This morning, Thursday, I creep downstairs, the heat’s smell familiar, the radiators clanking. Freezing rain pelts the roof. The kitchen sink is full of dishes, which I wash. I empty and re-load the dishwasher, make coffee, sponge off the countertops, throw away a withered bouquet that, earlier in the fall, I thought looked charming and now looks only musty. I also toss a few spiky chestnuts, the ones that look like a prickly lion’s mane and hurt when you touch them; they had sat in a plastic bowl on the windowsill since a visit to my husband’s stepsister’s farm eighteen months ago. One mother’s feeble efforts at de-cluttering. I note the many open cookbooks on the island, ingredients for various dishes strewn on every surface. The crew worked late last night, long after I, jet-lagged, had retired. My daughters have already informed me I am no longer permitted to grocery shop because I buy things we do not use in time that go soft and squishy. The girls returned from the East Coast, purged the rotten produce, sanitized the fridge, and gave me my marching orders. I am not in charge.
How long have I made Thanksgiving? Almost thirty years, I guess. There was a Thanksgiving in college when I brought Seth home to my mother’s house. He was the first vegetarian she knew—an exotic creature who would become my husband some years later. We made Thanksgiving with all the trimmings: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, string beans with almonds, several kinds of pie, stuffing, but quiche in place of turkey.
My mother loved my vegetarian beau fiercely, even then, and fretted continuously that Seth might not have enough to eat, a refrain that irritated my sister and me for years. This small bird-like woman who, herself, subsisted on “air pudding and wind-sauce” would plaintively inquire, “What will Seth eat? Will there be enough for Seth?” fussing over her son-in-law in a way she never fussed over either of us. I can’t recall Seth ever starving. My mother, on the other hand, would have been happy with three Triscuit spread with Philadelphia cream cheese and a dot of Worcestershire Sauce. Often, Lee, my sister, and I would have to make a surreptitious run to the grocery store to lay in additional supplies.
That first Thanksgiving, right before dessert, Mom exclaimed, “We forgot the rolls!” There they were in the oven, tiny Pepperidge Farm dinner rolls hardened into weapons. Forgetting the rolls became a family tradition. Some years, our amnesia was so complete that we forgot to buy them or put them into the oven at all. The girls have eliminated them from the menu this year, so we will not forget them.
We often spent Thanksgiving in Eagles Mere in Kuloff, our slightly heated summer home, insulated just enough to manage November as long as the woodstove kept burning and warm sweaters and thick socks were part of every wardrobe. Because there is no supermarket close by, we would stuff the car with every ingredient we might need and drive from Manhattan, offering incantations to avoid traffic. Some years, we would race to the big house, Self Help, which was unheated but had a working oven to accommodate one more pie. Once, a guest made sauerkraut, the scent lingering through the whole house all weekend. It was during the Eagles Mere era that I took over preparations, Mom a better guest than chef. Kerro would drive down from Syracuse to join us, always forced to carve, and Seth would manage all the bits no one else could cope with-- shimming a tilted table, finding a few more chairs, opening recalcitrant lids, lighting the room so that it was lovely. I am a serviceable cook—imaginative, improvisational, rarely bound by recipes, but frequently inspired by them. I like basting the turkey with ginger ale and cider and orange juice. I like whipping cream for pies. I like being together and pausing for a moment to be thankful, but I am no gourmet. My repertoire is basic: turkey, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, stuffing. New recipes for soups or sides get stuffed into a red folder, including a recipe EB gave me years ago for Pumpkin-Chocolate Chip bread, the Thanksgiving morning favorite. Some years ago, the girls took over making that bread and all the pies with Kerro. Kerro, Seth’s and my friend from college and from ETC, is our children’s chosen guardian—though two of them no longer require a legal guardian—he is the secret ingredient—close enough to know us well, our foibles, neuroses and frailties—and provider of comic relief, calm, and gravy-making. His presence doesn’t always ensure our good behavior, but it helps.
Time passes. This is our thirteenth year in Shaker Heights. For the most part, we have made Thanksgiving at in our home, christened Lyman House, long ago in honor of the school’s formidable headmistress who lived out her days here in this home that was built for her. Kerro is always the featured guest along with whomever else we can find willing to celebrate with our family. Seth mounted his annual campaign to eat Chinese food; he doesn’t see the point of all the fuss for one meal and too many leftovers. He sees me chopping, my cheeks the color of pomegranate from the heat, my feet swelling, my temper fraying as the day unravels. The girls and Atticus outvote him, declaring him curmudgeonly and misanthropic, when I suspect he was just trying to decrease the opportunity for drama. I have a trip for school to England, so I can’t shop or prep this year.
“We’ll do it,” the girls declare, since I will return late on Wednesday night. And they do. They start a Google doc and make shopping lists. They fight the holiday crush to get to Cleveland, breathless, one late on Tuesday night and the other, having missed her flight, on Wednesday morning. They clean the fridge; they shop. They are a force.
“Mom,” Miranda exclaims to me on the telephone from Whole Foods as I wait for our connecting flight at JFK yesterday, “This is so stressful. I mean--it’s a lot of work to make Thanksgiving. You did it all those years. I didn’t realize.” She is the age I was when I first began to make Thanksgiving.
We order Chinese food and sit around the table in shifts last night: Miranda, Cordelia, Atticus, Seth and Kerro and Eva and Linne, maybe Katie, though I fall asleep before she appears. There is mess and there is bounty. The two indoor cats have to be shut up in another room because they want to leap onto the table. We eat fortune cookies and laugh. I droop from the long trip. Our girls and Eva have a spreadsheet and a time-table. This morning, in a few hours, they will wake. One will go to yoga; they will all go to the supermarket at least once more. I may be pressed into service to make stuffing or to set the table—or not. I am happy to bask in their competence, to play sous chef, to wash the dishes and praise and admire. They are in charge.