Adrastos’ late mother in her Chicago heyday.
The holidays are hard for me. I like Thanksgiving’s gluttonous aspects but it’s still hard for me. It’s when I think of my mother who died 16 yeas ago. My mother was the sort of person who took in strays for the holidays. We’d have up to 20 people around the table; some of whom were friends of friends of friends. Mom believed that everyone should have a home cooked meal on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many of our guests for Christmas dinner were, in fact, Jewish. No Chinese food for her Jewish friends.
Mom spent the day before Thanksgiving and the day of cooking away. She was a perfectionist when it came to entertaining: no holiday buffets for her. We had to gather around the table and it had to have a starched white table-cloth. There were no paper plates or people eating whilst milling about: fine china, silver, and crystal were mandatory for the holidays. She was informal the rest of the year but holidays were state occasions when, as my father was wont to say, we put on the dog.
When I got old enough, one of my jobs was to set the table. I made sure that Mom had final approval: she wanted everything just so. I recall feeling triumphant one Thanksgiving: I’d set the table perfectly on the first try. There were usually changes but not that year. I was inordinately proud of myself but she admonished me not to get too cocky. It was the Midwestern Norwegian Lutheran in her coming out. She left the bragging to my dad. It’s what Greeks do, y’all. Not me, of course, other Greeks…
I also helped make a fresh cranberry/orange sauce from the recipe on the back of the Ocean Spray bag. We had a venerable hand-cranked grinder that had to be attached to the kitchen table. We spread newspaper around it because it was messy. There was a bucket at my feet to catch the bitter red cranberry drippings. Mom was not sentimental about her kitchen gadgets: she bought a food processor the first time she saw one. I was away from home and past the cranberry grinding, table setting phase of my life by then.
My favorite part of the traditional turkey dinner was the stuffing. I looked forward to it every year. It was loaded with herbs as well as pine nuts and chestnuts. We didn’t exactly roast them on an open fire but I helped shell the bastards. They were uncooperative, downright surly, actually. When I was really young, I was convinced they were alive but my no-nonsense mother disabused me of that notion. She informed me that I’d seen the Wizard of Oz one too many times. As usual, she was right.
Unfortunately, there was often conflict at the dinner table during the holidays. I’m the youngest of three by thirteen years. My sisters were off living life and I was raised more like an only child. I admit to liking it that way. My oldest sister thrives on drama and conflict. There was always one big row per holiday, which drove my poor mother crazy. She was always the woman in the middle. When she died, so did our nuclear family for reasons too complex to go into. The good news is that holidays are more tranquil but I miss the glue of my family.
Thanksgivings in Louisiana had a familiar feel when I moved here. It’s all about the food, y’all. I married into an old Louisiana family and learned some new traditions. What’s not to love about oyster dressing? I still missed my mom’s stuffing. It was a part of me.
My first wife was a petite, feisty, beautiful, and brilliant spitfire. She took the idea of being a redhead seriously: she had a temper to match my own. Her mother took me in as one of her own but made it clear that when we moved to Baton Rouge, we’d have to tie the knot. Unfortunately, my wife’s family tree was a witches brew of genetic maladies and she died of cancer during what should have been her final year at LSU Law School.
She passed away a week before Thanksgiving so the holidays were rough sledding for me until I met and fell in love with the tall, feisty, beautiful, and brilliant woman known to you as Dr. A. The good news is that Dr. A and my mother-in-law instantly hit it off and she was admitted to the Louisiana family post-haste. It was Dr. A who started calling our Louisiana family the outlaws and the nickname stuck.
We spent many holidays with the outlaws in Red Stick over the years and are about to do so again. My mother-in-law has left the comfortable house that she shared with her late second husband Eddie to whom I pay tribute every Memorial Day. She’s 96 now and lives at St. James Place, which is a somewhat posh retirement community. We’ll be eating in the dining room but it’s still pretty darn homey: we’ve gotten to know many of the residents over the last decade. I am lucky that Dr. A and mother-in-law #1 get on so well. She is also a howling liberal (to use her own phrase) so there will be no Trump-driven conflict.
In recent years, we’ve expanded our Thanksgiving plans exponentially to what amounts to a triple-header. We have lunch in Red Stick, then it’s back to New Orleans for dinner with our friends Jennifer and Will and finally, unless we’re too wiped out, a nightcap with our de facto family: Cait, Dave, and the child army. It’s a sticky end to a long day and now I’m committed. I hope Dr. A won’t be too vexed with me but I fear the wrath of Cait as well as retribution from the child army of darkness.
I sat down to write a brief, nostalgic food-centric post and ended up explaining my tangled family tree. So it goes. I never hide the fact that I was a widower at a young age but I only tell people when asked how I came to the Gret Stet of Louisiana from California. It’s a long and painful story but I’m fortunate to have married well twice.
Family by choice are the best family of all but I still miss my mother. She could dance on my last nerve, but I miss our long conversations and teasing her about her crazy dog Brutus.
Mothers are powerful. They have the ability to make you revert to childhood. I know that many of your mothers get on your nerves. It’s what they do. Shrug it off and remember that they won’t always be with you. Around the holidays is when I miss my mom and Dr. A misses her charming, beautiful, and eccentric mother. Mother-in-law #2, however, was not a good cook and expected us to consume the radishes she’d lovingly cut. I hate radishes but her company was the best.
The last word goes to Fairport Convention with the gorgeous Richard Thompson song that gave this post its title:
Here’s another one from the songwriter. It’s a day for gluttony, after all:
Pulp Fiction Thursday will return next week.