A Thanksgiving Lesson

            I am not a particularly good cook. In fact, I am a pathetic cook because I have no interest in cooking except for the simple act of putting food on the table. I can usually follow a recipe, but there’s no guarantee that the finished product will look or taste as advertised.

            The problem goes back to my teen years when my mom insisted I learn to cook. She’d make me stand next to her and watch every move she made. It was incredibly boring. I needed to study. If I didn’t earn straight As I’d be punished. My allegiance went to books, so I’d stand next to her with book in hand.

            That meant I wasn’t paying attention. So when I was told to replicate her concoction, I couldn’t. My mom cooked from memory, not from books. Unless she wrote it down, there was no way I could produce the item. When she did record her recipes, she often left out an ingredient or a crucial step.

            One year my family decided that my husband and I should host Thanksgiving dinner. Mike is a good cook, so he took charge of the turkey and gravy, leaving me to handle the rest. I pulled out every cookbook I owned to find recipes for dressing, green beans and pumpkin and mince meat pies. I chose the easiest options.

            Things were in the oven or on the stove when my family arrived. Altogether there were fourteen hungry people crowded into our house. Fortunately we had planned snacks of cheese and crackers for that kept the kids happy and held the adults at bay while they downed mixed drinks.

            There was only about thirty minutes to go before the turkey would be done, the gravy could be made, the potatoes mashed and the green bean casserole put in the oven.

            The adults were getting restless. They had arrived with a preconceived notion of when the meal would be ready and we were not meeting their mental deadline. I was anxious. While everything looked okay, what if my concoctions didn’t meet their approval? My family could be obnoxious when disappointed, so as time ticked by and tempers began to flare, I knew things were going horribly wrong.

            Then the power went out. One moment the stove was working, the next it wasn’t. Was the turkey done? The beans? Potatoes? Everything appeared to be mostly done, but what if it wasn’t? You can eat the side dishes even if they aren’t quite finished, but you can’t serve an undercooked turkey.

            We waited for the power to return, but after thirty minutes it was obvious that it wasn’t happening. My dad and brother offered advice laced with sarcasm, almost as if it was something we had done to switch off the power.

            My husband is a calm, easy-going man. He moved the barbeque into the backyard and lit the coals. When it was ready, he placed the turkey outside. Everything else went into the still-warm oven.

            The troops, however, were impatient, frustrated and hungry. They had allotted only a certain amount of time to be at our home and that time was ending. Either food would be served or they would leave. The options were not politely phrased.

            I hung out in the kitchen pretending that I knew what I was doing and that things were in hand. Mike monitored the turkey, which meant he was outside leaving me inside getting the brunt of the criticism.

            When the turkey was finally done, I was able to breathe a tiny sigh of relief. As he cut and placed meat on a platter, I pulled everything out and got it on the table. He made the gravy and poured it into the bowl.

            Dinner was served. People sat. Grace was said. The food was edible even though most things weren’t hot. Tempers settled. A bit of peace entered the house.

            Just as the last of the dishes were being rinsed off, the power returned.

            People left, some bearing leftovers.

            The meal worked out, but never again would I host a family meal. The stakes were too high and I refused to bear the brunt of their anger when the fault lay not in something I had done, but in the failure of the power to stay on.

            Later on Mike helped me understand that things had worked out despite my nervousness and fears. After all, food had been served. No one left hungry unless by choice.

            That Thanksgiving was over thirty years ago, but it left an indelible mark. Never again, I told myself, would I host a family gathering.

            Little did I know that when my mother-in-law died that my husband’s family would decide that we would host a brunch for sixty people. I announced that I would cook nothing. I would take care of paper goods, but that was it. The family would have to prepare every dish and clean up afterwards.

            Guess what? I held to my pronouncement. When cooking was happening, I stayed out of the kitchen. I picked up no dirty dishes, washed not a single thing, refilled no snack bowls and did not monitor the ice chests of drinks. I found myself a quiet place away from the crowds and stayed there for the five hours that people were in my home.

            One failure was sufficient to keep me from ever cooking for a crowd. Even though I had had not control over the power going out, blame was still laid at my feet. If my husband’s family wanted a party, they would have to shoulder the effort. Never again would I shoulder the mantle of responsibility.

            It’s amazing how liberating it is to refuse, to loudly proclaim that I would not be in charge. If only I had applied that motto to other areas in my life, things might have been different. But that’s another story for another time.

Missing Him

           

I wonder where my dad is now?

What country or what town?

Do the people even know he’s there?

And care about his men?

I wonder what he’s thinking of?

While I stare at the clouds?

Does he see the same sky that I see?

And smile at the bright sun?

I wonder if he questions

What the war is all about?

Does it make a difference what he does?

And how will it all come out?

I wonder when he does come home

Whom he will smile at first?

Do you think he’ll even recognize me?

And know that I’m his son?

I wonder if he wonders

What I’m thinking of today?

Does he pray for me on bended knee?

And whisper I love you?

Family Time Situation

I love family.  Who doesn’t?  When, however, do you draw the line and say that enough is enough?  Is five hours of “together time” enough?  Ten hours?  How about two days?  What happens when two long days drag into three or four?

It depends upon how you define “family”.  I love spending time with my grown children, but I intentionally keep the time short so as to not wear out my welcome.  Four or five days, max, and I’m gone.  Don’t get me wrong. I love our time together, but I recognize that lengthy visits become an imposition.  After all, tall my “children” lead hectic lives filled with work, school, children (in my daughter’s case), and a social life all their own.  They are not dependent upon me for their entertainment.

With my husband’s family it is different.  They seem to suck up time like a tornado, sweeping along anyone caught in their path.  Hours slowly turn into days, which then morph, painfully, into weeks.  Invitations crop up more regularly than armpit hair, and turning one down causes an earthquake that sets new highs on the Richter scale.

Is my perception an “in-law” thing?  That would be a partially correct interpretation.  The family shares a long history of names and places that mean little to me.  My husband’s family is huge, with roots beginning in Nebraska and with branches stretching from coast to coast, north to south.  I can’t keep all the cousins straight, let alone all the children produced within those relationships.

There are only so many times you can hear what someone’s house looks like, in a painfully drawn out explanation.  How is dear Uncle Jay doing?  The story is good for another five minutes, at most.  Then there are the wedding plans for the niece, which have to be retold every time an arrival steps into the room.  Comments about decorations, food, remodeling projects and health only carry a conversation so far.

Walking out of the room to enjoy some solitude is only permitted when a bathroom break is needed.  It’s amazing how many times that toilet seat calls!  One has to be careful even then, however, as too many visits prompt discussions about intestinal mishaps, surgeries, cancers, and deaths.

I do care for my husband’s family.  They are big-hearted people who accept everyone into their lives and hearts.  Once met, never forgotten and you are family for the rest of your life.

What is overwhelming are the never-ending parties that start late, run even later, and go on for days.  Dinner at five?  Arrive at four for cocktails and snacks?  Don’t worry if you get out of the house late or if you are held up in traffic, for you won’t have missed a thing.  You’ll be lucky to eat by seven.  Over by eight? Forget it.  Family parties frequently run into the early morning hours, dying only when the last standing person caves and crawls out the door.

Refusing an invitation is tantamount to causing a revolution.  Shock and dismay registers, for who could turn down such a lovely family?

After a few hours, I get restless.  My legs twitch and my eyes glaze over.  My patience takes a hike after hearing about Aunt Mabel’s hip surgery for the sixth time.  I yearn for a good book and a quiet corner like some folks salivate over rare tri-tip roast beef.  Give me my computer!  Put on a good movie, even one that I’ve seen!  Turn on the stereo so that music fills the gaps in conversation.

As a hostess, I am conscious of my guests’ time.  Things begin and end when stated.  Dinner is served promptly.  Dessert and tea to follow.  An evening together is just that, and no more.  Never do I stretch a gathering into double digits, even when the guest is staying at my house.  I retreat into my solitude, allowing my company time to relax and recoup energy.

One time declined an invitation.  Mind you, this was after being together for twenty-four hours.  I thought that the earth would shatter and swallow me up!  My husband gasped and turned pale, so I quickly amended my decline by adding that he could come if he wanted.  My mother-in-law gave me a look that questioned my competence, and my sister-in-law giggled nervously, followed by a muffled cough.

Oh, well.  Here we go again.  How much time is too much time to be together as family?  When I quantify it with charts, graphs, and concrete statistics, I’ll let you all know.  Meanwhile, I’ll stick to my gut instincts.  When the stories recycle, then the party should be over.