Sometime around 2003 or so, we, as a family, decided to give my mom a break from cooking and, instead, started going to the Chinese buffet in Taunton to pig out. It was rather a shock at first, both to me, as a man steadfast in his belief in tradition as a binding and bettering force for all of humanity, and for my mother who was pleased that we would think of easing her burden after all these years of making a turkey with all the fixings but who would continue making a turkey with all the fixings every year, regardless--so we could have leftovers. She was one of a kind.
The smell of a turkey in the oven is one of the most satisfying and comforting aromas I can think of. Its subtle, savory, and salty overtones mixing with the sweet caramelizing notes imparted by the skin, invade a special part of one's brain reserved for the time of family. If you lived in my house, you could add to that the corresponding smell and flavors of the bacon which Mr. Tom Turkey was draped ceremoniously with. The constant opening and closing of the oven to baste and rotate the bird allows for so much of the furiously hot air, filled with dense flavor particles, to infiltrate the surrounding atmosphere. The aforementioned rotating of the bird had been my mother's job until I had become old enough and strong enough to be trusted with its safety. Despite my mother's retirement from this detail, every year, with a 375 degree open oven and a twelve pound bird stuffed with three pounds of stuffing held precariously in my oven-mitted hands, my mother would forego safety and hover just a bit too close, nervously anticipating a near or present disaster.
But disaster had rarely come on Thanksgiving, either on her watch or mine.
Except for one year.
The story is a simple one, but its legend has lived on and on in my family with such chiseled detail that it was almost as if we had learned about it in Sunday school.
The story is set in the late Seventies. Collars were wide, plaid shirts ruled my bureau, and earth tones and bold patterns were everywhere in sight. The fridge was full of Pepsi, Tab, and Coors Light. The latter was for my aunt, who would have two or three every once in a while. She would later downplay this to one or two every month, but I was closer in stature to the bottom drawer of the fridge, and I kept a close eye on the conspicuously labeled beverages. They seemed so adult to me. Go figure.
My mother had taken the bird out of the oven and placed it on a serving tray; it was ready. She was on her way with it over to the dining room table to bring to the ravenously gathered Johnsons, and held it high in front of her so that Bonnie, our yipping Wirehair Fox Terrier, wouldn't get at it, as if somehow she could suddenly find the strength to leap five feet straight up and grab the ten pound bird in her jaws and fly away under the couch. Just then, with the whole family watching, and with a mighty yelp, my mother had managed to slip and fall on the kitchen floor. Kaplunk! And then there was a short silence, followed by loud barking, and then laughter: my mother's laughter. And Bonnie was wagging her tail, lapping at the sides, back, top, and front of our dinner like a rescued Saharan refugee. The turkey had landed on top of my mother's generous belly, and her equally generous bottom had protected her back and spine from harm. She was alright. And seeing she was alright, and also spontaneously knowing how best to handle the situation, my dear aunt Lynda did the natural thing: she fired up her camera. She flipped open her Polaroid (always the techie, my aunt) and sarcastically asked my mom to smile. The look on my mother's face was a mixture of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance all at once. In a matter of a few seconds my aunt would, of course, help my mother up and make sure she and dinner were okay. But before then--before that necessary and courteous action could take place--my aunt had to capture that moment in time. Little did she know that we would never actually need the picture to remember the event. All we would need was for the holiday to come around again ... and again ... and again ... and again.
But I know there's a picture of this somewhere--a picture of my mother laid out on the floor, in tears of laughter, hearing a mix of the grunts of our dog close by, and the sounds of her family stuffing reflexive laughter into their pockets (and dutifully, albeit reluctantly, commanding the corners of their mouths to retreat from the smiling position) ten feet away. I can see it in my head: her look of amused resignation that despite the care, caution, and paranoia that went along with cooking ten or twelve pounds of nicely appointed meat for three hours, fate had intervened and brought her down to the level of the little dog, Bonnie, who had watched her master's precise cooking process for as long, if not longer, than we had. And now she was getting to sample it, and we were watching from the sidelines like common house pets. Around the holidays, irony knows no bounds.
And I know there's a picture of this somewhere, because my aunt always used to threaten my mother to have it framed and put on the dining room wall in honor of that most glorious event. My mom would almost always say, "Lynda, who needs a picture of it when you can just bring it up every Thanksgiving like you do?" And my grandfather would give me a wink and say, "Fred. Go see if your mother needs help," to try to change the subject. And my grandmother would clasp her hands and nervously sing along with the holiday music on the stereo a little louder, while she waited for the obligatory observance of the remembrance of the fiasco to pass. My mother would only be able to be mad at herself so long for allowing such a holiday faux pas to happen, and she too would smile and laugh and mention how Bonnie was our official taste tester that year, as she cut off a little bit of her meat and dropped it on the floor for her (or any of the subsequent canines we had after her passing).
But it was as predictable as a side of cranberry sauce that my aunt would bring it up. She loved her sister with all her heart, but she loved to get her goat (as they used to say) almost as much.
This continued, almost uninterrupted, up until, and including, our last few Thanksgivings together. The only exception being the one I spent with my mother while she was still in the hospital in November of 2005, a few weeks after her unsuccessful surgery attempt to remove the cancer on her pancreas. That day I spent the time with her alone, as my aunt had been in earlier in the day and we were, as a family, a big mess of nerves and hyper-cautiousness, coming in shifts and trying to carefully ignore the idea that this could very well be my mother's last Thanksgiving.
It was not.
My dear mother hung on like the trooper that she was for another thirteen and a half months, and we celebrated in 2006 like we never had before, as strange as that sounds.
The spread of shrimp cocktail; the onion dip and chips; the wasabi peas (a recent addition to encourage my aunt Anne to induce a wasabi nose burn featuring yelps and hoots at maximum volume); and the shrimp dip and crackers that had been my mom's specialty, but which, in recent times, had become mine.
The spread: Mr. Tom Turkey (complete with bacon) which my mom--as sick as she was--inexplicably made from beginning to end; the peas, corn, stuffing, mashed potatoes (my handiwork), and gravy. Not pictured, is the bowl of boiled turnips and carrots which nobody really ate, but which my grandfather had loved always and had requested at every holiday dinner. It was made every year, up to and including this one, regardless of the fact that he died in 1989.
My aunt Lynda, at the ready.
And the whole family: Judy, Lynda, Alex, and Anne.
While this is not the last holiday we all spent together, it is the last picture of the four of us in one photo. I can thank the timer for that.
In this picture you can see a ceramic duck-shaped dish. This duck-shaped dish contains the aforementioned turnip/carrot mix. And that dish is one of the most prized Johnson possessions--not that I every really was told why.
I made copies of this picture of the four of us, and gave it out as Christmas presents--framed--a little over a month following. Not long after, on January, 11, my Mom would pass away and everything would change ... as it always does.
Last year was a bit of a blur. I had just returned from France after spending three weeks with the Young at Heart Chorus, content with my success of taking pills instead of drinking. It was the first Thanksgiving without my mother. I remember going to someplace to eat; I remember the walls were dark brown; and I remember some strange looks from my companions. Other than that, sadly, it was a wash.
And this year I spent with family as well, though I did not leave Hampshire County, as I had for as long as I have lived in it. Instead, I spent the afternoon with my dear friends Steve and his wife, Michelle; Michelle's sister, Jennifer; her husband, Billy, and their beautiful little boy, Wiley. I made cookies in my new house, and gave some to the neighbors I had written about in a previous post--the ones that left me brownies on moving day. I got as dressed up as I ever have been, and brought over my version of a couple of bottles of wine--San Pellegrino--and as is like me, drank both of them myself. We toasted to those that came before us, those that are with us now, and those that could not be there. We laughed and we ate and we enjoyed the possession of life together. We listened to the soothing sounds of classical music on the radio until the news program started--almost on cue--as silverware hit the china, and it was switched to rock and roll. We talked of new houses, and music, and Lincoln Logs, and cookies, and Pirates, and old hippie bands, and past egregious inebriated actions, and the recent absence of them, and old friends, old dogs, old apartments, and old landlords.
We had cookies and relaxed, and as the afternoon turned to evening it came time to depart. I said goodbye and gave hugs all around. I clomped down the stairs to my car and felt the distinct chill on my head that reminded me that I had left my hat upstairs. I ran up to grab it and wasn't at the least concerned if anyone had been talking about me. And if they were, it could only be for good reasons ... at least this year. I drove the five minutes it takes to get to my house and changed into pajamas and watched a movie, nice and loud.
And it wasn't until this morning that I realized I hadn't told anyone at the dinner party about the time my mom fell down and dropped the turkey, and how Bonnie had gotten to taste it first, and how my aunt took a picture of it and ...
Well, you get the picture.
Like I said, the last few Thanksgivings have been strange affairs, to say the least.
Thanks for reading.