Navigating new territory with no device on the dash...
It is not until I come up to that familiar hill that the idea of it all strikes me; I am going to my parent’s house for Thanksgiving, as usual…but, there will be no parents there. I have an inkling that perhaps a professional colleague was right: maybe don’t go there…order a package deal from the grocery store…or go out? “Or hop a cruise ship and eat Spam?” I replied with tongue in cheek. But my youngest brother had suggested “the house” (which now legally belongs to my oldest brother) and so I took great pains for the day, trying to think of everything my mother would have thought of…and the men would not…and then some:
I had started with what I knew best: pies. There was Mom’s “secret” piecrust recipe for my homemade mince that my oldest brother anticipates yearly, and my crumb-topped French apple and the pumpkin adorned with shiny hand-cut leaves. They turned out to be works of art this year – inspiration from heaven. The second thing I knew best: ambiance (my brothers told me it was all mine!). I inherited the family silver, but all the china remained at the house. Tablecloth? Centerpiece? Candles? Napkins? Condiments? Servers and potholders and pots and pans? A mixer, a masher, a gravy boat? My list was sounding like an old-fashioned nursery rhyme and I packed it all up like a Conestoga wagon with cloth carry bags and baskets and Rubbermaid containers. Like moving up a company ladder - ready or not - I found my usually relaxed pace of a holiday morning transfigured and I would not know until I got there if I had packed too little…or too much…
I arrive at the house; my brother says he spent the entire day yesterday vacuuming and dusting. The dining table is out; its brown table pads are lying naked like a patient waiting to be attended to. My tablecloths are too short for the leaves - my brother doesn’t know where Mom’s tablecloths are – but like experienced stagehands, my elder son and I make scenery appear. I go to my mother’s kitchen, her cabinets still familiar to me even after all these years, albeit my brother has had the fortitude to throw out the burnt, the broken, and the hopelessly obsolete. I discover that somehow, as the only daughter of an only daughter, instincts and tradition suddenly kick in on automatic pilot. And without much compunction, I ease in some changes. I stand at my mother’s sink peeling organic yellow potatoes, smiling about how hers were lumpy and ordinary because they were too-much-work-why-else-would-they-have-figured-out-how-to-put-them-in-a-box? She also puzzled annually about how to keep food warm at the table, but eschewed my idea of purchasing warming dishes like she was going to come up with an easier way for an easier way without buying something new. As if to tease my critiquing, a little gray mouse motored across the floor but I chided him in return by informing him I used coupons to buy the warming dishes…so there!
What’s more, I tell the mouse, I have been kindly ushered in by strangers to this new way of celebrating holidays. At Bed, Bath and Beyond, I had circled around the island display of serving dishes, electric and candle-powered, setting my sights on a white ceramic set that matched my French White Corning ware at home. They would be perfect – and practical enough for Mom – but the shelf was empty. A store worker came by and seemed only too glad to help. He searched around the stock shelves, wheeled two over and gave me the cart. My face must have lit up; I thanked him and he added cheerfully “It was my pleasure! I hope you enjoy your holiday!” which is what I expect store workers are trained to do, but he appeared much more sincere than that. Then, at the grocery store, as close to Thanksgiving as I dared, the path to the deli was gridlocked, an elderly woman was proceeding like a slow-moving vehicle in a passing lane because another pair of women were chatting obliviously on the shoulders; the man that had entered the store about the same time I did joined in this bumper car venue along with me. He edged his way to the number dispenser, pulled out a tag, turned around and handed it to me with a smile. I was taken aback, not by his action, but by the doubt that perhaps I had not appeared as outwardly phlegmatic as I had thought. With straightened shoulders, I put in my deli order expediently. Later, while looking over the squash, the man touched me on the shoulder and with his well-padded cheeks up to his eyebrows, said “You have a nice holiday now.” Two men, two different skin colors, neither one with mien that would turn a lady’s head, perhaps appearing like Clarence Oddbodies to remind me of something lost.
At the end of the day, nothing important is lost. After a cooperative (if not disquieting) search it is my oldest son who triumphantly holds up the yellow gravy boat from where my mother had put it last. I remember to check the high cabinet in the stairwell for the tablecloths. And like new heirs we sit in our parents’ chairs: one brother in my father’s, I in my mother’s. We say grace and most heartily thank our parents for being our parents. My grandmother would promise every year to do something in the next, God-willing, and with a collective, not-evolved-yet groan, we would push her crystallizing words away like a snowball down a hill, not cognizant that she was (in her very Polish way) molding a handle for us to take with natural grace. We start passing plates; I am here by inertia, like a vending product filling the empty slot up front.
There is one more thing to do. The dishwasher conked out long ago, my parents believing a new one at that point in their lives unnecessary, and I ceremoniously wash the china and silverware in the sink, distracting my brother with small-talk. My mother shooed away would-be assistants, and I remember seeing her back as she faced the yellow-flowered wallpaper under the fluorescent light in an almost meditative glow. What did she think about?
I am warm with satisfaction on the drive home. I think about doing a good thing for my brothers. I think about getting this first holiday “just right”. I think about my parents giving us the thumbs up.