Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

Memories of Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving afternoon and I am sitting at my parents’ house. It’s quiet for the moment on a beautiful warm-ish sunny day and my mother is resting after coming home from the hospital yesterday.

Mother did not feel up to having the Thanksgiving meal at the home of my brother and his family today as planned so we quickly came up with an alternative. I cooked what Mother and I planned to bring from her house and my brother will bring food from their house and pick up our part of the meal.

Mother had planned to cook her cornbread dressing so I used her recipe to make that happen. I was asked to make “kushmagudi,” my grandmother’s coinage for her savory mixture of crumbled cornbread and the potlikker from a pot full of turnip greens. I also am contributing an ambrosia, a fruit salad that is always as individual as the person who prepares it.

My own ambrosia is in a state of constant flux, based on memories of my Grandmother Journey’s version, adaptations of chef Scott Peacock’s elegant recipe, and various others I have tasted. My own version today includes satsumas, pineapple chunks, shredded coconut, pecan pieces, and – in lieu of the miniature marshmallows so often used in a Southern ambrosia – I mixed in a bit of fluffy marshmallow crème. One final touch is a few cherry halves sprinkled in for color as much as anything. The cherries are not necessary but I seem to recall them from ambrosias past.

Every Thanksgiving, no matter the individual circumstances that particular year, reminds me of my Grandmother Harbison. She would start cooking early and load a table with all kinds of food for the special day. Somewhere, at my parents’ house, there is a photo I took of Grandmother’s table just because I could not believe the bounty.

The memory is abundant. The lacy tablecloth would be on the dining room table and there would be potatoes – sweet and Irish, beans, peas, turnip greens (our family was always partial to turnip greens over collards), a big bowl of kushmagudi, casseroles, cranberry sauce, breads, and cornbread dressing (my Grandmother Journey would make oyster dressing if we were at their house).

At Grandmother Harbison’s table, there was always a turkey and a ham; chicken and roast beef were often on-hand. She cooked beautiful cakes and pies and there’d usually be a break between the meal and the dessert. Her dining room table wasn’t a huge one, but somehow, she’d manage to get everything on the table, including our place settings.

Grandmother Harbison fed people her entire life. Her philosophy was to have plenty of choices so that everybody would find something they liked.

I was a skinny kid in those days but, on the holidays at Grandmother Harbison’s table, I liked it all.

My most vivid memory of these meals, however, is what Grandmother would do while the rest of us were eating. She’d pull her own chair away from the table and sit in the corner or by the door to the kitchen. She’d take a small plate – sometimes a small bowl – and serve herself a small portion of everything on the table, tasting it carefully as she watched us eat and listened for our reactions. When she’d be asked why she didn’t pull her chair up to the table, she would respond “I’m fine here” and keep tasting, enjoying the reactions of her family to the products of her labors.

As the years pass, I think of such moments. I try to remember the exact year and circumstances of the very last Thanksgiving meal we shared at Grandmother Harbison’s table. But the details escape me. As it was happening, I’m sure we didn’t realize it was for the last time; we were savoring the meal, but we didn’t know we needed to fully and mindfully savor the moment.

Happy Holidays. 


Thanksgiving 2015: “Simple Gifts”

IMG_2063    Abraham Lincoln declared the national holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863 amidst some of the darkest days of the Civil War. Lincoln hoped the gesture might be a unifying measure. That didn’t really happen back then but Thanksgiving has since become a time of celebration and unity that transcends the crass commercialism that accompanies it. We take a day – or maybe only a moment – to pause and give thanks for whatever blessings we may have. Lincoln’s gesture reminds us that at the worst and most hopeless of times, we should remember what we have to be grateful for.

2015 has been a tough year for my family. As I write this, my father is in his fifth week in an intensive care unit. It has been very touch and go but after some pretty radical procedures Dad will soon be moved to a specialty care facility at another hospital where the goal is for him to progress to the point that he can come back home.

This would be good news for everybody, but especially for my mother who has been by Dad’s side every single day, holding his hand for hours on end and diligently making tough decisions about his care. My parents have been married almost 63 years and the bond between them is unusually strong, especially in the tough times. Mother is a cancer survivor; when malignant melanoma was found in one of her eyes thirty years ago Dad was beside her, fighting tirelessly with her the whole way. They have been a formidable and indominatable team throughout their decades together. Now it’s Mother’s turn to speak for Dad and she is showing how tough, resolute, and resilient she can be.

In the six months since my Dad’s health issues began a noticeable decline, some of my friends and acquaintances have faced their own challenges, serious illness, and a few deaths. Back in the summer I remarked to a friend that “I’m not ready for this part of my life.”

Who is?

So we take it day by day and try to be as positive as possible, even on the bad days and through the dreaded phone calls in the middle of the night. Dad still can’t speak but this weekend he wrote a few sketchy notes. He asked for his glasses and then wrote “How do I get out of here?” When Mother arrived at the hospital he wrote “I love love you.”

Mother said last week that there would be no Thanksgiving celebration this year. I understand how she feels and know how difficult it will be to work in Thanksgiving among the hospital visits.

Yet, remembering Lincoln’s gesture as well as the gesture of the English immigrants and indigenous people at that proverbial first American thanksgiving, it seems that the hardest of times may call for the most fervent of thanks. These times give us an opportunity to reflect on what we still have and appreciate and hope for.

We may not have a feast with a bird and all the fixings but I am sure my family and I will find time enough and reasons to give thanks on Thursday.

IMG_2067Simple Gifts (Shaker dance tune)
– Joseph Brackett (1848)
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

I thank you for reading my journal.