When I think of Thanksgiving, I think of whipped potatoes with sautéed onions. I haven’t actually had them at a holiday meal in about two decades, but that is the dish that tugs at my heart when I think about Thanksgivings past.
Our day-to-day was tumultuous when I was a kid and we weren’t the sort of family where food brought us all together. Instead, reheated macaroni from three nights ago was often on the menu — and if it smelled or tasted a little funny, we ate it anyway. My dad would show up highly intoxicated midway through the meal and complain. Sometimes he’d make himself something to eat before passing out, but most times he didn’t. He usually had just enough energy to criticize my mother’s lack of culinary skills and my brother and I learned to just keep eating with our eyes on the television as dishes and pans banged around the kitchen.
But Thanksgiving was different — we spent it with my mother’s sister’s family. My father never came with us and I didn’t have to ask why. There was plenty of food and all of it fresh. The table was set lavishly with linens and glasses, a far cry from the paper napkins and plastic tumblers we had at home. My aunt and uncle weren’t wealthy but they were generous and loved to celebrate holidays with those they held dear. The rest of the year they were the paper napkin and plastic tumbler sort, but Thanksgiving was special and sacred and deserved cloth napkins. My mother could have never pulled off a dinner like this. It would have required weeks of work just to find the dining room table under the mountains of junk.
My uncle and I shared a bond in the kitchen. I’d stand and watch as he went from counter to stove to refrigerator and back again, simultaneously preparing various dishes. Everything was timed perfectly and he had a schedule to keep, yet he never hesitated to teach as he went so that I could maybe host the traditional Thanksgiving dinner someday. I learned the invaluable lesson that you can always add more of an ingredient and never take away, so never pour with a heavy hand. I learned that you have to be patient with food; it is art and it cannot be rushed. I learned that food cooked with love definitely tastes better than food that isn’t.
But the mashed potatoes were always my favorite part. He whipped them with the electric beater while adding the perfect ratio of cream and real butter. Just when they were at the tip of perfection, he’d add in the sautéed onions. They always came out just right and, topped with his signature pan gravy, they were heavenly. He knew I loved them and even if it’s not true, I liked to think he kept making them because I loved them and he loved me.
Thanksgiving dinners were special, a respite from daily life. They were a time to love and feel loved. I thought maybe this was what most families had year round and I was happy to catch a glimpse of it.
Life marches on though. Families change over time until we look back and everything is different.
My father left when I was ten and I no longer hoped he could clean up and make it to a holiday meal. My mother was stricken with multiple sclerosis and as she lost her mobility over the years, getting her wheelchair into her sister’s second floor apartment became unmanageable. I started spending holidays with my future husband’s family and my brother did the same with the family of his future wife. The strain of my mother’s illness from a chronic, degenerative and ultimately fatal disease was felt by all of us. Tempers flared and we backed away from one another. My grandparents died, my aunt and uncle moved away.
None of this happened all at once. Little by little, inch by inch, the distances grew. It seemed someone would always say next year, for sure, we’ll get back to the old way, all of us together. But those who left didn’t come back. And things kept changing.
I tried to recreate the big family dinner several times, looking to recapture the magic of the ones I remembered. The meals were nice with scads of relatives seated elbow to elbow at tables too small to accommodate them, laughing and eating piles of food. The feelings I had weren’t the same as the ones I had in my younger years. I couldn’t recreate it no matter what I did.
So I stopped trying. Our Thanksgiving dinners are smaller now but we still share our table with family and friends. I’m grateful when my son eats with us, despite his food aversions and flair for dramatics surrounding his pickiness. I whip the potatoes, but I don’t add the sautéed onions because no one would eat them except me and that’s just fine.
As I cook, I take a quiet minute and remember those holidays from decades ago. I can’t get them back but I can remember fondly the love and how good it felt to be together when the rest of the year wasn’t so happy. I can think about my grandfather standing on chairs trying to take candid photos of people eating. I remember my grandmother laughing so hard that she’d cry when, during the annual after-dinner board game, she’d accidentally answer an entire round of Scattergories in French instead of English. I am careful not to use a heavy hand with the cream or the butter or any other ingredient because, like memories, you can always add more.
I still cook food with love.
Even though those seated at the table aren’t the same, we’re making new memories ever year that we gather together. Expecting the magic and wonder of youth is a fool’s errand, and there’s no way to bring back those lost. Some fences are far too damaged to mend and sometimes the holidays mean acceptance that we won’t ever again be with those we’ve held dear.
There is significant pressure, I think, for Thanksgiving to be so many things. Now, I work to appreciate it for what it is — and also for what it isn’t, for what it could have been but might never be. I’m happy with what we have, even if it’s not what I ever expected.
Michelle Longo is a writer living in New Jersey.
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