Ten Turkey Teachings from My First Favorite Teacher: PART 3

Ten Turkey Teachings from My First Favorite Teacher: PART 3

In my blog post yesterday, I described three more lessons my mother taught me as we prepared for Thanksgiving each year, totaling six mantras that always came to light as we prepared for Thanksgiving. Though these apply all year long they are especially relevant sentiments for Turkey Time.

These first six sentiments and the associated lessons from each are as follows.

  1. It’s not about the turkey.
    Lesson 1: Always dig for the real reason.
  2. We don’t REALLY need it.
    Lesson 2: Know what you REALLY need. Look carefully, choose carefully, and remember, most everything freezes.
  3. Set the table early.
    Lesson 3: It’s only when you put in the work ahead of time that it is easy to make it look easy. Whatever it is.
  4. Wait to DO the bread.

Lesson 4: When rituals fulfill you, protect them at all costs, even when it’s cheaper not to do so.

  1. Time Travel: Four Days for 14 Minutes.
    Lesson 5: Manage expectations for yourself and don’t reveal you’re even aware of it (unless your father tries to go for a fourth helping).
  2. More than leftovers are left over.

Lesson 6: Always transfer to a smaller dish—when the dish is smaller, the food looks bigger.

In this final post, I’ll wrap up this delicious memory adventure with my mother’s last four mantras:

  1. Wear something loose.

For most of my adult life, my mother was a size 0, at her heaviest. She used to struggle terribly to find clothes that could even be altered to fit her. People didn’t make it any easier because she got little sympathy for being too “small” and too “thin” for clothes to fit her. “I should have such problems,” they’d mutter. My mother believed in buying classics, mostly because it was so difficult to find clothes that fit; once she invested in both the garment and the alteration, she was literally “in” it for the long haul so classics were almost required.

Even someone as petite as my mother, however, had her “big pants” and Thanksgiving was a day when she’ll pulled them out of the back of the closet. She always believed, and definitely imparted this philosophy to me that no matter your size, a well-fitting garment was a must. Size 2 or 22, when the seams lay as designed the garment is more flattering. “People rarely look over- or underweight when clothes truly fit.” So, if bigger fit better on a big food day, it WAS better.

As you’ve no doubt picked up by this point, my mother was a consummate planner so of course, planning what she wore for Thanksgiving weekend was no exception to her approach. My mother always wore her “big” pants for Thanksgiving. We all did. My mother counseled all her guests to dress for the menu by wearing loose clothes! Her theory was, “If you know you’re going to eat and enjoy yourself, doing so in clothes that feel incredibly tight sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?”

“Besides,” my mother would muse, “how could someone possibly have room for even a sliver of pie in pants that already feel snug during the appetizers?”

In her view, “If you show up to a meal like Thanksgiving in your tightest jeans, you’re not fooling anyone, especially yourself. Just ask your waist, later.”

Lesson 7: Dressing appropriately requires you to be honest with yourself about your intentions—to eat or not to eat. And at Thanksgiving, that’s never a question.


  1. Pace yourself. There’s dessert.

As noted in earlier blog posts, dessert always wielded a lot of power in our family. From the time we were little kids, dessert was a luxury, a treat to be enjoyed on Friday nights. Grampa would take a walk to the Waldorf Bakery on Friday, to buy “a little cake”—“for the children, of course”—“just for the weekend.” No one could argue with this triad of reasoning. After all it was only a little cake, and who could deny the children, especially over the weekend?

Dessert was something that only came on the scene for special occasions, including the weekend, with one exception. During the week, and definitely not every night, we could have “a little dish” of ice cream. We had a choice of three flavors—chocolate, vanilla, and/or strawberry. There was only one kind of ice cream that was ever in our freezer when we were growing up. It was a waxed cardboard half gallon-sized container of ”Neapolitan” ice cream. My mother’s economically driven choice allowed her to ensure everyone had a preferred flavor and she only had to spend on one carton.

It wasn’t that my mother was restricting us when it came to sweets. First, she was on a very limited budget. Second, she herself had a very small appetite, so by the time dessert rolled around, my mother was always too full. Thus dessert became an area where it was fine to economize; in her mind (and stomach), most people were too full for it, anyway.

Even though you’d think Thanksgiving would be a meal where people would obviously be too full for dessert, this day merited dessert. My mother considered Thanksgiving, the most special of occasions, to be the perfect time for a full array of desserts—something for everyone. You HAD to have a pumpkin pie, at least one fruit pie, a cake or three, some sort of a cream pie, and of course a lot of portable finger food in the form of cookies, brownies, and bars. We continue my mother’s tradition today, running to Costco, local bakeries, and of course, baking and freezing (and then later re-freezing. Did I mention you can re-freeze most baked goods?) With the kind of forbidden fruit approach to dessert we experienced growing up, it is no wonder desserts continue to have such great significance to us now.

My mother was a “pacer”—out of necessity. She chose her foods wisely because she didn’t have a lot of capacity. Living with a “pacer” ensured we all learned to follow this very effective habit (except my father, of course, who went in the polar opposite direction, approaching each meal as though it was his last). My mother would scan the entire array of options, from appetizers through desserts, and make her selections. While many people scan in order to choose calorically wise options, my mother did it to be sure she had enough room to at least taste everything she wanted to enjoy. “Don’t fill up on ____ if you’re going to want to have ___, too” turned out to be a great habit, regardless of the reason behind it.

Lesson 8: Scan your options and pace yourself if dessert is on your want list. If you think you’ll get too full remember to eat the pie because most cake freezes.


  1. Turn Routines into Traditions

As part of every Thanksgiving preparation, my mother would cast an eye towards next year. Her Friday-morning quarterbacking included methods for streamlining, ideas of new things to try, and ways to make it ever easier next year. Once again, she’d read the paper to be sure she didn’t miss something to put under consideration for the following year.

“Next year, I’m going to make this ahead of time and freeze it. This takes too much time the week of the holiday.”
“Next year, I’m going to get those good disposable plates from Costco. They are sturdy enough and then we can toss them. (Yes, she did put the silverware that our family used in the dishwasher—on top—and reuse them, however. Of course.)

Many small steps lead up to a family holiday event as intricate as Thanksgiving. There’s a delightful feeling at the start of the planning that can flow through the entire process. To craft and deliver as extravagant a meal as Thanksgiving requires many routines and steps, often repeated each year. By turning these routines and required steps into traditions, they become part of something much more powerful—memories.

Lesson 9: The gift of memory sustains long after the opportunity to turn shared routines into special traditions is gone. Honoring traditions in story and action are ways that help me to honor my mother’s memory.

  1. Before you go, know when you are coming back.

No matter how gifted my mother was at stretching, planning, sharing, preparing, and savoring a holiday weekend like Thanksgiving, even she could do nothing to extend it beyond its natural course. Every Sunday morning, we’d all awaken with “that thud” that confirmed today was the day I’d be going home. I learned over the years that it was best to go home early in the day, to get right up and leave. Otherwise, the entire day was clouded by the departure time. “We can’t do that; you need to head for the airport in four hours.”

Even leaving very early in the day didn’t change the sadness, however. So, once again, my mother, problem-solver extraordinaire, came up with a solution to help us all. We always had to do one thing before any of us would leave to “go back.” (We went “back” because of course we were not going home; how could we? According to my mother, we had been “home” for the weekend.) We had to sit at the little shelf-table in the kitchen and flip through the paper calendar that was held onto the refrigerator with magnet clips. We had to plan our next trip; we had to know when we’d be together next. Once we all secured our next time together, everyone seemed better able to leave one another.

These connections and times together sustained my mother. They sustained all of us. We’d “bridge” the trips. My mother didn’t want to diminish the “after-Thanksgiving” time by short-changing the post-visit enjoyment. “I stopped by to pick up those pants you ordered. I’ll mail them to you next week.” These activities kept us tethered to our recent time together. Shortly after this post-holiday closure, we’d begin again—to plan for the next visit.

Lesson 10: Transitions, done well, can be meaningful and memorable ways to stay connected. In my mother’s book, “Long distance was the next best thing to being there, albeit a poor second, but it would do.”

As I savored and shared the last four of these ten amazing memories of Thanksgivings past, I am sitting in the front seat of the car as we tick off the miles towards Pittsburgh. Yes, we are heading there for this year’s Thanksgiving gathering. The foil pans have been replaced with plastic. More food has been ordered than made from scratch, and my sister-in-law’s amazing mac-and-cheese has become a new staple along with her meatballs. The desserts remain abundant and I continue to ask myself if we “really need all of this food.” I’ll plate and re-plate, freeze and re-freeze. And remember and re-remember.

My visit with my mother will be different than these past holidays I treasure. I now have a new tradition, new since she is gone. Before we celebrate tomorrow, I will visit her. I will go to the cemetery, stand in the raw wind by her grave with my newly collected stones in hand, and I’ll miss her all over again.

While I think of her every day, the reality of standing at her grave is different. I will hear the still silence, look down at her name etched in the font I so carefully selected, and attempt once again to internalize this reality. I will feel that familiar ache in the pit of my stomach. Even as I write this, I can hear my mother, ”I’m here—not like I was, but I’m here in your heart, which, by the way, is a much better place than your stomach. Honey, you better shake off that ache or you’ll never have room for dessert.”

I love you, mom. Happy Thanksgiving. You ARE still here.

Ten Turkey Teachings from My First Favorite Teacher: PART 2

Ten Turkey Teachings from My First Favorite Teacher: PART 2


In my blog post yesterday, I described three lessons my mother taught me as we prepared for Thanksgiving each year.

These first three focused on BEFORE Thanksgiving.

  1. It’s not about the turkey.
    Lesson 1: Always dig for the real reason.
  2. We don’t REALLY need it.
    Lesson 2: Know what you REALLY need. Look carefully, choose carefully, and remember, most everything freezes.
  3. Set the table early.
    Lesson 3: It’s only when you put in the work ahead of time that it is easy to make it look easy. Whatever it is.

This post and the one that follows cover the remaining seven of the Ten Turkey Teachings that I learned from my mother over Thanksgivings past.

The next three lessons are all about the “days and nights” of Thanksgiving itself when I arrived at my parent’s home, the little red brick in the image above.

  1. Wait to DO the bread.
  2. Time travel—four days for 14 minutes.
  3. More than leftovers are left over.

Wait to DO the bread.

For my mother and me, the week of Thanksgiving always officially began on the Friday before. While the world got ready for its ensuing BLACK FRIDAY, my mom and I got a jump on it all with our very own PACK FRIDAY. (This was easy for my mother, given that the table had been set for at least a week.) On the Friday night before Thanksgiving, we’d discuss two topics that were on par with the holiday menu: weather and clothes.

With my demanding job, I did these tasks late at night. My mom was always up for a 1:00 AM call (literally and figuratively) about anything. Threat of snow, potential flight delay strategies, and whether the weather permits packing the navy slacks or the basic black wools merited a 24/7 open call line.

Countdown week was always filled with rituals. First, there was the “check-the-weather-again-on-Sunday” ritual. Second, there was the “stay-up-late-on-Monday-to-finish-it-all-before-leaving” ritual. Finally, it wrapped up on Tuesday with the “fit-in-one-more workout-before-eating-too-much” and the “not-enough-time-left-just-pack-it-all” rituals. I’d get to work early Wednesday and tear out by 4:00 to catch the 6:30 flight, arriving on my family’s doorstep at around 10.

No matter how much preparation my mother did in advance, there was one special ritual that she never did ahead of time. My mother would always “wait to DO the bread” until I arrived.

Every year, I’d quickly settle in and we’d run down to the kitchen and “DO the bread.” We’d sit at the little kitchen table which was actually a green Formica® ledge bolted to the clothes chute right next to the fridge. While it was crowded, this arrangement had a few advantages like opening the refrigerator door without ever getting out of a chair.

Four big bags of “bread-too-old-to-eat-but fine-for-stuffing” waited patiently on the little table. My mother made coffee and we began. It was a true “tear-and-talk” session—our time. No matter how many phone conversations we had, nothing ever took the place of being together face-to-face. I can’t recall exactly what we discussed because neither the specifics nor the bread truly mattered. To DO the bread meant finally and formally kicking off Thanksgiving weekend—together. After the waiting and anticipation, the big weekend was finally here.

My mother believed there were three parts to every visit: upfront planning (filled with discussion, anticipation, and excitement), the visit itself (a time to savor without wasting a moment sleeping), and follow-up (the play-by-play recap of all we did). This triad allowed us to stretch our time together and each visit sustained us for a longer time. I’ll always remember the pre-trip phone conversation that confirmed my suspicions: doing the bread was about so much more for each of us.

“I ran to the market again today.” (My mother never walked anywhere; she was constantly in a hurry.)
“Again? What could we possibly still need?” (It’s a wonder the market didn’t restock from what was already at my mother’s house by this point in the countdown.)
“I didn’t like the carrots the other day, they were rubbery.”
“Were they better today?”
“Do you remember Mrs. Kolosky’s son, David, the one I had in preschool? I couldn’t believe it; he’s in graduate school.”
“How is this about carrots?”
“He works the vegetable area to pay for school. I spotted him immediately. It’s the same face. He went in the back and got me some brand new ones. Anyway, you’ll never believe what they make now.”
“What, a new vegetable?”
“They make bread that is already torn up into little pieces just for stuffing. They had these big, long bags all stacked up by the stuffing mixes.”
“That’s a time-saver.”
“I know. And it wasn’t expensive. It cost less than four loaves of bread if you have the coupon they were giving out.”
“Maybe we should get some.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Who needs that?”
“Oh. You already bought the bread?”
“No, that would make it too stale. I’ll buy it tomorrow, but I’m not buying the torn-up bread. Why would I? You’ll be here and we’ll do it (pause) together. ”


Of course we will—and we’ll each savor every minute.
Lesson 4: When rituals fulfill you, protect them at all costs, even when it’s cheaper not to do so.

Time Travel: Four Days for 14 Minutes.

This mantra relates to the Thanksgiving meal as experienced by most people. All over this country, people spend at least four days before this holiday preparing, cooking, freezing, garnishing, chopping, slicing, and dicing. It’s a lot of work. Even when people “delegate out” on a dish-by-dish basis, kitchens all over the country are hot and humming, starting in the wee small hours of the morning on Thanksgiving Day. No matter how late we stayed up to DO the bread and catch up, we were up just hours later to begin the turkey preparations.

By 4:00, everything was done and the house smelled delicious. My mother liked to begin with “light” appetizers. They were always light “so we didn’t all fill up on them.” She’d also insist that everyone “take a break” after the main part of the meal. Then, 45 minutes later, the desserts would begin. (Notice the plural form of that word. We always had at least two desserts per three people present, a portion methodology I continue to employ today. This math explains why I’m always invited to being dessert to every potluck.)

Guests assumed this pause was choreographed so leftovers could be appropriately deployed into respective containers, piled into individual groupings next to take-home bags, and the dishwasher could be loaded. This vignette explains my mother’s timeline.

“Give Penny the sweet potatoes. She loves them. Don’t forget we’ll need leftovers here for tomorrow night, too. After all this, I’m not cooking tomorrow.”
“Want me to start pulling and plating the desserts?”
“Not yet, honey. Go slower. Wait another 30 minutes.”
“Because they’re too full?”
“That, too. Even with all that’s left, everyone ate pretty well, especially your father. He thinks I didn’t see him take that third helping. He takes it when I’m in the kitchen and puts it in the same place on his plate each time so I won’t notice. We’ve been in this house 30 years, and he still has no idea I can see everything reflected in the kitchen window.”
“I’ll give them ten minutes.”
“Let’s make a cup of coffee in here and wait 45 minutes. I’m not having everyone eat and run when we’ve worked for days on this meal. Your grandmother used to say that when she spent four days on a meal, no one was eating it all in 14 minutes. That’s why I stretch it out.”


Lesson 5: Manage expectations for yourself and don’t reveal you’re even aware of it (unless your father tries to go for a fourth helping).

6. More than leftovers are left over.

As guests were ready to head home, they filed past my mother’s version of a “receiving line” to collect their square foil containers placed in brown paper bags, filled with the exact items each guest seemed to most prefer. My mother missed nothing—and we ordered the foil pans in bulk, of course.


“I noticed you seemed to enjoy the potatoes, so I gave you a few extras.”
“Harold, I put in an extra piece of the pumpkin pie. We won’t eat it.” (Pumpkin pie was, of course, my mother’s favorite. However, she’d give away all but a slice or two, unable to truly enjoy it until she was confident her guests had plenty—for a week, it seemed.)
When a guest protested, my mother had a cache of responses, sure to close the deal, each rebuttal more compelling than the last.
First: “Don’t be silly. How can we possibly eat all of this? It’s just us. Look at all that’s left.”
Second: “Please, take it. It would help me a lot. Besides, ____ (fill in any conceivable food item here) freezes beautifully.”
If all else failed, my mother would lean in for the close. In a conspiring tone, she’d whisper, “Honestly, I need you to take this. I just can’t have it in the house or Jack will eat it all. Trust me. I’ll be up with him all night long. I’m just too tired to do that tonight.” Check and checkmate.

Each parcel was carefully packed and labeled. The same was true of our own leftovers. In our house, food moved—in many directions.

First, a portion of the food that wasn’t consumed was distributed out into the world in thoughtful leftover collections. Any food that didn’t make the distribution “cut,” was swiftly transferred from the original casserole into a foil pan, wrapped, labeled, and dated for the “big” freezer.

We had the “freezer” freezer that was part of the kitchen fridge; then, there was the “big” freezer that had been purchased in a Chip, Bump, and Dent Clearance Sale when I was I high school. That basement location was equivalent to the outback, the “deep” freeze. When food was relegated to this frozen tundra, it had a shelf life of about 120 days. At least three times a year, my mother, a true child of The Great Depression, really did use everything she’d frozen. She’d go on her “clearing out the freezer binges” during which time she literally “cooked out of her freezer” until she’d used it all—and she had shelf space to rebuild her stash.

The third and final option for leftovers was where my mother’s biggest lesson evolved. This was the food WE would be eating on subsequent evenings of the holiday weekend. My mother’s food management strategy didn’t stop at give away or freeze. She had a third category: ready to re-plate.

It wasn’t until I got to college when I discovered that some people actually put away a casserole with only half of its contents remaining—and reheated in that same casserole. I’d never seen this phenomenon. My mother would carefully re-plate the contents that remained, choosing a right-sized, smaller casserole for the leftovers, re-plating, re-arranging, and often re-inventing the entire dish. Each subsequent dish was smaller than the last, ensuring that the food-to-container ratio remained in proportion. This is why you could stop in at my mother’s for a meal any day of the week and marvel at the feat laid before you. The key secret words were “before you” because in many cases the initial preparation of the dish took place at least a day or two “before you” arrived. It was simply never evident in taste, appearance, or presentation.

Lesson 6: Always transfer to a smaller dish—when the dish is smaller, the food looks bigger.

In the final post, tomorrow, I’ll wrap up this delicious memory adventure with my mother’s last four mantras:

  1. Wear something loose.
  2. Pace yourself. There’s dessert.
  3. Turn Routines into Traditions
  4. Before you go, know when you are coming back.

We hope this post reminds you of a few of your favorite Thanksgiving memories. What did your family TEACH YOU?

Ten Turkey Teachings from My First Favorite Teacher: PART 1

Ten Turkey Teachings from My First Favorite Teacher:  PART 1


My mother was a very smart woman who found ways to impart her wisdom that both felt good—and tasted good. Stories about food and food memories permeate my recollections. In my next three blog posts, I’ll share Ten Turkey Teachings that I learned from my mother along with my plan to infuse these teachings into todays menu of events. These first three focus on BEFORE Thanksgiving.

  1. It’s not about the turkey.
  2. We don’t REALLY need it.
  3. Set the table early.


1. It’s Not About the Turkey

Even though we lived 500 miles apart, my mom and I used to spend hours planning for Thanksgiving dinner. The food itself was never the “main course.” It was more about the planning, the many “long-distance, advance-team” discussions we’d have over every facet of the color scheme, which was the same every year. We’d also labor over every single side dish.

“I found a recipe in the paper for corn pudding. I think I’ll make it this year.”
“Corn pudding? Who likes corn?”
“It’s tradition. The Pilgrims ate corn. Why shouldn’t we?”
“Ma, the Pilgrims ate outside, too. Do I need to pack a tent?”
“Of course not. I already set the table.”
“Thanksgiving’s not for two weeks.”
“I like to be ready. Now, I have time to make the corn pudding.”
“It’s good to try something new.”
“It’s not so new. Your Aunt Florie used to make this, but I’m changing the recipe.”
“I’m going to use canned corn and a foil pan from the Dollar Store.”
“Ma, I get the corn. From a can you don’t need to cook corn and cut it off the cob but, how does a foil pan change the recipe?”
“You try cleaning up a Pyrex® from corn pudding. It changes it a lot for me.”


We always ordered “a good turkey.” My grandfather used to run a chicken and egg store “back in the day” so the man knew a good bird when he saw one—fresh, never frozen and young, never old. Unfortunately, this gift of turkey selecting is not a talent I fully inherited. So, I’ve refined the tradition some; I go online and click a box on the Whole Foods website. Then I hope that the wrapped ready-to-heat bird is both big enough and the one that I ordered.

While the turkey was always the centerpiece of Thanksgiving, my mom firmly believed and instilled in me that “Thanksgiving wasn’t about the turkey.” For years, I attributed this mantra to a desire to focus on family and festivities instead. It wasn’t until I was grown and we were having one of our corn pudding chats that I discovered the other truth: my mother never liked turkey.
Lesson 1: Always dig for the real reason.


2. We Don’t REALLY Need It

As the holiday would draw closer, we’d talk and plan at least once a day, adding side dishes, slipping in one more dessert, and of course, considering each appetizer with great care.

“I talked to Lynne today. She’s going to make the ‘good’ cranberries in that fancy chopper she has.”
“She makes them every year. I don’t like cranberries, but hers are the kind I eat.”
“I think she got the recipe from Cooking Light.”
“I always thought it was her recipe.”

“Maybe it is and she gave it to Cooking Light, then. She can cook fancy things and make it look easy. I can’t because your father, (he was always my father, never her husband, in these situations), gets upset if I even think of using garlic salt or oregano. Makes for boring cooking. Of course, he’ll eat what Lynne makes and think it is good, and that has these spices in it.”

“I know. He’ll never change.”
“It’s just how he is so I also have a can of the jellied stuff for him and the kids, though I need your father to get it out of the can for me. I don’t want it dented.”
“He’ll do that.”
“Of course he will, then he’ll have to take a nap. He’ll also claim he helped cook the whole dinner just by waving around that broken can opener that only he can use.”
“All that for jellied cranberries. I so don’t like jellied cranberries.”
“I know, but they should look good and you just need to pick one or the other. They add color to the plate. You can’t have Thanksgiving without them, so we have options.”

In the next day’s call, we’d run through the menu yet again. I always knew Thanksgiving was almost upon us when our “run-through” conversation would suddenly shift. It typically began innocently enough as a simple question.

“Are you sure we need that (fill in any side dish here)?”

My mother would spend many weeks, gently and carefully adding menu items, only to equally strategically contemplate their last-minute removal. (I’m convinced that after all of those years, every side dish had to know on some level that it ran the risk of a last-minute cut from the final line-up.) In the case of this particular call, it was the green beans that came under her scrutiny, a fairly predictable candidate.

“Are you sure we need that green bean casserole? I throw it away every year.”
“I thought you already bought the little can of onions.”
“I did. I’m just not sure we REALLY need it. We have so much food. People are starving and we have so much food.”
“I thought we already bought that extra dinner for a family. I donated here too. If it makes you feel better about the green beans, I even designed and donated 300 bags to put the food in, so I think we’re good.”
“300? That’s a lot of food. That’s good. (Thoughtful pause.) OK. Fine. The green beans stay. (Shorter pause.) Besides, I always put them in Grama’s flowered Corningware.”
“Which one?”
“You know. The green bean Corningware.”
“Besides, if there’s any left, I’ll send them home with the kids.”
“Good idea.”
(One more slight pause)
“Maybe I shouldn’t make the corn pudding. We don’t really need it.”
“Of course you need the corn pudding. It’s the one thing you want to try.”
“You’re right. Besides, I can always freeze what’s left.”

And so it went. We’d add, subtract, and ultimately settle on including every single thing that had been on the initial master list.

This volleying for placement on the Thanksgiving table was never so much about the food items themselves. It was all about sharing, albeit long-distance, the depth of consideration. We did all of this together.

To my mother, family really was the only thing that mattered to her. To spend so much time minutely and painstakingly preparing for a family occasion was always time well spent. And if we could go through that process together, it was all that much more delicious.

Lesson 2: Know what you REALLY need. Look carefully, choose carefully, and remember, most everything freezes—if you wrap it carefully.


3. Set the Table Early

My mother’s ritual of setting the table up to two weeks in advance used to baffle people who’d stop by. When it was just my parents at home, they “ate in the kitchen” of course, so there was no reason to wait until the last minute to set the table. Not be a newcomer to the pre-Thanksgiving festivities and rituals, I knew there was more to this early table-setting plan. There were three big reasons why my mother spent time setting the table so far in advance:

  1. First, she was extremely possessive of the limited time we’d have to be together over the holiday. She never wanted to “waste a minute doing something she could do ahead of time.” Her “I can sleep later when you leave” approach to life is a trait I definitely get from my mother.
  2. Second, my mother liked to savor—and control—the preparations. As long as she didn’t have to rush, she really didn’t want help. Monday, she’d shop. Tuesday, she’d cook. Late Tuesday night, with the house to herself as my dad slept in front of the TV, she’d slowly and delightedly get down “the good dishes” and begin to meticulously set the table. Keep in mind that on my mother’s calendar, the Tuesday before could be any Tuesday in November. Two weeks early was typical. You really couldn’t be too early to set the table. Dust? Not an issue; you simply covered the completely set table with a clean top sheet.
  3. Finally, setting the table early gave her a preview of the event’s headcount and dynamic. Never one to use placards unless there was a true rift among guests, my mother had what appeared to be a natural flair for deftly directing people to seats in various table positions. All of such maneuvers were designed to maximize success (and keep the stuffing away from my father’s end of the table). In reality, it was more than flair. It was well rehearsed, considered, and the level of care was on par with your average seating chart for a Waldorf wedding.

At my mother’s table, there was always room for one more person, a mysterious third cousin or an uncle we only saw at Thanksgiving. Just like the corn pudding and green beans, we discussed all of this, too.

“I think we’ll just keep it small this year.”
“You say that every year.”
“I know, but I’m just not inviting Uncle Harold this year.”
“Why? Is he sick?”
“No. He’s fine. I just have to drop everything and go pick him up and then take him home. It’s too much.”
“I’ll be there. I’ll go get him.”
(Still resisting) “You have to know which doors at his apartment building and he needs help into the car.”
“Oh, you’re helping him? You weigh 93 pounds. Besides, I did it last year.”
(One obstacle down.)
“We’ll need the bigger turkey if he comes.”
“You already ordered the bigger turkey.”
(Second obstacle conquered.)
“We’ll have to squeeze at the table. You and I will need to sit on the piano bench again.”
“We do every year.”
“You’re right. We do. It’s one of my favorite parts; having so many people that we need to use that bench. You know, I wouldn’t want an empty table.”
“So he’s coming then?”
“Of course, he’s coming. I’ll call him. No one should be alone. It’s Thanksgiving. (Pause.) I wonder if Sylvia and Mel are going to their daughter’s this year. Of course, we’d have to pick them up, too.”


We both knew Uncle Harold was never off the list. It was just part of the process. By setting the table early, my mother could gauge exactly how many more she could add to the headcount. And she always did.

Lesson 3: It’s only when you put in the work ahead of time that it is easy to make it look easy. Whatever it is.


What memories or lessons do these spark for you? We hope you’ll share a comment below.

Stay tuned for our next post on Tuesday. The next three lessons of the Ten Turkey Teachings from My First Favorite Teacher are all about the “days and nights” of Thanksgiving itself.

  1. Wait to DO the bread.
  2. Time travel—four days for 14 minutes.
  3. More than leftovers are left over.

Ten Turkey Teachings from My First Favorite Teacher: Introduction

Ten Turkey Teachings from My First Favorite Teacher: Introduction


Just Make Time

This image is my mom with one of her “little buddies.” No matter what was going on in her kitchen, if a little one toddled past, she made time to stop and sit right down on her “you-can-eat-off-of-it-of-course” clean floor. She’d focus totally, as though nothing else in the world was going on—even though it usually was. This image typified her approach to her family—my family. It’s an approach I strive to echo every day.

It’s almost three years now since I lost my mom. On some levels, it feels like time stopped moving that day. On other levels, these past three years seem to have flown by. When did it become three years? Someone really smart told me it would be like this. He was right. He also said that no matter how “fine” I am, my missing of her would sneak up on me when I least expected it, and that this kind of surprise would probably go on forever. (The guy’s moving up to genius level in my book. Is he Carnac?)


Sixes and Sevens

Last Sunday, I was, as my mom would have said, “At sixes and sevens.” Even walking twelve miles didn’t help. We’d been making all kinds of logistical plans for this upcoming Thanksgiving break, something I typically loved doing. Ah. That’s exactly what had been bothering me. I’d crashed right into a big multi-faceted memory that I was completely unprepared to encounter—Thanksgiving preparations with my mother. How did I miss that? Hello, loss; enter stage left.

Those wondrous, rich, warm memories still make me smile even in the midst of my saddened recognition that they are long over. Never one to limit my contemplation to the past, I tend to zoom right past the present into the future. So, I quickly realize that my own kids won’t ever have those same sorts of Thanksgiving memories with their mom. We don’t “do” Thanksgiving each year; instead, we “go to it.” We travel back to my hometown to share this holiday with the rest of my family. This is the only Thanksgiving my children know. So, I console myself that they’ll have their memories, different from mine, though equally if not more caloric.

I immediately felt better as I revisited my memories. They still make me smile, even now. My mother’s still teaching me, even now. That’s when I decided to stop missing the past and start integrating it. I decided to cast a wider net than just sharing these stories with the two unsuspecting travelers in the back seat of our car as we motor towards our celebration next week.

What I miss so much at Thanksgiving is the preparation and planning that my mother and I used to share. Clearly, major corporate takeovers were no match for the level of precision, planning, and protocol that we brought to bear on our annual task—loving every minute. I can’t replicate these traditions or create these same experiences now for my children or myself.

What I can do is pass along some of the stories. Sharing some of the amazing things my mother taught me, year after year, as we made our way through the many days and nights leading up to this holiday, might even help others. That was always important to her, as it is to me. It’s also important to my kids. So, in honor of this common denominator, share I shall.


Always and Never

A lot of people have trouble at this time of year, kicking off with Thanksgiving and tumbling through to New Year’s Day. At this time of year the words always and never seem to pop up a lot. “We always make sage stuffing. We’ve simply never been a corn and mushroom stuffing sort of family.” Always. Never. Such absolutes tie back to traditions we each hold dear.

To many, the holiday season always looks like others do it better, enjoy it more, or don’t gain an ounce. Many people find themselves grappling with memories, as I was last Sunday. Others may feel overtired, overstressed, or underprepared for the realities. Still others may hope for a level of perfection that’s only attained on the Hallmark channel.

As I sifted through my mother’s words of Thanksgiving wisdom, two thoughts immediately struck me. First, these memories are so deeply ingrained that ten mantras came rapidly to mind. And second, I realized she wouldn’t have labeled them as such. To her, they were “simply the way it all was—and was supposed to be—every year.”

To me, these precious gems are substantive, serving to remind me of my own history. They’re also comical; I clearly get my sense of humor from my upbringing. These exchanges are as sharp as if they were taking place in the present. Through this recall, these memories of past Thanksgivings are now a part of my present. Sharing these stories weaves them into my current blueprint of expectations, of what “Thanksgiving is (and was always) supposed to be.”


Write Now, Pack Later

In my work with and for teachers, I know that lessons and learning can happen everywhere; we have only to look—and listen. My mother, though physically gone, left behind a rich legacy and many story-clad teachings. Her tag lines could inspire some of us to recognize patterns from the past, choose the traditions that still resonate, and look, listen, and even learn from new experiences. There is no singular way to DO Thanksgiving. Always and never might give way to perhaps.

So, I’ll spend this time writing instead of packing in hopes that these slivers help put this special holiday into a different perspective—for all of us. (Yes, sliver was a carefully selected word; that was the precise portion one was always supposed to cut of the pumpkin pie, albeit seventeen times—but never in front of witnesses.)

We’re likely to continue to choose our always traditions; we’re just as likely to continue to hold equally fast to our nevers. But if these tales help to spark you to try one new thing, discover that one CAN enjoy Thanksgiving even with store-bought mashed potatoes, then I made the right chose to pack later. I have every confidence that we will not pull out of the driveway with my undone laundry trailing behind us. Packing always gets done just as losing those last six pounds before overeating probably never will.

Stay tuned for the next three posts. Here’s a preview of the first three lessons.

  1. It’s not about the turkey.
  2. We don’t REALLY need it.
  3. Set the table early.

What lessons did your family teach you at Thanksgiving? We hope you’ll comment below and share just one.