In the typical fashion of immigrant child, I waited a few years and then took over. Not with the cooking—a large turkey was still beyond my 9-year-old self. But with the rituals. I dutifully read from my grade-school textbooks the story of the pilgrims and Indians, as they were then called. I made everyone at the table try to pronounce the word Mayflower in a way that sounded more like how my teacher said it. This was something like telling the story of Moses at Passover—it involves a hero, some suffering, and the founding of the nation. It still felt a little strange and suspiciously Christian to us, but at least we had something to do every year.
My mother, who was at home dying of cancer last fall, would have given thanks to have died before Thanksgiving—not because she didn't love Thanksgiving, but because the holiday had always also been fraught with stress for her as the chief operating officer of the kitchen. This time she couldn't possibly be part of the preparations, which came as a huge relief, but she also couldn't bear the thought of being utterly peripheral to them. The end hadn't arrived by Thursday, so she spent the day with just my sister, away from smells that nauseated her and from familiar commotion that she feared she would haunt from her hospital bed upstairs. At home with my husband and kids, we struggled on our own, but the challenge of the gravy acquired new, well, gravity.
My mother made a fine turkey, delicious stuffing, the unfancy pumpkin pie I like best, but her talent for gravy-making was astonishing. I had her instructions on a card, and some part of me aspired to match her skill. But another part of me didn't, and never will. This year, like last year, as I stand at the stove, miming her well-remembered whisking motions and worrying the liquid just doesn't look or taste right, I will miss her more than I can say.
My mother died on Christmas of 2008 so last Thanksgiving was my family's first without her. (I wrote about the strange intensities of grief in the aftermath of her death in Slate.) I was dreading the holiday, because I associated Thanksgiving with the start of her final decline. And I knew about what psychologists call "anniversary reactions"—the upswellings of acute grief on meaningful anniversaries or holiday. Making it worse, my mom was a great cook. She and my dad went all-out on Thanksgiving—sharing the labor, preparing the days before—and usually I'd arrive home on Thanksgiving morning to find cranberry sauce cooling in white ceramic-ware on the kitchen table, and several kinds of pie; she had been a pastry cook at one point and her cheesecake rivaled Junior's. But her apple pie was the thing I loved. It had a delicate, flaky crust. I wasn't sure what kind of Thanksgiving we were going to have; my younger brothers and I are not very good cooks, and I couldn't imagine my dad doing all the cooking.
But before our mother died, she left all of us a recipe book, in which she and my dad had written out their recipes and instructions. So I found myself deciding to make the apple pie, and going through the pie-making step by step, following her words, while my brothers also pitched in to help our dad cook vegetables and mashed potatoes. Along the way, my mother had left out one crucial piece of information, and, absorbed in my task, in that moment, I actually raised my head to call out to her, as if she were just lingering upstairs. This was bittersweet. But making the pie made me feel that she was still connected to that day. It was not as good as hers by any stretch, but the crust was decent and the apples were nicely tart. After my youngest brother ended up spontaneously making a maple-upside-down-cake, we ended up with as much dessert as ever—and what could have been a bitter day ended up with a note of sweetness I hadn't expected. This must sound sentimental, but what astonished me, frankly—I'm not much of a foodie—was just how powerfully the act of cooking connected us all and made the holiday seem truly full of thanksgiving, rather than merely replete with loss.
It's funny to be coming from a reasonably blank slate and going into such a huge wealth of possible future tradition. I have four kids. It's hard to imagine then grown up enough to cook their own turkeys (or, in three cases, even open their own popsicles), but they will be. They will be Noreen, coming home to compete with one another over the Brussels sprouts (which I grew because I like to grow food, not in order to be insufferable about), or maybe Jess, counting on me to smoke the turkey well into my second century (sounds good), and eventually Ann, but I think I won't go there. They will never be Emily Y., I hope. (What IS a dried fruit compote? Seriously, someone asked you to bring that? I'm not sure if you eat it, or use it as a centerpiece.)
Or, if I keep pretending this is just another meal, they will be me, shrugging off any family obligations and scattered all over the place, with no intention of coming anywhere near me and my can of cranberry sauce. That is not the goal. This is the year they're all finally old enough to be more than just trouble in the kitchen. The youngest is 4, and I feel like I can breathe again, and certainly cook without balancing someone on my hip. It's probably time to start traditions—to teach Sam pie crust, maybe, and give Lily the job I always had: the rolls (I always did roll a mean Pillsbury crescent). And to listen to them. They want stuffing, the same stuffing I made last year, not some foofy stuffing from a magazine, the stuffing from the bag of cornbread crumbs just like my mom makes. They want to make turkeys to decorate the table. They want to say what they're thankful for; they don't find that cheesy at all. Maybe it's time to at least play at having a real Thanksgiving—the kind you'd actually want to come home for someday. I may have to spring it on my husband, though. I think he's planning to clean the basement.