Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving: Always Different, Always the Same

Ever try having a different Thanksgiving meal? Ever since I was a little kid, sitting around Grandma Still’s dining room table, my Thanksgiving meals have been the same: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and turnips, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, celery stuffed with cream cheese, carrot sticks, pumpkin and mincemeat pies.

Every Thanksgiving was the same. After Mom got us four kids all dressed up, we went to Grandma’s house. On Long Island, that wasn’t exactly over the river and through the woods. More like over the railroad tracks and through the traffic.

Grandma’s was a back-door house, so our arrival was into the kitchen, where things were bubbling on the stove. Her red and black tile floor was shining, the metal cabinets squeaky white and the sun brightened it all through the bay windows.

While Mom and Grandma tended to the bubbling things, we kids watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV. Sometimes we knew people who were marching in the parade, so we stayed glued to the set to see them.

About a half-hour before dinner, my Aunt Clara and Uncle Bob arrived with my cousin, Joann. Aunt Clara always cooked the turkey at her house, a few blocks away. The reason given was that it saved Grandma the work of lifting the huge bird in and out of the oven. Knowing Aunt Clara, a strong-willed German who never lost any of her accent, she probably wanted to make sure that bird was cooked right. It was always perfect and delicious.

At dinnertime, the “youngsters” had to sit at a card table set up in the next room. We hated that. It was a rite-of-passage when we got old enough (12 or 13) to sit with the big people at the elegantly-set table in the dining room. Grandma had a lace tablecloth, fine china, silverware and crystal that she used only once a year.

At other times when we visited, I loved to sneak open the drawer of the sideboard that held the silver. The drawer was lined with a velvet-like fabric and it all smelled musty-rich. Grandma must have treasured her dining room set, with its china cabinet, sideboard, large table and padded chairs. She and my grandfather had bought the house right before the Great Depression, so it was probably many years before they could afford good furniture.

Though my grandmother always called it turnip, the orange in the mashed potatoes is actually rutabaga, I discovered when I began cooking my own Thanksgiving meal. How did that tradition start? I don’t know. But I insist on keeping it, even though that rutabaga is hard as a locust post and I still haven’t come up with an easy way to cut it. Maybe if I stayed in the kitchen instead of watching the parade, I would have learned a great secret. In recent years, I’ve been whacking it with the really sharp meat cleaver, like splitting firewood, making loud karate sounds with each strike.

We eat my family’s traditional meal rather than the husband’s because after marrying we always had Thanksgiving with my grandmother and mother, along with my siblings. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, it was the only holiday Grandma and Mom observed, and they thoroughly enjoyed it.

So my kids grew up with the same meal as me. One year I decided to make a completely different Thanksgiving, one I found in a Better Homes & Gardens magazine, with cornbread stuffing and asparagus and peas or something. Everyone hated it and told me to never ever change the menu again.

The only adjustment I’ve made is the stuffing, which I learned to make from the husband’s grandmother. She taught me to simmer the giblets with the onion and celery for an hour, then take out the giblets and add butter, letting it liquify with the broth. When the giblets cool, dice them tiny and add them back in. Then mix all that with the stuffing mix (I use Pepperidge Farm herb-seasoned crumbs) and stuff the bird. Mmmm.

Living so far away in Virginia, after Grandma’s house was sold I got only a few items. But what I do have is from Thanksgiving. I’ve got the lead crystal dish in which she served the raw vegetables, the crystal wine glasses and the lace tablecloth.

With the kids grown up now, and family scattered all over the world, the faces at the Thanksgiving table change from year to year, but the meal never does. And somehow, in a world that’s vastly different than the one I grew up in, that is comforting.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Life Is Full of Interruptions

Life is all about the interruptions.

After my seemingly impetuous yet long-postponed decision to go gung-ho on redoing my living room by Thanksgiving, the interruptions lined up, one by one.

This living room job is no small task. It’s more than a paint job yet falls short of what it really needs. Still, I am tired of neglecting it. Beside the kitchen, this is the only downstairs room I have not made mine. It’s still painted and carpeted in the pastel colors chosen by the former owner (call me vain, but I look terrible in pastels). Not only that, but as the main gathering room for many years, it’s gotten shabby. And I don’t mean shabby chic. (Psst: I dislike the room so much that, except for a weekly vacuum, I no longer clean it. Yuck!)

About five years ago I redecorated the room next to it, now known as the parlor. It is our sitting room, but I have to shoo people from the yucky room into it.

So this 19-day project includes washing the whole room; texturizing and painting the ceiling; scraping, sanding, priming and painting the woodwork (it’s wainscoted and has a built-in bookcase); painting the walls; ripping up the carpet and two layers of subflooring; then sanding and poly-varnishing the oak floor.

I began Friday with shopping for supplies and emptying the room. That meant, of course, crowding the other downstairs rooms with its chairs, tables and books. Then on Saturday, some friends came over. Not just any friends, but good old friends of whom I see too little. I used to babysit the daughter, who’s now married. As we stood outside talking (it was a beautiful day, so no sense in inviting them in), I thought about my plans for the day.

In my younger days, I rarely finished a project, flitting from one interest to the next. Then I changed. I became goal-driven. I make lists. I check off my list.

Aware of the ceiling job that awaited me, I realized what I wanted more was to be outdoors with Becca on this warm November day. I relaxed. It was okay. It really was okay. The ceiling got done later.

After church on Sunday, my friend Hannah came over. She worked at the newspaper with me for a while. I hadn’t seen her in months. It was another warm, clear day. We ate lunch on the deck and took a walk in the woods. Again, I found myself being in the moment, just being with Hannah and not mentally somewhere else.

Then on Tuesday, when the scraping and sanding was to commence, I really wanted to see Maxine. She’s my almost-90 friend who lives 10 miles away. I hadn’t seen her in months, either. I could not ignore the urgency to visit her.

This is not me, folks. When I have a task to finish, I really cannot be bothered with human beings. Jesus bothered with human beings, even though he had a mission. No, wait … human beings were his mission. He was all about interruptions.

One time, while he was teaching some disciples, a Roman ruler interrupted him. The ruler’s daughter had died. He wanted Jesus to bring her back to life. So Jesus goes to follow the ruler home, and he gets interrupted again. This time it’s a woman who’s been hemorrhaging for 12 years. He heals her, then goes to the ruler’s house and raises the daughter from death.

Another time, he declined to go with his disciples to get food because he was exhausted and wanted to rest. So he’s sitting by a well in the afternoon sun, dozing off, when a woman comes for water. By the end of their conversation, this (“fallen”) woman, who has lived with five or six guys, is free of the shame she’s borne for so long. Woohoo!

The book of Acts is basically stories of healing and grace. Most of it was not planned. It’s like everything that happens during any given day is another opportunity for God’s grace and love to work. I do not say, as some do, that everything that happens is supposed to happen. It just does.

Interruptions, you see, come with faces and names. This week, it was Becca, Hannah and Maxine.

If my Thanksgiving table, laden with its feast, surrounded by those I love, ends up sitting on an old floor, caked with layers of ancient brown varnish, what of it? Really, what of it?

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Past Meets The Future At A New York Wedding

It had been decades since I’d attended a New York wedding.

We arrived at 6 p.m. to a spectacle of characters making their way toward the red-carpeted entrance of Bellport Country Club. It was a balmy evening here on the south shore of Long Island and these arrivals were too good to miss. Everyone was already snapping pictures.

There was Wonder Woman and Batman, Captain Jack Sparrow, Uncle Fester (with light bulb) and Wednesday. There was my sister as Mary Poppins, her daughter as Minnie Mouse and my youngest sister, her husband and daughter as the Frankenstein family. I went as Mother Nature and the husband as a leathered biker.

My brother and his bride met on Halloween four years ago. So it was fitting, when they decided to wed, that they do so on the anniversary of their first encounter. And that their wedding be a masquerade ball.

My brother, Phil, is actually my half-brother and the same age as my son. My dad and stepmom both died by the time he was 13, and it was decided that he go live with our cousins. We don’t see each other much. I guess you could say that, until last year, we were estranged. My sisters and I were so glad to share in his wedding.

Phil was dressed as a prince, and Pam, his bride, as a princess. The wedding party was angels and demons. The priest who officiated drew the line at the demons: No horns or tails during the ceremony. When the bride appeared, the priest strutted half-way down the aisle and ordered, “Everyone stand up!” (He had been in the military, hence the drill sergeant tone.) Pam walked (with her father, dressed as General Robert E. Lee) down the aisle to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.”

The priest was an irreverent reverend. He made the joyous occasion fun, but also became serious at the sacred moments. There was no tension about doing everything right, as there tends to be at such times. We laughed and cried.

Then we moved to a reception room, where the floor-to-ceiling windows opened to a balcony overlooking the golf course. We sipped cocktails and nibbled hors d’oeuvres while the wedding party did their photographs. We strolled about, eating stuffed clams on the half-shell, crispy breaded ravioli and miniature bruschettas. At the open bar, I ordered a Cosmo—it wasn’t strong—and (something I learned the hard way) stuck with that all night.

My favorite part was meeting up with relatives I thought I’d never see again. There was Uncle Russell, who, I discovered, is actually my first-cousin-once-removed. (His wife, Linda, explained the whole “removed” thing to me.) They were dressed as prisoners in striped garb. There was Aunt Joanie, another first-cousin-once-removed, in her 70s. She wore a hospital gown, open in the back, with a big plastic butt sticking out.

Then there were the McKaharays, from my stepmother’s side of the family and always dear to us Browns. Sean, his wife, Michelle, and his mom, Nancy, were up from Atlanta. Michaela had come from the West Virginia panhandle. Melissa and her husband, Russell, lived the next town over.

After about 90 minutes, we moved into the banquet room, greeted by a huge ice sculpture of a jack-o-lantern. The band was all set up. The wait staff was still loading the food bars with the delicacies that awaited.

I’ve been telling the husband for years that the only reason he likes the Chinese restaurants here in the Valley is because he forgets what good Chinese food tastes like. The food at the Chinese bar proved my point. All the food proved my point. Sesame chicken spiced so right and, oh, filet mignon that melted in your mouth. An antipasto bar with prosciutto, pepperoncini, salami, all kinds of cheeses, olives, crudités, breads. A sushi bar. An Italian bar. A salad bar. A carvery featuring beef, lamb, pork and other meats.

What I ate burned off while dancing. The band, the Green Machine, was mostly loud and fast. Everyone danced for hours, even Russell and Joanie, with her butt sticking out. The music stopped just before midnight. As we gathered our things and moved toward the door, there was an announcement about a bar opening upstairs for those who wished to party on.

I kissed my brother and his bride goodbye, with much talk of seeing each other again soon. Part of the reason we were estranged is because Phil is notorious for not returning phone calls or e-mails.

Ah, but now we’ve got Pam.