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.
- It’s not about the turkey.
Lesson 1: Always dig for the real reason.
- We don’t REALLY need it.
Lesson 2: Know what you REALLY need. Look carefully, choose carefully, and remember, most everything freezes.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.