I knew the day was coming, and tried to keep my voice cheery as I zipped his parka, handed off his Ninja Turtle backpack, and sent my 4-year-old off with his father. Freshly divorced, and newly navigating the every-other-holiday thing, I kissed my boy good-bye and squeezed his mittened hand one more time. He took his cues from me, and although bio-Dad was consistently inconsistent with visitation, and I had not yet met (or even imagined) the man-who-would-be-Hubbs, I needed to keep my act together so my little guy would be OK.
Shutting the door, I stood in the darkened entry and watched them drive away, a wave of sadness fell over me. It felt like the wettest blanket on the coldest night. It was a rainy, dreary Wednesday afternoon in western Connecticut. My family was a million miles away in Canada and I’d been too busy
surviving working to have made plans. At least he would only be gone for the weekend, and knowing the other one, probably coming home early. I looked around our sparse apartment, at my pull-out sofa in the living room, his bunk beds and toys in the bedroom. My eyes landed on our small table with two chairs, at books and Play-Doh from earlier play.
Calling Mom, we chatted for a while and caught up on the goings on there. I heard her attempts at a cheerful voice, knowing we were so far away, and that I was by myself tonight. When she asked what I’d be doing for the Holiday, I sputtered out something about being invited to a friend’s apartment. “Oh, that’s good, dear. You should go, there’s no need to be by yourself, and, well, we’d feel better if you did.” She was right, of course, but there was about a .001% of me that wanted to go out and meet new people. I promised her I’d think about it.
Later that night my friend Dee called. Practically begging, she admitted her parents were coming, too, and “you know how my Dad can be.” Yes, I’d met them both, they were European, on-again-off-again as a couple, the Mom, quiet and nervous, the Dad, critical and imposing. I knew she needed a buffer and, quite frankly, I suddenly had a need to get out of that apartment. We agreed I’d be there mid morning the next day.
Upon arrival, I learned she’d also invited the “strays” ~ anyone in her building who didn’t have a place to be or family to spend the Holiday with. Wow!
We quickly set to work peeling potatoes, setting a card table & chairs at the end of the kitchen table, scrounging around for Fast Food napkins, extra plates, plastic cutlery, tablecloths and a couple of old candles. She turned on the radio – with a countdown of sorts, a mixture of Motown and Classic Rock, fun. The turkey simmered in the oven, and the aroma, unmistakable.
Next she announced we had turnips to prepare ~ her crusty Dad had a thing for buttered turnips, except she had no clue how to peel the waxy layer off of it and neither did I. We managed to get a steak knife
stuck embedded in that thing more than once. Laughing, we developed a rhythm, but we were more like Lucy and Ethel than Fred and Ginger. I peeled carrots and steamed them with peas, poured off the turkey drippings to make gravy, and mashed the potatoes. She stirred corn and cream and butter together, microwaved Stove-Top Stuffing. We ran into each other more than once. Yep, Lucy and Ethel.
Soon guests began arriving ~ old and young, a shy woman with a bright-eyed toddler and no mention of the father, a married couple from Venezuela, she with lovely accent, his hand on the small of her back. My friend’s son and his girlfriend, her parents and me, and Ivan, the lanky maintenance man with a heavy Russian accent, a shy smile and two bottles of vodka. Everyone streamed in, offering what they had, ~ buttery Seafood Paela, a cheesecake, Wine, chocolates, sausage, pickles and cheese. We sent her son to 7-11 for more plates and paper products while her Dad took a seat to carve the turkey. Her Mom, a bit tipsy from the vodka, chatted animatedly with Ivan. We all found a seat on uneven and mismatched chairs, making small talk, clanking glasses,and savoring the moment. I was in and out, serving, and bringing more to share.
It was there, grabbing another bowl of something in my friend’s kitchen, when I remembered that I’d forgotten about being sad. About being far from home. I felt a tug ~ a love of cooking I’d not experienced in years. See, since the divorce, I’d been getting by on “functional cooking” — cooking to live, cooking to check the box. Day-to-day. No joy, no creativity. This was different. This effort, stirring the gravy and mashing turnips in a new-to-me kitchen – transported me to my mother’s kitchen. To Holiday meals and Mom’s and my Grandmother’s tables so lovingly prepared one couldn’t feel anything but gratitude at being included. To feelings of warmth and happiness and appreciation for everything – the love and the labor, the sweat and the tears, that went into it creating so much magic for all of us. It was in that moment, on that unorthodox Holiday, when I felt my love of cooking re-ignite. It was there, tasting the turnips, that I gave thanks.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Flash forward to now: After a visit with our grand-daughter at school yesterday morning, my son and I enjoyed a brief lunch together. He’s no longer that little tow-headed boy, he towers over me by a foot, and has a family of his own. He helps them with their mittens and coats. Full circle.
I told him the story of my unorthodox Thanksgiving holiday so long ago, and how I thought we would all be well served to experience a holiday like that. I told him that getting through that helped me appreciate where I’m from, and the traditions we enjoy today.
He gently teased me about my “holiday marathons” ~ I pointed out that when I start cooking 2-3 days ahead of the holiday, it’s because I want to.
And when I decorate the table well before anybody steps foot through the door, I channel all of them: my Mom, My Grandmother, and the other wonderful women of my childhood who did such things for me.
- Did you ever spend a holiday in an unconventional way? What do you remember from the experience?
- What traditions are you carrying forward?