Thankful

I prepared my first Thanksgiving dinner the first year I was married.  We bought a very small turkey and I used one of those turkey-cooking bags that are specifically designed for morons, which was really an appropriate choice for me. I went a little bit overboard with the side dishes:  stuffing, yams, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuits . . . basically, the equivalent of month’s food budget in one overcooked meal.

It was hard for us to figure out how to juggle his family, my family, our family, my step-family, his grandmother, his other grandmother . . .

Gradually, I stopped making a meal on Thanksgiving.  It really didn’t seem to be worth the expense or effort since we were all stuffed to bursting already from all of the family gatherings.  In case I haven’t mentioned it before, my ex-husband’s family are simply not normal people when it comes to preparing food.  These people have traveled down from the Heavens above to grace our taste buds with divine ambrosia, with the food of the Gods, with flavor combinations that can make a strong man weep tears of ecstasy.   As I am fond of telling people, even the forks taste good when these people start cooking.

If my former mother-in-law served a plate of bricks for dinner, we would dive right in and enjoy every bite of those bricks.

But I digress.

Over the years, our families have dwindled, and so have our gatherings.  His grandmothers are both gone; my father and aunts are gone as well.  Most of the nieces and nephews have grown and moved on into their own lives, trying to juggle multiple get-togethers just like we did as newlyweds.

And we are divorced now.  This is my first Thanksgiving without The Big Guy.  Without his mom or his brothers and their wives, without his aunts and uncles and cousins who made me one of them for the last eighteen years.  Whether we met at Aunt June and Uncle Fred’s, or at Aunt Jan and Uncle Dale’s, I was never just their in-law.  I was family, right from the start.  They accepted me as one of them.   His cousins became my cousins.

The first time I met his grandmother, I asked her what she wanted me to call her.  I was expecting “Mrs. Meyer” or perhaps “Virgie.”  Instead, she looked at me as though I had asked her the stupidest question ever asked, and instructed me to call her “Grandma.”  Of course.  What else?

Duh.

I don’t think The Big Guy ever realized what a precious gift he gave me by sharing his family or how honored I am by their continued love and support despite the divorce.  My own family was so different.  Grandma lived in Arkansas and made it very clear that I was not her favorite; I can count on one hand the number of times I ever received a kiss or hug from her. My cousins in Arkansas and Oklahoma seem to be very nice people, and their wives are absolute darlings.  One of my greatest wishes in life is to meet them someday outside of Facebook.   My other cousins live less than an hour away, and we are all really making an effort to regain some kind of closeness, some of the camaraderie we shared as children.

Overall, though, my family has become my sister, her children, and my children.  And that’s just going to have to be enough for now.  Someday, I may fall in love again, but I just don’t know if I’ll ever fall in love with an entire family again.

For the time being, I am planning my Thanksgiving dinner for the first time in over a decade.  I have a twenty-two pound turkey, which is exactly ten pounds over my current lifting restrictions, so getting that baby in and out of my oven is going to be an adventure.  I will keep it simple, with only the side dishes that I know my children will eat, and I will follow it up with the obligatory pumpkin pie and my much-requested chocolate-chip cheesecake.

I’m going to set the table with my grandmother’s Depression Glass dishes, and I’ll be setting out an extra plate for the excellent young man who is dating my daughter.  A rite of passage in its own way, about which I am in complete denial, but that’s a subject for another day.

And you know what?  I’m actually looking forward to Thanksgiving on my own this year.  On my terms, in my way, with my family.

As long as I can get someone to get the turkey out of the oven for me.

Mighty Fine

When I was a little kid, I thought my mom was the world’s best cook.  She always seemed to just know how to put things together.  Oh, she had cookbooks, but I never saw her use them.  She would stand at the stove and throw in a pinch of this and a scoop of that;  she’d take a dainty little taste off the edge of the spoon, make a face, and toss in something else.

When I married my husband and met his family, I realized that my mom wasn’t quite the cook I had always believed her to be.  Compared to the food prepared by my in-laws, my mother’s cooking was rather bland.  She made a lot of baked chicken and boiled potatoes, very few sauces or gravies.  It was plain, but it kept our bellies full.

Holidays were the only time she really ventured into fancier dishes.  Thanksgiving was her particular favorite, and she would wake up at some ungodly pre-dawn hour to start cooking while she sipped away at bottomless glasses of cheap wine. By the time my sisters and I woke up, the house smelled divine and the kitchen table was at near-collapse under the weight of all of the food.

Mom was usually fairly well bombed by that point, but we pretended not to notice.  That early in the day, she was still a jovial drunk.  Later, my sisters and I would start placing our bets on which family member would be the lucky one chosen for the annual Thanksgiving Day Fight.  By the time we sat down to eat dessert, it was a given that someone would be crying, someone would be shouting, and I would be shoveling in mouthfuls of pie in a frantic attempt at tasting them all before Mom declared the holiday over.

Her specialty was lemon merengue pie.  Tart and sweet, with creamy merenge that had nice crispy peaks, it was the perfect finish to any holiday dinner.  When anyone asked for her recipe, she shook her head and told us it was a “family secret”.

I never understood why she didn’t consider her own daughters “family” enough to share the recipe with us.

Before she died, I asked her for the recipe one last time.  She agreed that her lemon merengue pie was mighty fine and took the recipe with her to the grave.

I missed mom when I got married and she wasn’t at my wedding.  I missed her when each of my children was born, and I missed her at odd times of the day or night when I thought of all the things I wanted to ask her.  But I never missed her as much as I did on Thanksgiving, when I craved a slice of her lemon merengue pie.  I tried countless recipes, and my in-laws tried their own recipes, but nothing was quite right.

I had almost forgotten about Mom’s pie nearly twenty years later, when a small box on the grocery store shelf caught my eye.  My*T* Fine lemon pudding and pie filling.

My*T*Fine.

Mighty Fine?

No way.

No freaking way.

0007239233012_300X300I made a lemon merengue pie that night.  Mom’s lemon merengue pie.  My mother’s “secret” recipe was a box mix.  A cheap box mix. 

When I now make that pie at Thanksgiving every year, I tell my kids that it’s an old family secret.  And then I show them them the empty box of My*T*Fine and we all laugh.

And I keep the real family secret from them.  The one that made my mom get drunk and pick fights on her favorite holiday year after year. The same one that keeps me in my pajamas some days, and sometimes makes me cry for no reason.

Because Depression tastes a lot like lemon merengue pie.