestrated the whole symphony, from hand shucked oysters through an assortment of homemade pies for dessert. It was the best turkey I’d ever cooked, smoked outside our apartment, and the stuffing was a triumph.
My mom had a brain tumor and by this point she’d already lost complete mobility to half of her body. This left her unable to help with any of the cooking, which she had forever done, and which I knew was difficult for her not to participate in.
At every one of the many Thanksgivings I spent with my family, which is to say the family I had before I got married and started a new one of my own, I spent the morning of Thanksgiving, or sometimes the night before, picking bread for stuffing. It was a ritual I started helping mom with at a very young age, so young I can’t even remember how old I might have been.
As I grew older, not only did the pile of breadcrumbs grow with me, but I began helping with more and more of the many tasks involved in orchestrating the Thanksgiving symphony my mother so masterfully conducted each November. Before you knew it, I was carving the bird at the table.
That last year with my mom was the first year I truly came to understand what it was to cook a Thanksgiving dinner, and I don’t just mean all the work, sweat and stress. As I cooked throughout the day, I often took a look over at Mom, who was in and out of sleep, but when awake, clearly very happy, not only to be once again with her big happy family, but to see the results of the cooking lessons and good examples she had given for so many years to her sons.
Here was a magnificent family event unfolding, grandchildren present (one of whom may have burned his little hand on a hot open oven), my wife and her family, who would become a part of ours less than 24 hours later and she finally got to just sit back and take it all in, and enjoy the fruits of her labor, along with a heaping pile of stuffing.
Some of the pride she had always felt in bringing the family together around a wonderful meal was now rubbing off on me, and as hard as it was to pull off that miracle of a Thanksgiving, I would be lying if I didn’t say it was one of the highlights of my life.
Mom was there the next day for the best deal I ever got on Black Friday, when I married my amazing wife. She hung in there for a few more months, squeezing out every last moment of joy she could with her still growing family. Although she never got to actually meet our son, they still share a bond that’s hard to describe, maybe from the time we all spent together while he was in the womb. Hearing our son shout “Grandma Didi” even though he never met her, brings a tear to my eye every time.
A few days after Mom passed away, just over two years ago, I found a note she had written to herself during a time of hardship. As she worked through a period of great loneliness, she wrote about what had been most meaningful to her in life.
In it she spoke proudly of her two sons whom she said had brought great joy into her life as soon as they were born, and that despite being far away from them with visits rather infrequent, they continued to be a great source of happiness and pride for her. She also recounted how heartwarming it was to receive a text message from one of her boys about a new recipe he had just tried, and how proud she felt that both of her sons now took joy in cooking for their families in the same way that she had for them.
Reading the note, I could feel the warmth of her smile break through the cold Maine air, as she proudly reflected on the time she’d spent letting her little boys stir the sauce, roll the meatballs, and of course pick the bread for Thanksgiving Stuffing.
My son spent his first Thanksgiving up at my childhood home in Maine, last November. We spent a lot of time thinking about Mom as we passed a lovely but very cold holiday up at the farm.
Mom’s brother came to join us for dinner, and I pulled out all the stops. Everything came to the table hot. The turkey was juicy and delicious, and the gravy was my best ever. I believe we had a consensus at the table, that the highlight, as always, was the stuffing. Even our son, at less than a year old, seemed to agree.
This year, I’ll ask him to pick the bread, just like my mom did with me. Maybe I can carry on the tradition of having the men of the family be the best cooks in the house. I know she would be proud of that.