This coming Tuesday, Max will bring home our pasture-raised, freshly killed turkey. I will be waiting for him in the kitchen with a bottle of dry Riesling.
No, not to toast the beginning of Thanksgiving, but to mix with kosher salt and several herbs. The turkey will go in a brining bag placed inside our largest cooler. Pour the wine brine on the turkey, seal the bag, surround it with ice, close the cooler and load it into the back of the minivan.
Check, check, check, check. We’re almost ready.
Earlier that day, someone — it’s beginning to look a lot like me — will drive to Rochester to pluck Hugo from college. The house sitter will stop by for an introduction to the four animals we’ve acquired since last Thanksgiving. “Has it been a year again already?” we’ll say to each other.
Food, wine, small gifts will be packed next to the turkey’s cooler that night so in the morning we can toss our clothes and toiletries in the cars and go.
Wednesday, when we’re all antsy to hit the interstate before 9 a.m., someone will suggest coffee and breakfast from Starbucks so we won’t have to clean the kitchen.
And for good reason. It’s a seven- to eight-hour drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Northern Michigan.
When the big boys were little, we went home for Thanksgiving every other year. Since 2012, however, we’ve made the trip each year. One reason is that the grandparents’ next-door neighbor, who ironically spends Thanksgiving in Ohio with her children, graciously encourages us to stay in her empty home. Looking back, I can’t imagine how we used to make the Thursday feast with only one stove and oven.
Grandma is a culinary prodigy. When her own children lived at home, she used a bread mixing bucket our Mormon ancestors hand-carted across the American plains a century earlier to make all our bread, 10 loaves every two weeks. Compared to her granola, the stuff sold in stores seemed like rolled flakes of cardboard. Her renowned burritos included tortillas made from scratch with masa harina.
Thanksgiving is Grandma’s magnum opus. A few things have changed over the years: We’ve added Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish to the table. Instead of steamed broccoli and cauliflower with cheese sauce, we’ve improved the classic green bean casserole topped with French’s Crispy Fried Onions. If you use fresh beans and homemade white sauce, it’s not a pasty soup-like dish, but refreshingly light with the canned onions adding a savory crunch.
Sacrosanct are Grandma’s core dishes: the turkey, stuffing, gravy, fruit salad, herbed rolls and pies. Years ago, she wrote all her Thanksgiving recipes down for me and taught me how to make pies.
Pies are one of the few baked goods I make and I think mine are now as good as Grandma’s (some might say they’re a wee better because I use lard for my crust instead of Crisco, but don’t tell Grandma).
Yet neither Jules, who had a two-year preoccupation with bread baking, nor I can master Grandma’s herbed rolls.
Watching her, it looks so easy. Mix whole wheat dough with herbs, roll three small balls for each muffin cup, add a dollop of butter and bake. Warm from the oven, their knobby tops are crispy, their insides chewy without being tough. They alone are worth the drive.
“I can’t wait for Thanksgiving,” is the refrain said with increasing frequency by all the big boys starting when school resumes in the fall.
That’s also when Max starts bringing home different bottles of wine, telling me not to open them because, “These are for Thanksgiving!”
Why do we love this holiday so deeply? More than any other?
We’ve talked about it. Gift giving can be stressful and seem contrived. Not a problem at Thanksgiving. And with no specific religious component, Thanksgiving is every American’s holiday. We can all be grateful and give praise to any or no deity.
At Thanksgiving our family is both all together and unplugged from the chug-a-chug of our busy lives, with cooking and washing dishes our only chores. Because we are not at home, we are guilt-free for not using the long weekend to take care of projects around the house or at work.
Instead, Max brings his toolbox and revels in helping Grandma fix this and that at both her house and the neighbor’s where we stay.
The big boys and Grandpa, who’s a sexton, drive out to the cemetery. They help clear away the remaining leaves and do whatever needs to be done before the deep cold of winter in Northern Michigan takes hold. It is there that the boys connect with Grandpa, a laconic man who, behind his curmudgeonly aspect, is as soft as a jet-puffed marshmallow.
Otherwise we eat, watch movies, eat, play euchre, eat, listen to Hugo sing and play guitar, eat.
To keep our livers from overloading on the rich and plentiful meals, we walk daily along the icy shore of Lake Michigan. The day after Thanksgiving we stroll to town, get our picture taken with Santa and watch as the 20-foot pine tree lights up in the park next to the marina, now void of boats, for the first time that holiday season.
And when there’s snow, we head to Dodger’s Hill, a short cross street with a steep incline that the city doesn’t plow all winter long, leaving it for tobogganers of all ages.
Being busy is like a chronic disease in modern America. Everyone says how busy they are as though not being busy is unacceptable. I try not to overschedule my children with extracurricular activities, instead letting them wander around the house bored. If they complain, I give them a job. They all learned to self-entertain at an early age.
Yet try as I might, I fall into the busy trap. I freelance from home, work part-time in a store (a sanity boost), care for five children all of whom have needs, volunteer both locally and for national Down syndrome groups. You get the drill, and undoubtedly have one of your own. Balancing what is important with what is necessary is easier some weeks than others.
Max and the big boys also step into the busy trap. Especially Hugo and Jules, who are juggling both school and work.
Over the years our solidarity on celebrating Thanksgiving with the grandparents at their house has only grown. For a handful of days, we relax together with few unwanted distractions.
All things truly are transitory.
Eventually this cherished family ritual will end. Knowing this makes each year all the sweeter, my gratitude all the greater, for the time I have with my family on this, our favorite holiday weekend.
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, November 20, 2017