Stuffing, Veterinary Liniment, and Other Holiday Delights

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On the outside, it seemed so much the same. I was thankful for that. I’m a fan of sameness.

Routine. Tradition.

I dislike big changes.

As a child, I cried when my parents changed the kitchen wallpaper or traded in the old Station-wagon for a new one.

So it stands to reason that on this day, this year, this first major holiday without my sister, my entire soul craved routine.

Carefully, I asked my mother what time we would be eating.

1 p.m.

Good. Same as in years past.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, I considered recipe choices for what dish I might bring and in the end, decided on the same pineapple cake with homemade cream cheese frosting that I’ve taken every year for at least ten years.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, we made snacks and hung out with the kids the night before, our own little accidental tradition that has come about over the years – this celebrating big holidays on the eve of the actual day – mainly because the actual holiday is so fast and crowded and loud and it can be hard to pay attention to each of my own four kids during a giant family meal, and also because I’m a lazy mother who would rather make snacks and play Aggravation or Sorry! than spend hours making an identical dinner to the one my mother will make the next day.

This year, it was a little different because there was a new boy hanging about. I can’t say he is my teenage daughter’s boyfriend, because evidently that’s an archaic term that is no longer groovy or hip to bandy about, but I suppose I can call him “The-Boy-My-Daughter-Exclusively-Holds-Hands-And-Hangs-Out-With-Whose-Facial-Piercings-Give-My-Mother-Tics” without dropping any points on my Cool-o-Meter.

He seems like a nice boy.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, I rose early the next morning to turn on the Macy’s Parade, and began preparations for cake baking. I had time the day before to do it, but intentionally left it undone, because I usually make it the morning of Thanksgiving, during the Parade, and this was no year for change.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

The snow was falling prettily, dusting the roads and grass and the mountains of leaves in my unkempt yard that I haven’t bothered to rake up and it all looked rather picturesque as we pulled out of our drive.

Carefully, we stopped at the local gas station to pick up two newspapers; one for us, one for Mom. Something my husband started doing years ago, when my Dad was still around, and after the big meal had been eaten and Mom’s fancy gold-plated utensils washed, and the desserts sat forlornly on the table, warm and messy from attack, we would spread out the papers and look at the ads and detail which sales might be worth fighting for.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, we maneuvered the somewhat slick, old dirt road that led to Mom’s house, the one we all grew up in. The house my father died in. The house my sister died in.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, I swallowed hard as I realized ours was the only vehicle arriving for Thanksgiving dinner.

Usually, there are so many cars pulling in on a holiday morning, some of us have to park in the road.

This year, the white blanket in Mom’s driveway was untainted by tire treads.

Carefully, I blinked hard and fast and bit my lip, really hard.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

But the smells were the same. Turkey, stuffing, gravy, biscuits, green beans with mushroom soup, all mixed together and wafting from the side door as Mom leaned out to greet us, the scent getting caught up in the bitterly cold air and drifting up my nose all at once.

The sight was the same. Mom dithering back and forth, back and forth, worrying over the pots simmering on the stove, ordering the carving of the turkey, wondering aloud if anyone else might show up.

The fancy Christmas tablecloth was on her large, wooden table; golden silverware tucked into little poinsettia pockets; the good, glass dishes overflowing with tossed salad and deviled eggs and every other traditional Thanksgiving delight.

She was smiling because one of my nephews had called and he and his girlfriend were able to come.

Back turned to me, she announced, in a slightly wavering voice, a change this year: instant potatoes.

Potatoes.

Mashed potatoes were my sister’s particular dish. Every year since I was a little girl, Mom would boil a giant pot of potatoes and then they would sit, mushy and waiting, for my sister to arrive to add the butter and milk and do the actual mashing and whipping them into fat white clouds.

So this was different. Mom just boiled the water and added some milk and the instant flakes, stirred them up, and rubbed her age-weathered-but-well-manicured-hands together as if swiping something crumbly and sticky off them.

It worked out okay. They turned out pretty well.

For instant potatoes.

And this year, she remembered to set the timer for the biscuits, and did NOT burn them.

I’m kind of used to the toasty bottoms.

But I realize I can’t always have my way.

It sounds ridiculous. I know.

This year, we did not pray over the meal. Nobody mentioned it.

Nobody gave thanks for anything. Not that we were ungrateful.

It was just exhausting enough, smiling and trying to keep some balance.

My nephew and his girlfriend sat across from us, and he joked about being 23 years old and finally getting moved up from the little kids table.

At the head of the table where Dad used to sit, was Mom’s Canadian Boyfriend. She’s been seeing him for a couple of years now.

It used to be that there would be at least 20 people present for any holiday, and quite often, more than that.

This year there were eleven.

That might sound like a lot, but considering seven of them came in my vehicle, not so much.

So we ate and cracked jokes and complimented Mom on her cooking and passed the stuffing and gravy and cleaned it all up and washed the dishes and then set out the desserts.

There were so many desserts, and so few of us.

But we plowed through them, like the steadfast soldiers we were.

We sent the kids to help carry up the heavy boxes of Christmas decorations and Mom’s tree, while the adults sat in the living room and sorted through the newspaper ads.

By some unspoken pact, we seemed to all avoid the family room, where my sister’s hospital bed used to be.

At least for most of the day.

Mom kept repeating to me, “We have to do this. We have to make memories for the little kids. We just have to do it.”

And we did.

Mom boxed and bagged up the majority of the leftovers for us to take home.

The Canadian Boyfriend gave me a hug and a bottle of Veterinary Liniment and told me to rub it on my knees and injured back and it might help.

I’m still trying to figure out if that was some sort of passive-aggressive insult, or an actual gift.

We gathered our crew together and left a little bit early. My husband had seen an ad for a TV he wanted to try and grab at Best Buy. Ours has been broken for about a year now.

In general, I am adamantly against shopping on Thanksgiving.

But hey, I guess it’s a year for changes.

The new TV is nice.

The leftovers were tasty.

I’ve not yet tried the Veterinary Liniment.

At any rate, we made it through.

Carefully.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

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