Her Last Thanksgiving
It seems like it was a lifetime ago, and yesterday, all at the same time. It was the night before Thanksgiving, 1992.
My mother had been released from the hospital that day, having spent ten days in first the critical care unit before being moved to a private room. Her struggle to regain her strength after a spring and summer filled with chemotherapy and radiation had been rocky, at best. She was just not bouncing back the way we all thought she would, or should.
Despite everyone's protests, it was my mother's idea to still hold Thanksgiving dinner. While she couldn't do the cooking, she said, she would help us all create the meal that she would normally be putting on the table. She was cheerful but firm in her request. We weren't going to sit in some restaurant and complain about how things weren't just right; we were going to have Thanksgiving at home, the way we always did. Dammit.
My mother gave us our shopping list: packaged (and seasoned) bread crumbs, celery, onions, mushrooms, potatoes, turkey breast, Crescent rolls, green beans, unsalted butter, cream of mushroom soup, fried onions, fresh cranberries, Knox gelatin envelopes, canned gravy and cranberry sauce, and pies from her favorite bakery.
First, she coached us on the cranberry sherbet appetizer that her mother always made. "This is simply what you have at Thanksgiving," she told us. Following her instructions, I cooked the cranberries, strained them through a sieve, and mixed them with sugar and gelatin to freeze. "Now you have to use the hand mixer every few hours on this," she cautioned. "You can't let it go overnight," she cautioned. "You have to set your alarm and get up and mix it a few times. Otherwise, you'll have cranberry ice, not cranberry sherbet." My sister and I dutifully nodded and I placed the glass Pyrex pan in the freezer.
"You have to do the sherbet and the stuffing the night before," she told us. "The potatoes, green beans and turkey can all be done the next day. Do the turkey, and while it is cooking, assemble the green beans. When you put the green beans in the oven, you start boiling the potatoes. You can mash them while the turkey rests."
We nodded again, knowing she'd be there tomorrow to point us in the right direction anyway. The recipe for the green beans, thankfully, was on the can of fried onions. And I'd boiled and mashed potatoes plenty of times.
So, the stuffing. I had always watched my mother create her delicious stuffing, so this year I offered to take point and do the heavy lifting while she sat on a chair next to me in the kitchen.
"First, you chop the onions and put them in the pan with a stick of melted butter. I know it sounds like a lot, and it probably is, but it's Thanksgiving. Then while those are cooking, chop up the celery and add that. Then mushrooms."
I carefully did what was asked, seeing in my mind's eye the millions of times I'd snuck a few of the onions and celery and mushrooms as they cooked until they were soft and tender.
“Now you add the bread crumbs. Did you get the kind that have the sage seasoning in them? Always get the kind that have the seasoning. Otherwise it’s too bland. OK, and pour the water in there. You can use chicken broth too, but I never seem to remember that until I’m standing there pouring water in it. And there’s so much seasoning in there already that it doesn’t really seem to matter.”
I followed her instructions, trying to remember them. I’d seen my mother do all of this at least a dozen times. Why did it feel different this time?
“Now you want it really soft, so if there are still some crumbs that are hard, you need more water. Press down on it. See? You need more water. Use warm water, that will get absorbed faster.”
I realized why it felt different. Before, my mother was always going about her business, and not trying to teach me how to make the recipe. She was just making it herself, as she’d done many times before and as she knew she would many times again. But this time, she was trying to be sure I’d remember what she was saying, how she would do it. It felt like she wasn't just coaching me. It was like she wanted me to remember all of this well past tomorrow.
“Good. Now we’ll put this in the fridge overnight. I asked you to only get a breast, because that's so much easier to cook. So you'll put all of this in a buttered dish in the morning and bake it off while the turkey cooks. You can do it that way, even if you have a regular turkey. I usually do that with the overflow, but I prefer to have the stuffing cook in the bird. I know people say it can be a problem, but there’s just nothing like the way it absorbs the bird’s juices and takes on the flavor of the turkey. Plus all the seasoning in it gives the bird some flavor too. Either way is good.”
She was trying to teach me how to make Thanksgiving dinner so I'd remember how to make it all next year. Without her. She wasn’t sure she’d be here next year to show me.
I looked at my mother, blinking fast.
She hugged my shoulders as I stirred. “It’s OK. It’ll be OK,” she whispered.
Every year when I make the stuffing, or blend the cranberry sherbet, or look again at the can for the recipe for the green beans, or miss that bakery my mother always ordered her pies from, I think of that Thanksgiving eighteen years ago. And while I miss my mother still, every day, I love that I am able to bring her instructions to the table again and again, every year.
Want to read more? Check out my year long journey back in time at My Former Life.