I love Holidays. I hate what we do to them.

I love Holidays. I hate what we do to them.

imgresI have a love-hate relationship with holidays. In their purest form, celebrated in a vacuum removed from judgement and commercialism, I love holidays. There is a part of me that wishes to celebrate each and every one, to throw myself into the rituals and customs that make holidays rich.

As I child, I loved dyeing eggs, watching fireworks, eating turkey, hanging stockings, and staying awake to greet the new year. Each holiday carried with it traditions that I embraced and internalized. Easter was hunting eggs in the front yard that my grandmother played in as a girl. Birthdays were white cakes with pink decorations, my name spelled on top and flowers around the bottom. Fourth of July meant homemade ice cream and Dad at the grill flipping burgers. Thanksgiving was a week of baking pies and cakes, roasting turkeys, casseroles, and cornbread dressing, all culminating in a large family gathering with enough food to feed an army. And Christmas was Mom’s breakfast of fresh ham, eggs, grits, and biscuits followed by a day of visiting family, singing carols, and mountains of wrapping paper.

Over the years I’ve been exposed to holidays outside my Christian upbringing and embraced them with enthusiasm, all the while wishing to remove the labels that serve to separate. I love the peacefulness of Shabbat dinner with warm Challah bread and candles, the introspection of Rosh Hashanah, the lighting of menorah candles, the discipline of Passover, and though I’ve never built a Sukkot, I think I would like sleeping under the stars on an autumn night. I love the joyful message of Diwali with a wish for peace and harmony and the seven principles that Kwanzaa is centered around. I love the idea of the Lohri bonfire festival when the weather is cold and the kite festival, Uttarayn, to celebrate the beginning of Spring.

With labels removed, I find the essence of each holiday to be the same, love. Holidays are times to gather family and friends, to reflect and appreciate, to celebrate life and to share laughter. Perhaps this is why I have always felt strongest about Thanksgiving and have been drawn to this holiday that no one religion has claimed and commercial retailers aren’t interested in. For this reason, Thanksgiving remains pure. We all gather together to celebrate the blessings of this life, expressing our gratitude in as many different ways are there are people among us.

When my children were small I began making a big deal of Thanksgiving. Traditions were important. I wanted them to have solid memories that they would pass down for generations. The same menu each year, many of the items from my childhood: cornbread dressing, sweet potato casserole, brown-n-serve rolls, collards, pears with cream cheese, deviled eggs, sweet tea, and pecan pies. We added items from their father’s family: corn casserole, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. Turkey roasting was our own creation complete with a brining tradition and a “gooble-gooble BAM!” seasoning ritual.

Some of my happiest memories are bare legs on the countertop, covered in flour, helping me cook. With four children, for many years, at least one would help with Thanksgiving preparation. As they grew older, sometimes the only help would come in the form of a licked beater or occasionally being available to reach something from a high shelf but I knew in my heart the tradition still mattered and they noticed. They noticed the apron I wore and the hours I spent in the kitchen for days leading up to Thursday’s dinner. They noticed the holiday music and that their favorite foods were prepared. They counted on the tradition and for many years, relied on it as proof that their world was okay.

It was for this reason that I promised them nothing would change about Thanksgiving when their Dad and I divorced. Looking into the scared eyes of my four children,with the best of intentions, I made a promise that I should not have made. For all the same reasons we are no longer married, it was not a realistic idea. Of course things would change because Thanksgiving is not just a day. It’s not just the food and the football. Thanksgiving is a feeling. It’s about gratitude and love. Thanksgiving is coming together with those you hold dear, reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future. Thanksgiving is a time of celebration and tradition. For me, it’s a time of blessing my family with nourishing food, joyful music, laughter, and love.

This year for the first time in 26 years, I won’t be with my children on Thanksgiving Day.  This is a choice I have made after several years of fulfilling an unrealistic promise. I don’t know what it will feel like to wake up that thursday morning and not spend the day in the kitchen. Honestly, I’m a little scared and for that reason, I’m going away for a change of scenery. I worry about how they will feel that day and I hope for understanding. This is a huge step for me. By giving up the day, I am taking back my Thanksgiving.  I’m going to embrace the spirit of the holiday in its pure form without pressure to make it about one particular day. I will bake all day saturday, filling our home with holiday music and the aroma of roasting turkey. On Sunday our home will be filled with family, our bellies filled with food, and our hearts filled with love.

And maybe, if I’m lucky, I can get someone to help put up the tree before they leave.

In Her Kitchen

We lost my grandmother this past year to Alzheimer’s.  That’s not exactly true.  We lost her many years ago to Alzheimer’s, this past year we were finally forced to let her go.  Anyone who has dealt with this horrific disease knows without my explanation what a heart-wrenching and long good-bye a family experiences.  Our story is similar to so many that I’ve heard and read over the past few years but that does nothing to ease the pain of what we all have shared.  There’s a quote that comes to mind that says something about shared love being multiplied and shared sorrow being divided.  I’m not so certain that applies in the case of Alzheimer’s.

The number of things I miss about my Nanny increases with each passing day.  She was my constant, my biggest fan, and my first exposure to unconditional love.  She was yellow grits in the morning, fried bologna sandwiches at lunch, and rice & gravy at supper time.  She was a pitcher full of sweet tea in the fridge and a cookie jar that never emptied.  She was a pack of Juicy Fruit gum in her pocketbook to keep us quiet during church.  She was mud pies and baby dolls.  She was an envelope in my college mailbox full of one dollar bills taped together accordion style and a note saying, “Be my sweet girl.”  She was red bows at Christmas and homemade birthday cakes with little pink flowers.  She was soft and warm and she smelled like Ivory soap.

I grew up in her kitchen.  Wearing her bib apron, faded and worn, I followed direction and basked in her attention.  For Sunday dinner, my jobs were specific and never really varied much no matter how old I was.  Fill the tea glasses with ice.  Butter the brown-n-serve rolls.  Fix the deviled eggs and stuff the pears with creamed cheese.  I can recite that menu in my sleep:  fried chicken, rice & gravy, butterbeans with okra, sliced tomatoes in season, corn on the cob, brown-n-serve rolls, deviled eggs, and pears with creamed cheese.  Occasionally the butterbeans were replaced with green beans or field peas but the main menu items stayed the same on Sundays.  Dessert would vary depending on who was in attendance.  If my uncle was home from college, we could count on banana pudding and lemon meringue pie.  On these occasions my job also included crushing Nilla wafers for the pie crust and lining the pudding dish with cookies.

In 1991, Nanny decided to write down a few of her recipes for me in a spiral bound notebook.  I don’t recall the reasoning for this if any was ever given and around 2005 when I started to notice her memory fading, I started asking her to write down all of the things we had cooked together.  I cherish these notebooks and pull them out when I need to feel close to her.  The funny thing is, that trying to cook from her notes is next to impossible and I end up laughing at her when I get to the end of a recipe and see a note that says, “add a little milk to the filling”.  It’s at this point that I talk out loud to her and ask, “Really Nanny?”  I guess I should have paid closer attention when she was here, then maybe I would know what “a little milk” is.  Or maybe it’s best this way, some things will never be the same.  No matter how many times I try to figure out the correct measurement of “a little,” there is a part of me that hopes I never get it right.