Hominy & Hash
AWAITING THE GHOST OF THANKSGIVING
by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- The ghost in the kitchen is there whenever adults gather together around a table set for Thanksgiving Dinner, the spirit of the one who graced the kitchens of their childhoods. It doesn't matter if the diners are siblings sharing the same thoughts, or friends, or strangers at a soup kitchen in the inner city, or travelers stopping in a restaurant for the "Thanksgiving Special" - their ghosts are there.
My ghost hovered as I prepared the special dinner for our then growing family - another plate each year, it seemed. It was she who grabbed my shoulder a split second after saying Grace to remind me, somehow, the creamed onions were still in the microwave. My dinner was as near a carbon copy of hers as I could come. I know, I know, I used instant mashed potatoes while she peeled hers until her knuckles were raw, but I make no apologies.
I can hear this ghost of Mama "tsk tsk" when she sees John clear the table and do the dishes but I "tsk tsk" right back at her remembering Papa never lifted a finger to help.
This year, John and I are going to New York to join friends with their family for dinner and to get back to our roots, so to speak. Our own children are launched into their own traditions with their own children. It's no longer a sleigh ride through the woods to Grandma's house for the festive dinner, so we'll fly off for a brisk weekend of autumn leaves, a snowflake or many, holiday lights and good friends.20
Funny thing about ghosts, they come along for the ride. At home, my mother's presence used to vie for position in the kitchen with John's sainted Grandma who wouldn't serve Thanksgiving dinner without rutabaga. Today I got a note from Jane asking if there were anything special we'd like and, if so, she'd prepare it.
Since I'm convinced John's Grandma's ghost urged Jane to ask, I decided to tell her all about John's "need" for rutabaga at Thanksgiving. I served it every year while the children said in unison, "Oh, yuk." Farmers preserve them all year coated with heavy wax. It's no easy chore to get that skin off, cut the vegetable into chunks for faster boiling and then have a steamy kitchen because they still take so long to cook.
I certainly told Jane it was optional and I won't tell John at all in case she opts out, but, frankly, it's worth the airfare to New York to think someone else might prepare that yearly rutabaga.
I once asked a Thanksgiving guest if she had any favorite dish she looked forward to. "Oh, yes, I do," said this delightful girl from South Carolina. "I just must have okra ... and, of course, cornbread stuffin' in the turkey. That's Thanksgiving to me."
Hmmm, thought I. Now, what the heck is okra? I was glad to learn Del Monte knows what it is and I bought four cans. Once drained, placed in a baking pan, covered with a cornbread batter and heated through while the corn bread baked, it was not only a nice edition to dinner but I learned to enjoy okra.
Dressing the turkey, though, gets personal. No amount of persuasion will allow me to tinker with Mama's stuffing. It is a plain bread stuffing with onions, celery, butter and Bell's Turkey Seasoning. Bell's: Since 1867. I'll acknowledge my mother's maiden name, Bell, may have something to do with it but it's the best there is. I have five boxes and only use two tablespoons a year.
John will point out recipes for stuffing with chestnuts, oysters, apples, walnuts, etc., and I almost cry. Instead, I say: "If I thought you would expect me to alter Mama's turkey dressing, I would never have married you." And, my mother is right behind me in her ghostly presence pointing an invisable finger at him for suggesting such a thing.20
I never altered the tradition handed down in my family, and gladly included the rutabaga from John's, but in our immediate family, there is nothing new. Unless, of course, you consider naming the turkey.20
When little Maggie joined us for Thanksgiving dinner, she told us her other grandmother's turkey had a name. As I recall, it was Sylvester. We'd pass folded notes with our suggestions and Maggie would pick out the winner. It's a joy filled moment when we read the losers. As the family of grandchildren grew, "Elmo" made it into the name game. A new tradition was born. And, as our families blend, traditions will expand.
Thanksgiving has come to mean more than thanking God for a bountiful harvest, although we do remember to say that with sincere appreciation for our blessings. But there's more to it at our house and one day I'll hover in the kitchens of my children and remind them that the time is now.
After we all sit down and as the food is being passed and served, one person will begin telling all the things they are thankful for in the past year and in life as it is this moment in time. Things we never say out loud to each other but feel all the time, are spoken unabashedly.
From one to the other, we share our gratitude. We laugh, we cry, usually at the same time, we love and we feel warm all over, just for being together. And, the food disappears as the one person has our attention and serves to remind us all of other things we might not have thought of when it's our turn to speak.
As sons-in-law and daughers-in-law join the family, they fit right in to the love we feel for each other. As for the grandchildren, that goes without saying. They might each want the wishbone and we can remember the exact moment we wanted it, too.
Is it any wonder memories of Thanksgiving, when each of us was with people we loved, that the memories return? We find an old yearning to speak our love out loud, the remembered scents of sage and thyme, the shimmer of cranberry sauce, all trigger what was truly our own place in time. We were family - and as long as the ghosts in the kitchen hold us tightly to tradition - we always will be.
We won't be with our children this year, but, mark my words, I'll be hovering.