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Mom, the Turkey and Me

By Minda Zetlin

As a teenager, I disliked Thanksgiving. Not that I didn't like turkey and stuffing. It was what Thanksgiving stood for that bothered me: an expression of family togetherness.  I had the least together family I knew. I was an only child, and my parents were separated.

I lived with my father, a busy psychiatrist who rarely came home from the office before 10 p.m.. My mother lived alone. Under normal circumstances, we would never sit down to a meal together. But at Thanksgiving, my mother would insist. Ridiculous as it seemed to me, she would steadfastly gather us around a table, to act like a family, at least for one night.

Family was always very important to my mother. She came from a small coconut-growing village in the Philippines, and was one of seven children. In her world, there was always family around, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, innumerable cousins, poor relations who lived in her house and helped with the housework. She left them all behind to come to America, but brought her belief in and respect for family tradition with her.

By my mid-20s I stopped seeing Thanksgiving as an imposition. I was living in New York City, working away at a writing career. My mother, who had finally remarried at 60, was now living with my stepfather in the Catskills.

Suddenly, Thanksgiving was a good time to take a long weekend away from Manhattan, a chance to breathe cool country air. More important, it was a chance to reconnect with her, the person who, I was growing to realize, was more like me than anyone else in the world. I'd sit at her kitchen table (where everyone always gathered) and give my opinion on the benefits of corn bread versus chestnut stuffing, or that cranberry sauce was really unnecessary. Mostly I didn't cook. 

Still, Thanksgiving somehow became our holiday--my mother's and mine. The year I moved to Woodstock, one town over from Mom, I went back to New York for Thanksgiving dinner with some friends, and found her pouting when I returned. 

"It was no fun doing it all by myself," she complained. "That's the last time I make Thanksgiving dinner without you!"

I didn't point out that I rarely contributed much cooking. I understood what she really meant: it was Thanksgiving and she needed her family around her. This was the woman who'd dragged her indifferent ex-husband and reluctant daughter to those stiff Thanksgiving dinners year after year. It meant something important. So I resolved never to leave her alone on Thanksgiving again. 

When she and my stepfather relocated to Florida three years later, I staked out Thanksgiving as my time to have dibs on the guest room. Mom learned to know and love my new partner, Bill, through a series of these Thanksgiving visits. Driving down I-95 to Florida, outlet shopping on the way back became part of our own Thanksgiving tradition.

Two years ago my mother announced that she wanted to make a Philippine meal for Thanksgiving. The meal was memorable: all the foods, even dessert, on the table at the same time, as is traditional for Filipinos, and in the Philippine tradition, eaten with a fork and spoon.

There was adobo, of course, a pork (it can also be chicken) dish with garlic slow-cooked into the meat--my favorite childhood meal. And there were sauteed vegetables, and a chicken dish with coconut milk, and--another favorite of mine--pansit, sauteed transparent noodles made from mung beans cooked with vegetables and a few shrimp. Dessert was champurado, a slightly sweet pudding made from milk and glutinous rice ("sticky" rice, Mom calls it). 
I loved it all, and I think Mom did too, but it seemed a little odd to my stepfather and Bill. After all, turkey and stuffing is a deep-seated American tradition. And the Philippine feast deprived Bill of his favorite post-Thanksgiving treat: turkey-and-stuffing sandwiches. So when we made Thanksgiving plans for last year I quietly told Mom we should return to a traditional menu, and she agreed.

When we arrived, something was amiss. Mom is 75, and her short-term memory has been deteriorating little by little. Last year, for the first time, planning a complex meal took more concentration than she could muster.

All her life, she had always battled chaos with to-do lists. So she tried: we found her at her desk, surrounded by recipes and index cards, making lists of things to buy and steps to take for Thanksgiving dinner. 

"All right, let's see," she'd say. "What do we have to buy for the turkey?" And she'd look at the recipe, and then turn to the shopping list. But before she could put pen to paper, she'd forget what she'd been about to write. "All right, let's see..." she'd start all over again. 

Bill sprang into action. He took possession of the shopping list and shooed her out of the kitchen. "We'll do the shopping and cooking," he insisted.  "Oh yes," I chimed in. "We really want to."

In fact, we really did want to. It had been a hectic year, much of it spent commuting back and forth between Woodstock and Williamstown, where Bill started a new job. We'd had little time for cooking. Spending a few companionable hours in my mother's roomy, well-organized kitchen seemed very appealing. 

It took some persuading, but Mom agreed. I think she felt guilty, as if we were making things too easy for her. "You traveled all this way," she kept saying, as we fended off her attempts to take over the work for herself.

Dinner turned out great. The turkey was juicy, everyone was relaxed, and despite her resistance, I think Mom was pleased, too. Glad not to have to trust her failing memory through a complicated cooking chore. Relieved not to risk embarrassment if something vital slipped her mind along the way. And rewarded, too, for all those awkward Thanksgiving dinners she insisted on cooking for me, years ago.

As I write this, we're to head back to Florida for Thanksgiving again, soon. "We'll probably have to do the cooking again," Bill said to me the other day.

"I think we should," I answered. "I think we've found a great new family tradition."  For one thing, this year has been just as hectic as last year. If anything, we've done even less cooking than we did the year before. We recently bought a house where we're still rearranging our kitchen. A few companionable hours in Mom's roomy, well-organized one sounds as appealing as ever.

Besides, it really doesn't matter whether it's us cooking for her, or her cooking for us. We all understand what Thanksgiving really means: an expression of family, and love.

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