Villainous thoughts slithered through my brain like liquid nitrogen as I watched my husband Ken carry a fresh turkey into our home—the day AFTER Thanksgiving. The look I shot his way could have flash frozen him and the bird on the spot…if life were like a comic strip.
But life is much messier and harder to explain. If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know that the holidays can be painful because these are the times when you miss them the most. Some years ago a car accident on the 26th of December took my parents from me. My father died at the scene. My mother lingered for a few weeks, but she fell into a coma before I could get to the hospital. There were no final words between us. There wasn’t even a last Christmas memory since I lived in another country an eight-hour flight away and didn’t spend that holiday with them.
Many years have gone by since their passing, and I have cooked my fair share of turkeys for my family. Now that my children are grown, I won’t deny that the desire to duck a holiday here and there overtakes me. As an expat in Madrid, being far away from my home country and extended family means that I could hide if I wanted to. The stores aren’t brimming with turkeys and trimmings; the aroma of pumpkin pie doesn’t waft its way through the supermarket bakery section. No one has the day off work, and you could forget it’s a holiday at all if you are wise enough not to open your Facebook page.
I had successfully vetoed this Thanksgiving by working on a project that required my complete attention. After a normal weekday supper, I distracted myself with TV and texting until the clock struck midnight and “it” was over. It was now a new day, a non-holiday…at least until the turkey walked through the door 17 hours later.
When I prepare a turkey, I rub it with a blend of spices, the predominant one being a smoky paprika that reflects Spain, my home for the majority of my married life. Yet, each time I truss up a bird and pop him in the oven, I am transported back to Illinois and our 70s kitchen with the dark wood cabinets, orange counter tops and vinyl flooring. My job was to prepare the stuffing. I remember keeping one eye on the skillet where I was sautéing onions, celery and giblets while I grabbed the bread I had toasted the day before and quickly soaked it slice by slice in some water. I squeezed out the excess liquid and tore it into pieces before adding the warm, buttery giblet mixture, one egg, and the herbs and spices. The meal was wonderful even though the turkey always came out “well done,” as was every meat Mom ever served. The pale tablecloth of slivery-blue was a chore to iron, but it was the perfect backdrop for my mother’s Noritake wedding china with the delicate pink and blue flowers. The table held a colorful array of everyone’s favorites—deep red, spiced apples for my aunt, pale green celery stuffed with cream cheese and black olives for my cousin and a creamy, peachy Cool Whip Jell-O mold for me.
If I could relive one day from my youth, it wouldn’t be the surprise party for my tenth birthday, the day I got my braces off or my first kiss. I would choose a Thanksgiving celebration back in Coventry Heights in our tri-level, perched on a little hill where fruit trees dotted the slope of the backyard. Crystal glasses would rattle and ping in the china cabinet as heavy steps wore a path from kitchen to dining room, our arms laden with casserole dishes and platters. My mother and her sister would already be dividing up the Christmas cookie baking and setting a date for us to get together and make potica, a honey-walnut pastry from Slovenia. This time I would ask my grandmother the things I can’t believe I never asked, like what was it like to be one of 11 children. Perhaps it was a lingering effect of growing up during the Depression that caused Mom to buy a turkey much larger than six people required, but my Dad will be carving huge helpings for everyone. Just as we begin to eat, someone will jump up and attempt to rescue the rolls we forgot in the oven.
Alone with my memories late in the evening, I had the opportunity to focus instead of just react to the situation. Replaying the scene, I shifted my attention away from the 6.5-kilo turkey in his arms, and this time I managed to notice the look in my husband’s eyes. I mentally hoisted my emotional baggage and shoved it back on the shelf.
The next day I canceled my Saturday plans. I spent an hour sipping tea while removing pin feathers and prepping the turkey for the oven. Suddenly in my element, I was able to see the festive meal ahead instead of the chore, so I sent my husband back to the store because I know how much he loves green bean casserole. Once the bird was safely in the oven, I called a close friend to share the meal with us, someone kind and flexible who won’t mind if we eat at 2 pm or 3 or if the turkey is overcooked. While the beautifully browned turkey rested before carving, I snapped a photo to send my younger son, who is away at college. “Miss you. Wish you were here!” WhatsApp carried my love up to Scotland. My husband disappeared after the feast, biding his time until a respectful amount had passed and the meal could now be declared leftovers. I believe that was his real mission. He had ghosts of his own.
My eldest son went off to find some board games while I gathered the ingredients to make a rich broth out of the bones. I copied this tradition from my Spanish mother-in-law, who certainly had served her share of turkey dinners to her American husband. But my father-in-law’s favorite part of the holiday was the leftovers, specifically a turkey sandwich on white bread with lettuce and mayo. Without fail, this ritual happened the evening after the big turkey dinner. One year when our boys still had the faces of angels, we asked one of them to take the sandwich up to abuelo who was reading in his study. Downstairs we waited, frozen in place, unwilling to make any sound that would mask the unfolding of our little plan.
Was that the clink of the plate as it settled on his desk? The study was steeped in darkness except for the circle of light the desk lamp cast upon his open book, and we hoped he would be so engrossed in his reading that he wouldn’t lift his eyes from the page as he reached for a bite. The roar of surprise from my father-in-law when he grabbed the plastic sandwich had us all doubled over with laughter. He would be even more shocked to learn that the prankster was his quiet, serious first born. Ken had carefully assembled the bread-turkey-lettuce concoction from our kids’ toy box and tucked it into our suitcase until the right moment presented itself.
My father-in-law is also gone; he suffered a massive heart attack in his own kitchen early one morning while the coffee bubbled away on the stove. I met my husband at the door to our home that November day when he arrived back from Russia. I hadn’t been able to contact him before the flight so he could change his ticket. We traveled to his parents’ home in Seville to await the arrival of family and make preparations for the funeral. As we were all together and the man we were honoring would have greatly enjoyed it, we decided to celebrate Thanksgiving. I couldn’t have imagined a more fitting wake.
While I tidied up the kitchen, I noticed the new package of sliced sandwich bread. Maybe not an oddity in most cupboards, but here where you can grab a hot baguette from the corner store or even at the gas station, it stood out. Our son of the endless peanut butter sandwiches had been gone since September, and our other son is celiac (gluten free). That bread loaf had one designated purpose, so I double checked to see that we had mayonnaise. I didn’t have to ask my husband what he wanted for dinner. And sometimes that is what marriage is about. A silent plea. A turkey presented without warning. And the ability to put aside your own feelings in order to do the right thing.