Cervantes famously said: “Hunger is the best sauce.” So often what we bring to a meal, emotionally, physically, how we respond to the surroundings, is more important than what’s on the plate, as anyone who’s ever eaten cheese and apples during a fall hike knows. It’s why we love certain restaurants in spite of the food. It’s probably why some kids dislike eating at their friends’ houses.
The first Thanksgiving after my mother died was one of those meals. She died just a few days before Thanksgiving. It was like the keystone being pulled out of an arch, and like lost stones her three survivors—husband, sister, child— crashed and tumbled and just kept rolling. We were distraught, anxious, melancholy, giddy. We were like people on speed, who couldn’t stop talking and who couldn’t sleep. We felt exotic and strangely exhilarated, like travelers on a mysterious voyage, passing through a familiar world that no longer meant very much.
Edith Scott helped bring us back to earth. Edith was my aunt’s best friend, a tall, smart, blustery widow. She had money. Her bracelets jangled when she moved and she talked and laughed with a hoarse smoker’s voice. She loved my aunt, and us by extension, and decided the right thing was to make us Thanksgiving. It didn’t matter that she’d planned to spend the holiday with her grown children in Colorado, or that she’d just moved into a new house outside of town literally a week before. It was her gift to us.
I remember driving my father that afternoon, getting lost looking for Edith’s new house along empty country roads, the light already beginning to fail. It was still mostly farms then, fields covered in the stubble of corn stalks, the few village crossroads, with their gas station and grocery store and one tavern, shut down for the holiday. Hard to understand what she was doing out there. But then we found it, a large contemporary house standing alone in a bare field. We knew it because my aunt’s car was in the driveway. We stepped out of the car into that grey November stillness and went up the long gravel walk.
But when the door opened there was light and music and the smell of cooking. There was Edith, dressed up in an ivory silk blouse and flowing slacks, full of hugs and consolations. My aunt, beautiful again in makeup, already a little tipsy. And there was Shirley, Edith’s housekeeper who left her own family’s Thanksgiving to help make ours, stepping out from the kitchen to say hello in her apron and Keds. A blender was going, making creamy sweet drinks for the women, and Edith already had a scotch and soda in her hand for my father. It was the first time she’d seen us since my mother’s death and we stood for a few overwhelming moments in the hallway until my father burst into tears. Edith took him by the shoulders and, just as quickly, his moment of despair passed.
The thing about our family Thanksgivings was that my mother never made it the way other people did. She never cooked a turkey, or the usual array of side dishes. We never had pumpkin pie. That was all too pedestrian. And that was my mother. Where other people had cats, she had Siamese cats, and the rarer breeds too, chocolate points and blues. Where other families spent a week at the shore, she convinced my aunt, who married a savvy businessman, to fund trips to the Caribbean. She drove unpredictable foreign sports cars, MGs and Kharmann Ghias. Listened to Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald. She slept late in the morning, spent hours getting ready for the day, much of it on the phone with her sister. She redecorated continuously, learning to hang wallpaper and reupholster furniture. And once she started getting sick—she had significant cancers three times in her life—she had us move from house to house, sometimes as owners, sometimes as renters, always looking for something better. All my friends assumed that we were rich. What we were was in debt. But what a feeling of privilege to be inside the spell that my mother wove of her short, restless life. Our meals reflected it as well. She loved to cook, and so used Thanksgiving, like all our holidays, as an excuse to turn to her inspiration, Craig Claiborne, and prepare gourmet dishes like Beef Bourguignon and Paella and Chicken Cacciatore, Prime Rib and Fondue. The closest we came to traditional Thanksgiving flavor was a tart bready cranberry stuffing that she served with roast pork.
Yet here we were, in a generic ranch house that still smelled of cement and lumber, the furnishings haphazardly arrayed, wall-to-wall carpet with its factory sheen, about to sit down to an all-American, decidedly pedestrian meal. It was the real thing: roast turkey, Pennsylvania Dutch mashed potato stuffing, sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, creamed corn, jellied cranberry sauce in a can, gravy, the works.
And god, it was delicious. After helping bring everything to the table Shirley left and the four of us sat down and ate, and some of us ate more than we had in weeks. I discovered the intense pleasure of a turkey drumstick. The heavenly matrix of savory and sweet, that spot on the plate where stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn and cranberry sauce all merge. The harmonizing principle of real gravy. My aunt, at just five feet, was pound for pound the heartiest eater I’ve ever known, and always joked that we were a family of trencherman. Truth is we were, and for that night, at least, we were back.
After dinner, the memories fade. Edith’s boyfriend, Matthew, came over for dessert. Someone put on the TV for my father. There was pie. More cigarettes, more wine, a lot of laughter. Then it was time to go. Edith, who was leaving for Boulder the next morning, wrapped all the leftovers, pressed them into my hands. A parting gift.
The next morning I was returning to New York. The sad strange hiatus was over. So was my childhood. Before I left I bought a bag of soft seeded rolls from the local bakery and slapped together a few turkey sandwiches for the road. I remember eating them on the turnpike. They were just a little dry.