It is a bit after 7 am on Thanksgiving morn. I have done the duty I have for some twenty-six years now (without a break), the ritual preparation of the family turkey. I woke up, without wanting to, at 5 am and got up and started the massive task of getting the bird stuffed and in the oven so that the starving Koerners will be able to eat with gusto, and, as Art Buchwald stated so eloquently years ago, “…for the only time during the year eat better than the French do.”
I had mentioned in my other blog entry that I have been doing the family bird and stuffing for all these years because circumstance moved me into it and apparently I did it well enough that my family will not hear of my changing the ritual. The Koerners are heavily involved in ritual throughout the year, Mary Kay and I had always more or less been proponents of it, but I must tell you that there is a serious backlash from it. Not that I don’t think it is a good idea, I do, but there is a price to pay.
An example of a ritual with a price to pay is the Christmas stocking issue which I still do for my twenty/thirty something sons and their significant others. I collect all sorts of valuable/invaluable trinkets throughout the year for these. I learned the habit from my mom and kind of added my own spin to it. The kids almost look more forward to this than to their actual gifts. Another is that the decorations at various times of the year have to be placed appropriately in “their places.” When this is not followed, there is often hell to pay. Mary Kay started making a “Vichyssoise” of sorts, a potato soup and was told one day by my oldest, “Something is different here.” My wife admitted to not having the usual bacon or having tried a different chicken stock. The good news is that these little things are the cement that keeps families together, as ridiculous as it seems. When everything else goes awry, you can count on that Potato Soup to be delicious, soothing, and as my son Richie hates to hear me say, “a comfort food.”
The reason I took almost two hours to get that bird in the oven is because the family stuffing I use, which is based on saltine crackers, is so loose in consistency that the turkey must be sewn up very carefully, otherwise the stuffing will flow out before cooking. I have put in a picture of the family bird so that you can see the plastic surgery our Deerfield turkey endured before hitting the oven. I actually have to remove skin from one side of the bird and attach it to the other so as to allow me to seal it up and keep the stuffing from exploding out as it bakes. It has the consistency of a soufflé when it is done. The first time someone tries it the reaction is generally disconcerting. It is not what one expects. The second part of the reaction, however, is to become addicted to it.
I have mentioned in previous articles of my blog about my “Honey Don’t” list and how I am perhaps not the typical guy. I have always thought that I am so because of the loss of my dad at age seven. I was forced to learn to do all sorts of domestic things (which I found out later actually bothered my mom, as men don’t do those things) and to cook. I am a type A personality as my wife reminds me and I truly have trouble sitting down. I rationalize that I cannot since I have so much to do and I now have the chance to insert a phrase I use every so often which drives my wife crazy, “Women work from sun to sun but a man’s work is never done,” which is, of course, my version of a well-known expression. Preparation for Thanksgiving is labor intensive and worth it. My father-in-law used to say to me, “It just isn’t worth it. You spend all that time preparing, working hard, and it is gone in a moment.” I don’t agree. I think that the benefits are immense.
Our family has to have everything from scratch, we like to eat healthy, use what we have, use the most natural products, etc. We stick to it, otherwise there is that infamous price to pay. Our meal is generally complex, simple, yet elegant. The mashed potatoes are just plain mashed potatoes with butter, milk, and salt (we cannot abide “fake” mashed potatoes). The salad is simple and sometimes adorned with croutons and a homemade vinaigrette. The pumpkin pies are made by the expert pie maker, my wife, and always done to perfection with a crust her mother tried to reproduce without ever managing to even approach it. We have rolls, fresh cranberry sauce, wine, and sometimes champagne (it has to be French, otherwise it isn’t champagne).
The table is generally surrounded by more than ten, it depends on the year, we often have someone coming who has nowhere else to go and sometimes people just show up for dessert.
This year we were supposed to have all the boys home for the event. Michael, at the very last minute, ran into housing issues in California where he lives, and will not be with us. The trauma and discussions preceding this day once we found out he wasn’t coming were monumental. We needed him and he isn’t with us. At least he will be coming in a few weeks. The good news is that “Dad” had to say very little to him to express disappointment, everyone else, especially his brothers, took charge of that!
As is often the case, my mind went into “zen” mode while sewing up the bird and preparing the stuffing. The first thing I thought of was my sister-in-law who passed away on the 4th of July over a year ago after a courageous battle against an insidious pancreatic/kidney cancer. As I cleaned the bird I looked at the tail of the bird and thought of her as she was the only family member who enjoyed attacking the small amount of meat found on it.
I thought of how sad it was that my mom will not be able to be with us as she is in the nursing home (since January) and it is absolutely impossible to get her out in a doable way as she is wheelchair bound and our house is so inhospitable to that issue. I am planning on taking her some stuffing and I know exactly what she will say, “it is delicious but you need to season (salt, in her lingo) it more!”
My in-laws will not be here, my father-in-law having passed away following his daughter in October of 2009. My mother-in-law is saddled with an unbelievable dementia which has only exacerbated the bad character traits she possesses. I am not saying she has been totally bad all her life, she hasn’t, but what I deem to be traits of mental illness have caused her to be abusive mentally and verbally to her children, family, and others. She has been a terrible burden this year as she is living in a nearby apartment and has caretakers coming in twice a day. Her life has taken a very sour turn as she deals with the sadness life has brought her and deals with the fact that she is so hard to be around, and there is such history of past unpleasantries, that no one wants to be around her. We get numerous calls from her looking for her husband, often thinking he is out drinking with our oldest son. The irony there is that he never drank in the latter part of his life and that he would be at a bar with our son. As our son explained, that would only happen if he paid for Papa! At 3:45 am the other morning we got one of the many calls from the police/firemen that they were spending “quality time” with her as she had, once again dialed 911. They said that her lungs were clear, but that if we didn’t physically “sign off” for her, that they would have to take her to the hospital for observation. So, off went Mary Kay to sign the forms.
I am thankful that we have done our best to take care of our elderly family members. Their situations are not perfect, but we are keeping them safe, clean, and warm for the most part. Without them, the family Thanksgiving ritual shall be different, but, in many ways, easier. My in-laws’ arrival was always touched with “When are we eating?” They were very demanding and caused great stress to us that is now only with us in passing comments and some sad memories. The horn will not honk this year to force us to do what they expected us to do, run out and help them out of their cars (whether they needed help or not) and make our blood pressure rise.
This year, we shall be about eleven or so around our table. Despite the traumas of the past two years, I am optimistic. We have had a rough time losing Mary Kay’s sister. The relationship with her was basically good, but fraught with, what I view, the aftermath of being brought up in the home she was reared in. I always felt that her “stance” toward us had been so colored by the abuses she had endured with her overbearing but very well meaning parents, especially her mom. She had done her best to be as far from the parents as she could and somehow my wife ended up somehow as an afterthought at times. I am convinced that this was due to her need to escape a malignant situation. As she approached the end of her life, she and Mary Kay had pretty much laid to rest the silliness of growing up, growing apart, moving away. The central pain in all of this is that the relationship was never what it could have been. The realization of that fact is quite painful and the short span of her life actually putting a cap on its evolution to something better for both.
Mary Kay’s sister’s son lives in the Chicago area and will be with us, as often he has been in the past, for Thanksgiving with his wife and two children. They are most wonderful people and we feel very close to them. Ken, having been older and semi-established in the area, remained here when his parents, sister and brother moved to Virginia. They are an integral part of our family.
The dissolution of the older two boys’ business within the past months has been traumatic in a different way. I view it literally as the loss of a loved one. We are currently in a state of mourning, all at different places in the process. Christian has moved on to finding a job in the business world he is not truly happy with. He realizes that we have to make compromises in life and his family needs to be taken care of. Richie has kept the brunt of the business mode and is evolving it into a handyman/snow removal operation, a change from its brickpaver era. He has had more of the hands on, equipment maintenance aspect while his older brother has done more of the business end. Although they love each other dearly, dissolution of the business has wreaked havoc on them (as it most naturally would) and has had repercussions within the family. Mary Kay and I have done our best to keep communications lines open and make sure that we all keep this within the proper perspective.
My genetics taught me the glass half empty approach, I have fought all my life to see it the other way. I have succeeded, for the most part in managing to maintain this. We have been so, so blessed. I told Mary Kay the other day that for years I was waiting for the “shoe to drop” as I felt that things were moving along so well and with so little bad stuff happening to us. Some of the bad stuff that has happened recently has only emphasized some of the negativity that had been going on for so many years. I reflect back and often have wondered if we had needed to take a different approach to many of the little difficulties and I realize that, in fact, we had done the right thing. With some issues, it often just doesn’t matter.
Life is good! Samantha, soon to have her second birthday in March of 2011 is a total joy and a total reminder that we must all go on. Her energy, joy, smiles, infectious laughter, and enthusiasm remind us where we all need to be on this day. We cannot allow the negativity to infect us to the point of losing control or falling prey to total sadness, we need to harness the positive and remember that tomorrow is another beautiful day and that next year will bring changes that will make things better if we demand that they be. I, of course, have my own special joy with her in that she and I share a common language, French. I speak nothing but French to her and it is so fascinating to me to see how she acquires it and how well she understands it.
It is now almost 8:30 am. The turkey is doing beautifully in the oven. I lowered the temperature, basted it with the broth I had made, and the kitchen is relatively clean after the swath of destruction my travails made as I created the stuffing.
It is now a few hours later, almost noon and the turkey is to be done in about an hour. I have been faithfully basting it every so often and tending to the broth I made on the stove with the turkey innards and some vegetables, using that to baste. Had to cover the turkey with a bit of foil here and there to protect the skin.
During the time between my first writing and now, we have set the table, set up the drinks outside since it is cold enough for pop, beer and wine out there. Christian and Samantha arrived and she will take a nap here, making it easier for her and for us to enjoy the meal. The potatoes are peeled and ready to go.
Soon all will arrive. It appears Richie and Emily shall be at her family’s place as the newly engaged couple. Perhaps they may join us here later, it is hard to believe that Richie will be able to pass up the stuffing. Luckily there are always lots of leftovers and they never go to waste.
Come 1:30 pm or so, the Parch family arrives (Ken, Carla, Abby, and Stephen) and Laura and her mom arrive as well. Appetizers, drinks, conversation and then the meal come 2:30 or so. It was amazing. The turkey, stuffing, cranberries, rolls, salad, and gravy were great. We had a delightful time.
Come 9:00 pm Mary Kay and I were sitting down in our leather armchairs, chilling by the TV. Everything is pretty much cleaned up and the leftovers are put away. Vive Thanksgiving!