With the twin benefits of hindsight and reflection, I realize now that Thanksgiving must have been Mother’s favorite holiday. It’s the only one I have any memory of experiencing as a child, except for that one Christmas when Mr. Kamner brought all us kids a popcorn popper — now that was some real excitement.
The smells are what I remember most. Mother made cornbread for her dressing the night before Thanksgiving. The batter sizzled when she poured it into hot grease in the oven-warmed cast iron skillet. The smell when it emerged, golden and crisp, could bring tears to the eyes of working men. Next she would sauté a big skillet full of onions, celery and green pepper and put on a pot of eggs to boil. Sometime around midnight, when most of the household was already asleep, this phase of the preparations would end.
It was the same feeling of excitement I would get the night before we went on a fishing trip. I could never quite sleep, listening for every little sound. Is it time yet? After a seemingly endless night, finally I would hear a distinctive click — the kitchen light switch — yes! Bare feet hitting the floor, I was in the kitchen, poking my young nose into the refrigerator, the oven, the stove top.
It was awesome for me to watch Mother wrestle that big blue-tinged turkey into the battered old roasting pan. She would stuff it with her cornbread dressing, fragrant with sage, saving plenty for a separate pan baked on its own. She would take a huge needle and strong thread to the turkey, stitching it together so that nothing but small steam clouds could escape. Finally, she would drape a cut piece of old sheeting material over the turkey and ladle broth over it, explaining to me that as the turkey roasted, the ends of the material would be in the cooking juices and wick up over the turkey, keeping it moist.
Once the bird was roasting, Mother could begin to concentrate on assembling “all the trimmings.” Unlike me, she was an artist with pies and cakes, and a variety made the day before would line one of the counter tops. There was always pecan, of course, and a sweet potato pie (more favored in our home than pumpkin), and usually something decorative, like a Lane cake with its gorgeous swirls of frosting. The many and varied accompaniments fade in my memory, but in that warm bright kitchen, I learned to love watching dawn arrive, and I remember my Mother being happy there, in that space, in those narrow but treasured slivers of life.
And now, each year, I make preparations the night before and arise before dawn to complete them. It wouldn’t matter whether any guests arrived to partake of the feast. Eating it is not the point for me. What I’m after is to recapture those few sunny moments between a Mother and her daughter. Perhaps that’s why Thanksgiving is my annual refurbishment of soul, my sacrament of restoration.
My own menus change with the years, but there is always one constant: I bake cornbread in a cast iron skillet and inundate the house with the smells of sautéed onion, celery and green pepper.