Tomorrow is Thanksgiving 2011, and it marks the fifth year I have made the Thanksgiving dressing for my family gatherings. I am a self-proclaimed “not very good” cook, so I don’t know why I ever volunteered to make the dressing in the first place. I think it was because in 2006 my mother was getting too weak to do much cooking. A year before, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she had contracted the West Nile virus, and it had taken a toll on her strength. Maybe I volunteered because I wanted to learn how. Whatever reason, I went to her house to make the dressing. Of course by the time I got there she had already done most of the prep work and made the cornbread so there wasn’t much left for me to do but watch. My mother never was one to teach her cooking skills. You had to watch to learn. For her it was easier to just cook and get it done then to wait while we struggled through the steps. That year the dressing was mostly hers, but she gave me the credit. That was also the year my daddy divided up his “old money”, out of print bills he had been saving in an accordion file for a few years. Then, later with cash in pockets, we spread out the Black Friday ads, an annual tradition, and plotted our strategies. That was a good year.
Now here I am five years later making the dressing again and thinking about the four years that have passed since that last good year. I got started this morning by making the cornbread and boiling eggs, then on to chopping the vegetables. As I peel the paper skins off of the onions, and make the first slices I think about Thanksgiving 2007. Did we have it at my house or my sister’s? I don’t remember. I do remember making the dressing all by myself. My mother reassured me that it was good, and I think I did a pretty good job of it even though I watched my brother-in-law generously douse his serving with salt. And Daddy divided his “old money” again, a smaller amount because he had only been saving for one year. Then, again with cash in pockets, albeit less than the previous year, we spread out the Black Friday ads and plotted our strategies.
Next come the green onions. I find it is much easier to snip them with kitchen shears rather than try to chop them. Mama always chopped, but I always look for the easy way. I snip away the green shoots stopping short of the white parts, saving that for the chicken stock. With each cut I think about Thanksgiving 2008, the first holiday without my father. By that time my mother was living with my sister and unable to do any of the cooking aside from maybe peeling potatoes, which she always did in an effort to hang on to her last thread of independence. My sister, Becky, hosted that year because she wanted to have Thanksgiving in her new home. With full stomachs, but empty hearts and pockets we still spread out the Black Friday ads and plotted our strategies.
Celery is something I could do without in any dish, but my mother put it in the dressing, therefore, so do I. I cut off the leaves and the ends and save them for the chicken stock. The fresh smell and the crisp sound the knife makes as it slices through the watery stalks serve as the background of my memories of Thanksgiving 2009. By then, dressing was my thing and despite the fact there is no written recipe I could make it taste pretty much just like Mama’s. She agreed. That Thanksgiving was only a week or so after my nephew left us. That was a bad time, so I don’t remember much about it except for the fact that I hosted lunch at my house. Friday was black, indeed.
I mix all of my chopped vegetables in a bowl and set them in the fridge to wait their turn. Now it is time to put my chicken on to boil. Mama always used chicken in her dressing instead of turkey, I guess because the turkey had not even been cooked before she started the dressing. Plus, she needed the stock. I put the chicken in one of her favorite pots, cover it with water, add cut onions, celery, garlic, salt, pepper, and bay leaves and turn it on to do its thing. I think of last year, Thanksgiving 2010. My sister, Becky, took her turn again and had us over to her house even though it was the first Thanksgiving after her husband’s death. Again, the family gathered, gave thanks, ate my dressing, and combed over the Black Friday ads and planned strategies. My sister slept, and no one minded.
Here it is, 2011, and it will be the first Thanksgiving without Mama. At first I wondered if my sisters and brothers would even want to get together. Afterall, with both parents gone now, there is nothing that bounds us to be together. But in the spirit of the holiday, thankfully, they do, and we will. Becky wants us at her house again; because this might be the last Thanksgiving she has there. I will bring the dressing, and for the first time I will not have Mama to reassure me that it is fine, just like hers. I will just have to have confidence that after five years I know what I’m doing. And even though we all have really, really empty pockets I look forward to our annual tradition of spreading out the ads and plotting our strategies.
Life goes on, and so do Thanksgivings. While these past few years have had their own brand of sadness, I am still thankful for what I knew, what I know, and what I have yet to learn.