I groggily stumble out of a nice warm bed on a cold Thanksgiving morning. Yawning wide, I make my way to the kitchen with two hungry kittens on my hills. Filling their bowls, I talk to them and watch them weaving in and out around my legs. I watch and I smile as they gobble up their breakfast, their little teeth making crunching noises on the dry kibble. I turn on the kitchen sink water, grab my vegetable scrubbing-brush, and start scrubbing sweet potatoes. The frigid cold water hastens my waking.
Looking out the window on the gray day of Thanksgiving with scattered gold and red leaves littering the ground, I think of how many years I’ve made these sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving morning with the sounds of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade blaring in the background. I think of past Thanksgiving days and my heart waxes nostalgic. I remember waking up as a child every Thanksgiving morning to the smells of my mother’s sautéed onions and the flavorful wisps of roasting turkey. Sometimes I think those were the best smells in the whole world. I would linger in bed and listen to the sounds of my mother clanging pots and pans down the hall in the kitchen. I remember my dad coming into my bedroom with his announcement that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was starting. I remember how our family of five and maybe a guest or two all gathered around the dining room table for Thanksgiving dinner (it’s the only time I can remember eating in the dining room) and how I’m grateful for those memories. I can still see my mother’s Napco turkey centerpiece in the middle of that table, her gold tablecloth and her Gurley pilgrim and turkey candles. They were guaranteed to be there every year. I remember her cornucopia and the basket that contained pine cones and all the gourds my mother had spray painted gold. I think of my father’s jokes and his laughter and I can still visualize my mother stressing over her gravy not being thick enough. Her gravy was always delicious whether she believed it or not.
I think back to being in Colonial Williamsburg on a high school trip just days before Thanksgiving of 1976 and eating at King’s Arm Tavern. I still will swear to the day I die, that it was the best meal I ever ate. As I was leaving the tavern, the kind lady dressed in colonial times smiling big by the door, handed me a book of recipes of everything I had eaten that evening. I remember my mother waiting in her green Ford station wagon as I stepped off the Greyhound bus at the high school on Thanksgiving morning and how the car reeked of sauteed onions which made me realize my mother was taking a break from her busy Thanksgiving cooking schedule to pick her youngest daughter up. I excitedly began telling her that it was the best trip ever and thanking her for letting me go. I told her about the delicious tavern meal and that I had the absolute BEST recipe for sweet potato casserole. That afternoon, she let her 17-year-old daughter make that sweet potato casserole and it became a Thanksgiving tradition from that point on. Thirty eight years later, I still get up early on Thanksgiving morning while my family sleeps in and I make those King’s Arm Tavern sweet potatoes. It’s funny how family traditions get started.
I’m still staring out the window while my memories swirl and the gold leaves shine on the ground like a golden wheat harvest. Sadness comes this year like it does every year and I come to expect it. I see the dead and dying leaves all over the ground and I’m reminded of my losses. Thanksgiving is a day to be with family and so I miss my mother and father on Thanksgiving Day. And for the second year in a row, I miss my youngest son being home on Thanksgiving. I wonder if he misses me too. I’m very grateful for blessings big and small in my life, but there’s this emptiness there and I have to acknowledge it to get through the day.
So I’m standing at the sink and I’m scrubbing those potatoes until I about scrub the skin right off. My eyes blur and a tear drops into the sink. I long to call my father and hear him answer the phone as he always did on this day. “Happy Thanksgiving.” I can hear his low, calm voice so vividly and I remember the sincerity in his voice. I recall how some of the neighborhood kids just liked calling our house on Thanksgiving Day because they knew my dad would answer the phone with his characteristic salutation. I stop scrubbing potatoes and I call my son but he doesn’t answer.
I call my son again later in the evening when our family gathers together for our traditional meal. Still no answer, but I expect it this time. I won’t call again. The tears well up hot but I fight them away. I sit with family around the table and I listen to old stories. As usual, my brother-in-laws make me laugh loud. I listen to cousins sitting at the kid’s table in an adjoining room and I hear their laughter wafting in to our room. And I’m thankful for the traditions and the memories, and the love. I’m even thankful for the sadness.
I get home and I light Thanksgiving candles and I feed my kittens turkey pâté cat food. I put the empty sweet potato casserole dish in the sink to be washed. Another Thanksgiving has come and gone and I am grateful for the blessings in my life. And I’m thankful for traditions and for that sweet potato casserole.