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Absence Makes The Heart Grow Thankful (For Not Cooking Among Other Things), Or, Saturday Morning at 7:57am

Fellow Americans, are you cooking Thanksgiving this year? Got it all figured out? Still in denial? That works too.

I’m off the hook. And am as pleased not to be cooking as I am about doing it other years. The mental space ordinarily occupied by organic turkey pre-order schedules is open. In a meadow waiting for the picnickers to arrive, I spread imaginary red-checked tablecloths on the grass, and wait.

Which is a fanciful way of saying I remember other Thanksgivings.

My first memory, I think, is of a dinner at a dining table newly arrived to our house from my father’s mother’s estate. Or, precisely, I remember the brief period after that dinner when I was allowed to sit under the table with our German Shepherd. This was not at all common. Perhaps in my father’s grief he got comfort from his daughter and a dog. Or my parents wanted to drink their wine in peace. Either way. We still sit around that table, maybe I should crawl under and play with my nephew in remembrance.

I spent the first Thanksgiving after my parents’ divorce at my aunt’s house outside East Aurora. She lived in an old converted schoolhouse. The kitchen was large and not at all fancy, but furnished. Imagine a fireplace hung with horse brasses, a couple of worn sofas, an old television. A place for boots. The rest of the house was more formal.

Lawns extended to the horizon.

At one point, still sad and angry about my family, I wandered outside. Might have wanted to be visible in my misery, who knows the topology of a college senior’s emotions? My aunt took me by the elbow and told me it was time to get over myself. In a kind way, if that’s possible. She served overcooked peas in a silver chafing dish. Everything was served that way, if I remember. Just because we have memories doesn’t mean they are correct.

One year, all four grownup siblings and families at my house, my brother insisted on making garlic mashed potatoes. Surely we’ve all got stories of The One Who Would Not Budge. My brother’s a great cook but that year he put in so much garlic, so early in the cooking, that raw allium seared off the skin of our tongues. High WASPs have had to learn to work with garlic. It refuses to get over itself.

One year I introduced a new love to my family. Never invite a crowd to your small house and cook way too many ambitious dishes (thus making young children and people over 80 wait for dinner), in hopes of heartfelt thanks and immediate union around the table.

One year the new love and I honeymooned in Kauai.

Last year my daughter, her boyfriend, my son, my husband and I celebrated here. I designed and printed a menu. The kids did most of the work. My daughter’s boyfriend is good to cook with. Good dinner.

The Hollywood Reporter recently interviewed a set of actresses. Great piece. Charlotte Rampling said of aging and acting, how she got better.

“You become more and more charged with your life and with a life that you’re observing.”

Seems right. We are all more charged with life.

Good luck with your Thanksgiving. At a guess, you couldn’t make more mistakes than I have over the years. Generally someone comes to the rescue.

Have a wonderful weekend. If you are so inclined, I’d love to hear your Thanksgiving stories, charged or not. We’re all in this together.

43 Responses

  1. I am not cooking this year! As much as I enjoy cooking, I have not enjoyed being responsible for big holiday meals year after year! I THOUGHT I was cooking until just last week and then I got a reprieve. Both my 92 year old mother and my 89 year old mother in law live in independent apartments in one of the poshest new retirement communities in Dallas. The chef is quite accomplished and I’ve seen the Thanksgiving menu–more varied and deluxe than I could have done. The dining room is lovely (a pale blue/green with lovely crystal chandeliers) The mothers have invited us to come for the Thanksgiving repast as they know I’ve had a lot on my plate lately. I am very happy! It will not be the same as Thanksgiving at home, but, this year, I am happy to give that up in exchange for my sanity.

    That being said, I do have wonderful fond memories of many Thankgsgivings past. Most of all, I love the big extended family Thanksgivings when my grandmother was still alive and living out at her farm. Everyone brought a dish (my grandmother just provided the house) and it was comparatively easy for everyone. All lived in the vicinity. There were cousins to catch up with, a whole buffet of cakes and pies, and the most important dish of all—cornbread dressing.

    1. @Susan, This sounds lovely. That dining room. And that’s what I like about being this old, one can love both the years full of cooking, and family, and cornbread, and those which are simpler and quieter. I’d love to eat your dressing one day. I bet it’s spectacular.

  2. I’ve hosted the extended family Thanksgiving for the last 18 years, and this year I am Not. Doing. It. Not because I don’t enjoy cooking a turkey (I do) but because I just can’t drum up the energy to plan and clean and polish and set on top of having to work full-time during our busiest week of the year.

    The first time I cooked a turkey (I was 21, I think), I was told to bake until the legs would wiggle. I over-estimated and when I pulled out and tried wiggling, both legs splayed out in overcooked exhaustion. One of my dinner guests stuck his head into the kitchen, saw the state of the bird and remarked, “who spread your eagle?” A little bawdy humor was just the levity I needed at that point.

  3. My older son, his wife, and our only grandchild so far (an exuberant, delightfully goofy 2-and-a-half year old little girl), live in a small Swiss village about a half hour outside of Zurich.

    She is not consistently toilet trained and not very fond of sitting still for any length of time, so airplane travel is out of the question for her, for now.

    Later today, we will be flying to Switzerland to spend Thanksgiving with her.

    I will attempt to cook some semblance of a Thanksgiving dinner in their tiny Swiss oven (too small for a turkey, but turkeys are hard to come by there – and insanely
    expensive anyway).

    So we’ll have chicken instead, and cornbread stuffing with sausage, apples and chestnuts. I’ll also prepare some haricot verts, Julia Child style – with butter lemon and parsley. My son has managed to get some Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. And my daughter-in-law will be making an apple pie.

    I hope we will be creating some happy Thanksgiving memories for our little Granddaughter, and that we will be able to continue to celebrate with her for many, many years!

    1. @Diane, Oh it sounds magical! Are you in a city? On a lake? In the mountains? I bet your granddaughter, wherever she lives, will remember her American Thanksgivings.

  4. The first Thanksgiving that I was “allowed” to cooked dinner for my extended family was about the fifth year of marriage. Two nights before there was an ice storm and no electricity. I took the two toddlers to my sister’s an hour away and came home the next day to ashes everywhere from the wind blowing down the chimney. We had both sets of in_laws, plus all my sisters, my grandmother and aunt. We lived in the country and had recently cancelled propane automatic deliveries in order to save a little in the budget. The husband was charged with always keeping the barbecue-sized tank filled. And yes, two hours into cooking, I realized that the oven was cold. God bless Agway and a lot of hors d’ouevres for saving the day (and the husband’s life) as the turkey was not done until 8:00.

    1. @Loretta, Trial by the opposite of fire! That’s almost too outrageous to believe, but, of course, I believe you completely 100%. I hope you guys laugh about it now.

  5. I’ll always remember the big Thanksgiving dinners with extended family that my parents prepared using all their best china, silver and crystal. My mother had brought her wedding china from China to Boston – an elaborate butterflies and flowers design on a turquoise background. After moving to Hawaii from Washington, DC, my husband and I shared Thanksgiving with friends. Then moving back to Virginia, Thanksgiving became a family affair again with my parents and siblings coming down from Boston. One year, however, my older daughter was studying in Salamanca, Spain so we flew over to celebrate with her and her classmates at a French restaurant in Spain! I think we had wild boar and not turkey. Another year, my younger daughter was working in London, so off we flew for a week in London and celebrated in the only restaurant my daughter could find that served a Thanksgiving dinner, although it did not resemble an American one! This year, it’s all about family but the guests will include my younger daughter’s new in-laws, as well as my older daughter, her husband and my marvelous six-year old grandson. I am excited and grateful to be hosting. Hope you have a lovely Thanksgiving!

    1. @Jane, Oh you too! Have a wonderful one! And I cannot get the image of your mother’s wedding china out of my mind. As though I’ve seen it, which, of course, I haven’t. From what part of China did she come, and when, if I can ask?

    2. @Jane, My mother is from a part of China known as Canton but more specifically from Toishan (sp?) City and came to the U.S. in 1952. Yes, her china is quite striking and beautiful, and I’ve not seen it anywhere else. I think I saw a piece of it on someone’s online photo one time and was quite surprised to recognize it.

  6. As you may guess,I have no Thanksgiving memories at all(except with “Friends”). Hence no mistakes in this department as well. We prepare turkey usually for Christmas
    I enjoyed reading your Thanksgiving memories (except when you were sad) and I think that this is great holiday, all about family,good food and gratitude,of course.
    I hope you have beautiful Thanksgiving,just as you wish!

    1. @dottoressa, THank you:). I am so looking forward to your post here on Advent/Christmas in Croatia. Are you ready to talk about a date? I’ll email you.

  7. Immigrated to the United States in 1999, flew in the day before Thanksgiving with a 4-year old and a 6-month old. Arrived in a nice, but empty apartment with everything still in moving boxes. First Thanksgiving dinner in the US was frozen pizza from the supermarket. We still laugh about it. Cooked (part of a turkey) for 15 years until we all admitted last year that none of us liked turkey, reverted to salmon. This year, my older daughter and (her very American) boyfriend are cooking Thanksgiving dinner for all of us. Mexican food I’ve heard. He must have something against turkey as well. I’ll bake a French apple tart :)

    1. @Marie, Ah I have heard several stories of immigrant families cooking the turkey and then leaving it to sit on the table, uneaten, disdained, while the family ate exactly as they always did on their own country holidays:). Seems fair.

  8. And I thought everyone else enjoyed a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving every year! What memories for all.
    A few years ago, I decided to make a huge feast with recipes collected for months, and much planning. No one liked anything that much, and that was the end of cooking Thanksgiving dinner for me. We dine out at a restaurant that serves a Thanksgiving dinner which everyone loves, and which they eat it all and rave. Go figure. I figure it’s nice to be served, no dishes to wash and everyone is happy. I wish all a very wonderful Thanksgiving celebration! xo

  9. I found your site via your comment to Jennifer at a Well Styled Life. Five years ago, this Christmas Day, my husband died unexpectedly while out for a run. Holidays have been tough since then. Other than my darling James, one of the things I miss most is cooking and preparing the meal and the table.

    This year, one of my best girlfriends since high school has invited me to her home for Thanksgiving. Her mom is a second mother to me, and since my mother died almost a month ago, it will be wonderful to be with “family.”

    My best to you & your family,
    Brenda Coffee

    1. @1010ParkPlace, Oh Brenda, I am so sorry. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have the anniversary of that event coincide with Christmas. And I am very glad you have “family” for Thanksgiving this year.

  10. We are having a very small feast at our cabin up in the Sierras, just me, my husband, and our two daughters. We are used to big, noisy family gatherings, so this will be a little low key for us. Usually, we gather all the family, all the “orphans” we can think to invite, shine up the sparkly stuff and really go for it. I’m sort of looking forward to being up there in the snow, just the four of us. Hopefully, we will have enough snow to at least go snowshoeing.

    1. @Kristina, It’ll be different! Maybe wonderful, maybe less than wonderful, but if that’s the case, then you will appreciate next year if you’re back in the big gathering, all the more. Here’s to snow. Let it snow.

  11. It looks like I will be cooking, but not in my kitchen, instead in an elderly relative’s kitchen. I’m not sure what equipment will be available, who will be there, or anything. My best chance for success: low expectations.

  12. If I were to write my memoirs, I would organize it by chapters entitled “Thanksgiving 1961”, etc. For some reason, it’s the holiday that has followed every big event in my life and so it’s very charged with emotion and memory.

    This year, I’m cooking, as I do every year, and it’ll be my very first Thanksgiving without my mother. It will also be my first with our new grandson.

    1. @Kathy, I wish you a full heart, with the happiness keeping pace with your sense of loss. I hope you are supported and able to follow your heart.

  13. Of course you know that we celebrate Thanksgiving up here in Canada in early October… so no stories, just a question. As a kid…and young grown-up… I was always terribly tired of turkey by the time New Year’s Day rolled around when we had another family turkey dinner, usually at a different house. So my question is…. do you guys generally have turkey on Christmas and New Year’s Day as well? And if so… is it way too much turkey in too short a time frame? Or is turkey more of an exclusive Thanksgiving thing? Can’t believe I’ve lived so close to the US all my life and don’t know the answer to that burning question.

    1. I wonder this as well, Sue — good question! We’d often switch to roast beef for New Year’s, but definitely turkey for Thanksgiving and for Christmas. Not sure I’d want that meal again only a few weeks later. . .

    2. @Sue Burpee, We usually serve a standing rib roast for Christmas. However, one year, being from New England, we had lobster and salad – red and green food!

    3. I had no idea! Thanks so much for asking this question. I’d always just imagined that south of the border Christmas dinners featured the same turkey as we generally have on Canadian tables. The difference is so interesting. . .

  14. My first Thanksgiving Dinner was a nightmare. Newly married and nervous. I was intimidated to be hosting our first big dinner party. We invited my inlaws, (who never liked me) my husbands siblings with spouses and other sundry outlaws. Everything was prepared and ready to go in the oven of our new home, only to find it was broken. Needless to say it was a disaster. And in my young 20+ mind, catastrophic! Today, I’d slap a few things together and laugh it off. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

  15. My most momentous Thanksgiving was the day we brought our second son home from the hospital. My parents invited my husband’s parents to their home for an early dinner, and then they all came to our house to see the new baby. My mother brought turkey and trimmings for us, along with her china and silver so that all we had to do was eat it – just what we needed.

  16. Twenty-five years ago, my adored CA girlfriend invited herself “for Canadian Thanksgiving”- ours is a month earlier. Le Duc said (as usual) he would cook. But French-Canadians do not really celebrate Thanksgiving, so he made something like a veal roast, mashed potatoes, some veg and for dessert, poached pears. She informed him this was NOT a Thanksgiving dinner and returned the next year, when she and I tied on aprons and produced the turkey and eighteen side dish extravaganza. He was bemused, and wondered why people cook all that food they cannot eat.

    We do not cook those huge feasty meals, and when I visit relatives who do, I’m reminded of that tradition.

  17. Ah, the stories I can tell. The first year I hosted Thanksgiving, my husband’s uncle insisted on bringing a cooked turkey. Really, I was quite prepared to cook it but he is such a generous soul, there was no saying no to him. My husband and I were absolutely horrified when uncle showed up with a pre-cooked turkey, as promised, but there was a huge problem. I had been cooked and then FROZEN! With alarm bells ringing in my head, I had a major panic attack as the other guests were due to arrive within a couple of hours and there was absolutely no way that massive Turkey was going to be thawed in time. Plan B was quickly employed – send the boys out to find a cooked turkey, which they did, thanks goodness, at a local grocery store that felt such pity for two helpless men that they sacrificed their cooked turkey, which they planned on selling at the deli bit by bit, and instead sold the entire thing to these two hapless fools. Mind you, it did cost us an arm and a leg but Thanksgiving dinner was served, on time, with a delicious cooked turkey. Phew!

    I wish you and your family a very happy Thanksgiving Lisa, and one without a hitch.

  18. I love my extended family, but not all of them at the same time, and not all in one place. Thanksgiving has tended to bring out the worst in them.

    Fortunately since my husband took a job at a hospital he doesn’t get Friday off. I say fortunately because this has become our perfect excuse not to travel for Thanksgiving. So I cook a 12 for just the four of us (two teenagers, husband, me) plus usually one local friend who has become a Thanksgivng “orphan” as all of her siblings travel to their own in-laws.

    I very much prefer our intimate little Thanskgiving to the large boisterous ones with various boorish uncles and drama queen cousins.

  19. So many Thanksgivings, so many stories…..

    One year, when we were living in So. Cal. and were thoroughly fed up with my husband’s aunt (a brilliant aerospace engineer who had worked on the Apollo program but was by then an impossible alcoholic), we decamped to San Francisco–and went to a wonderful Thai place out in the avenues with a good friend who lived in the city. Had a lovely meal.

    To this day, if someone questions our ability to sidestep ironclad traditions, she will say, “ExCUSE me–have you met us? We had Thai food for Thanksgiving!!”

  20. Supposed to head to Santa Fe tomorrow with youngest daughter. Older daughter will be in Florida with friends. Husband and son are celebrating in Texas. Our only problem is …snow storm expected on Thanksgiving day. So do we take the chance that the roads will be clear to come home on Friday? Stay home and be safe? Considering youngest daughter has hit TWO deer in two different cars in the last ten days, safety sounds like a good idea. But boring. Watching the weather before we make a decision.

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