Over the River and Through the WoodsNov 01, 2021 08:00AM ● By Maggie Barnes
“Mom wants to do Thanksgiving this year.” I paused in my losing battle with the leaf pile to squint through autumn sunlight at my husband on the deck.
“She does? I’m surprised, but it’s okay with me.”
It was the first holiday season since the death of my father-in-law, and I didn’t anticipate Mom wanting to tackle the biggest meal of the year. But Rosalie was nothing if not sure of her own ability, so I didn’t see a problem. Until Bob went on.
“It will have to be later than usual. Eric and Angie both have to work.”
Ah, there’s the problem.
Like most folks of her generation, Mom could be a bit...set in her ways. Like a flagpole in cement. For my husband’s entire life, Thanksgiving was one of those stalwart traditions you could set your watch by. The men went out early for hunting, came back in for a feast at 2 p.m., then caught the last of the daylight for another attempt in the woods. It had never been any other way. Asking for dinner to be, say, four hours later, was like requesting the Statue of Liberty to shift the torch to her other hand.
The change was mandated by another aspect of life that Mom simply did not agree with—the undeniable fact her grandchildren were growing up. Two of our three kids were in the workforce now and, being the new person, pulled the holiday shift. I’d suspected Mom was digging in her heels on this concept earlier in the year at Angie’s birthday. Grandmother insisted on making her cake and it was lovely, an elaborate creation with a Barbie doll in the center and the doll’s skirt made of cake with swirling pink frosting.
Minor problem—it was Angie’s sixteenth birthday. Forget Barbie’s dream house—she wanted the convertible.
Now, we were facing one of the true milepost markers on the calendar and asking her to adapt to a new timetable. Trepidation began buzzing in the back of my brain, as we drove to Mom’s in the dark of Thanksgiving evening. David, our youngest at twelve, was chirping away in the backseat like a happy robin, anticipating his favorite meal of the year.
“You all better take your mashed potatoes first,” he laughed, “because I’m gonna clean out the bowl!” No idle threat—I had seen the kid inhale a mountain of spuds before. My mother-in-law was an excellent cook and everything from the rolls to the cherry pie would be memorable.
We barely got in the door when Mom hustled us to the table. Platters of food were shuttled out of the kitchen and the first sign of trouble was the turkey. When I tried to spear a slice, it disintegrated. Just broke apart like plaster. My husband and I locked eyes across the table. As the bowls circulated around the table, the kids’ chatter began to quiet. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched David use his spoon to push the hardened mashed potatoes off the ladle. He opened his mouth, but I gave him a stern look to stay silent. Eric moved the gravy boat in circles, peering into it as though trying to determine whether it was a liquid or a solid. Choking erupted from Angie when she sampled the dressing, and her brothers pounded her back with the enthusiasm natural to siblings.
Our little group was realizing Grandma hadn’t adjusted her timetable to accommodate latecomers. Dinner, as always, was ready at 2 p.m. Too bad for us we weren’t there.
When Mom set the cherry pie in the center of the table, I covered my eyes.
Normally, her pies were things of beauty, bursting with luscious fruit encased in a cookbook-worthy golden crust. What stood before us bore a shape that could be described as concave. The crust, dark brown and brittle, sloped down inside the tin to a depth of maybe a half inch.
David looked sadly at the dehydrated tart where his cherished pie was supposed to be.
“Good grief, Grandma!” he erupted. “Did you use more than four cherries?”
The cork was out of the bottle and the kids rewound the tape on the entire meal.
“Was that gravy or creamed corn?”
“Save me a roll in case I ever have to break a window.”
“Who needs paste when you have those potatoes?”
Mom was undisturbed as laughter bounced around the room and we practically tumbled out of our chairs. She knew the dinner had been beautiful at dinnertime. Bob suddenly developed a twitch and I chewed on the inside of my cheek to keep from joining in the hilarity. Angie leaned over and wrapped her arms around her grandmother.
“It’s okay, Grandma, we still love you,” she grinned.
Chin in the air and her dignity very much intact, my mother-in-law turned and glared at her son.
“Six o’clock is not a decent hour for Thanksgiving dinner!” She was right, the rest of the world was wrong, and that was that.
Still giggling, we took care of the dishes, then dug out a frozen pizza when we got home.
For our family, Thanksgiving stayed a moveable feast whose timing fluctuated with work schedules and other commitments. Never mind when it was scheduled, Mom always arrived at the “proper” time—1 p.m.—regardless of when we were eating. It was just her way.
David makes awesome mashed potatoes these days—his secret ingredient is ranch dressing; and Angie has blossomed into quite a baker. They take after their grandmother. And every year, we recount that memorable Thanksgiving and renew our love for a lady who believed in tradition at any price—including indigestion.