Thanksgiving

For the first 14 years of my life, Thanksgivings were spent at my maternal grandparents' house in Houston. Since the parents had to work and kids had school until Wednesday, we would all pile in the Station Wagon or Caravan at midnight that night and arrive in Houston around 9:00 the next morning. This was a great deal for us kids, as Doug and I just passed out for most of the trip. I'm sure my mom snoozed a little, but my dad powered through and drove most of the way. Sleep wasn't a big thing for him back then. 

My grandparents lived pretty close to downtown Houston, though you would never know walking around their tree-filled neighborhood. They were still living in the same house my mom grew up in, purchased around 1950. Houston was half a million people in the 50s and the city more or less exploded around them (it's around 7 million now). That little house felt very mid century, with much of the original furniture and decorations still in place. 

I loved visiting my grandparents. Because of the nine hour drive, we didn't see them all that often, so Thanksgiving and Easter were special treats. My grandfather was a creative man, spending much of his retirement writing letters or painting in his study. He was very fond of making up silly stories to entertain us. Memories of my grandmother mainly consist of sitting in her kitchen watching her cook. I can still remember how their house smelled, with the occasional scent of my grandfather's pipe or a Thanksgiving turkey mixed in.

Doug and I were also good at entertaining ourselves. Much like a cat with a cardboard box or plastic milk carton lid, kids can make toys out of anything. There are pictures somewhere of us climbing inside of the spare garden tomato cages. We would make up games and play them in the front yard. My grandfather would make us little "trains" by tying pine cones together with string.

The best part of Thanksgiving, however, was the food. Juicy turkey with homemade gravy, cornbread stuffing, homemade potato rolls, green beans (which as a child were some of the only vegetables I would voluntarily eat), mashed sweet potatoes with mini marshmallows, and for dessert, the coveted chocolate pie. After dinner we would all pass out. Most of us from tryptophan and massive amounts of food, but additionally for my dad from driving all night. The rest of the weekend we enjoyed many helpings of turkey sandwiches.

When my grandparents moved up to Lawton to an assisted living facility in 1990, the Thanksgiving torch was passed to my mother. No slouch in the kitchen herself, my mom was more than up to the challenge. By this point, Doug and I were kitchen assistants. Chopping onion and celery for the stuffing always seemed to take 5 hours, and my mom was always there to let you know if your pieces were too large or too small. I half expected her to whip out a ruler at times. She would have to recruit victims to crumble the stale bread into the stuffing bowl, an activity that would rub your fingers raw after the 10th piece of bread.

We also got roped into rolling out the potato rolls and dipping them in butter. Roll sizes were also carefully monitored by my mother. It's a wonder she ever let us help at all. I do remember many years being told to just go set the table. Once I got creative and went outside to gather colored leaves and branches for a festive centerpiece.

One year that stands out in my memory was early in my college career. By this point it was just the four of us as my grandparents were no longer with us. A sixteen pound turkey had been procured by my mother, thinking this sizeable bird would be plenty for four adults. She had not taken into account that one of those adults would be coming off of a semester of dorm chow and another had been subsisting on whatever he had time to throw together at his apartment. Doug and I destroyed that turkey. There was barely enough remaining for leftovers, a situation that left my mother quite distressed.

Once Ryan and I got engaged, it was time to start swapping family holidays. One year we would do Thanksgiving in Lawton and Christmas in Houston (Ryan's home base at the time), the next we would swap. Our holidays were vastly different. While my house was just the immediate family and could sometimes be eerily quiet, Steans Ranch was full of people, activity, and more food than I had ever seen outside of a party.

If you know Karen Steans, and it's likely if you've met me in person you do, you know that she is one of the most generous and welcoming people you will ever meet. Though holidays have become more of a strictly family gathering recently as the family has grown, they used to be open to anyone who didn't have a place to be. This was a concept that was new to me, and I had dinner with a variety of people I would never see again. It was a wild ride, and I will always admire Karen for being able to handle her role as hostess with ease.

The second year Ryan and I were married, my mom surprised us all by suggesting a vacation. Doug was not coming home that year, so my parents took the two of us to St. Thomas. I was a little jittery about flying as the trip fell two months after 9/11, but the anxiety was helped by swapping seats with my folks who had used their American Airlines points to upgrade to first class for the five hour flight. My mom kept trying to poke her head through the curtain from coach to check on us, but was scolded by the flight attendants trying to keep order in a post-9/11 world.

The trip was a blast, though it felt little like Thanksgiving. We spent time tooling around the island, my parents pointing out spots they remembered from their honeymoon, and eating too much good food. Ryan managed to get his turkey on Thanksgiving day, albeit with a little Caribbean flair. Most of our time was spent lounging on the beach or snorkeling in the sea. It was a nice departure from tradition, and our timing couldn't have been better. Not a lot of people were travelling at the time, so we didn't have to fight crowds at the beach.

The first year we lived in Phoenix, we made the unwise decision to invite both families to our house for Thanksgiving. Though our families had met and got along just fine, it was too much too soon in too small of a house. Both sets of parents, both brothers, and Ryan's cousin Susan were in attendance, as well as Ryan's great aunt who lived in town and came for dinner. Everyone aside from Doug and Jason stayed at a hotel, but during the day were in the house needing to be fed and entertained. This was the year I confirmed I was no Karen Steans and was not cut out for large scale hostessing.

Phoenix house. I don't ever remember my mom wearing another apron. She brought it with her.


Year four of our stint in Arizona was the worst Thanksgiving ever. My parents were scheduled to come to town in addition to Doug and Kristen, who were newly dating at the time. I had just started back on dialysis, when a nasty black spot began forming on my left arm dialysis fistula. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the day of the family's arrival found me in the ER getting the rapidly enlarging spot examined. 

I had a MRSA infection. The surgeon took one look at it and declared I would need surgery immediately. This sweet man no doubt interrupted his own holiday and wheeled me into surgery at midnight. My family came to visit me in shifts during my recovery and made and consumed turkey dinner at my house without me. They of course made sure I was never alone (Ryan was with me during the feast), and brought me leftovers, but I was incredibly disappointed at the turn of events. I had been looking forward to having everyone out for the holiday and ended up spending the entire time in the hospital.

Since moving back to Austin and both sets of parents retiring within driving distance, our Thanksgivings have been merged. There are a number of reasons these gatherings have been much more relaxed and successful than our first attempt in Phoenix, but mainly our comfort level has increased dramatically and we can all go home to our own homes after dinner. For the first few years, we would trade hosting duties. Steans's house, my parents' house in San Marcos, even our house one year. 

Eight years ago my mother passed away. I will write more about her another time, because she deserves her own post, but also because I'm not quite ready for that. Just know that I miss her every day and especially at the holidays. 

I have never been so thankful to have the best mother-in-law ever than after my mom died. She was there for me in every way I needed, but never tried to take my mom's place. That first Thanksgiving without my mom I decided to attempt to host at our house. It was the first and last time I made a turkey. 

The night before the feast, I discovered the turkey was still almost completely frozen. If Ryan hadn't been there to calmly work through the problem, I would have lost my mind. We spent an hour trying to run lukewarm water over it to help it thaw. The next day wasn't much easier. Luckily my brother was in town to try and help decipher my mom's gravy recipe, but I was a sea of regret that I had never paid attention to this part of the Thanksgiving prep. The gravy situation had always seemed too complicated to follow, so neither Doug nor I had ever participated. Somehow, through an inept collaboration we later decided should be a tv show called "Figure It Out!", we managed to produce some gravy. It tasted ok, there just....wasn't that much of it.

Since then, Thanksgivings have been at Karen's house and more recently at Jason (my brother-in-law) and his wife Amy's house. Since Jason and Amy have kiddos now, it's just easier that way. My dad is always welcome and we have occasionally been joined by Amy's parents. These dinners have been really fun. Everyone pitches in with food (I bring the carbs - my mom's stuffing and rolls), and the turkey is smartly provided by Central Market, fully cooked. This is a genius cooking cheat, btw. The turkey tastes great, and it doesn't dominate the oven for three hours.

This year is going to be a Thanksgiving like no other. In the interest of keeping ourselves and others safe, we are having dinner by ourselves, just the two of us. After jumping on the Central Market website to order a turkey, I decided the hell with it and am just picking up the entire dinner. If there was ever a year not to have to do any cooking, it's 2020. 

Which leads me to my plea. Please. Please do not have dinner with anyone outside of your quarantine group. The virus numbers have been rising exponentially, and that is largely to do with small family gatherings. I know you love your family, but if you do, you'll want to keep them safe and want to be able to see them next year. Please be smart about this and make this sacrifice, so that we can all be together again for many future Thanksgivings to come.





Comments

Dug said…
Figure It Out!
K said…
The pain of stuffing crumbs under the fingernails!!
Dick said…
Great post Jamie. Lots of good memories. The time flies and the kids age. Oh my.

Mom always shone at the Holidays.

Love, Dad

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