Thankful for Thanksgiving

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.

After Grandma cooks him, Max carves Tom Turkey

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.

Close quarters and full bellies–Claude and Hugo

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.

Lyra running to see Santa

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.

Happy, happy Thanksgiving!

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, November 20, 2017


Two Years This Family

Two years ago, I wrote about our Thanksgiving with family in northern Michigan. As has been the case for more years than I can remember, last month we again made our biennial pilgrimage up the mitten-shaped state, our van loaded with children, a dog, a fresh-killed organic turkey, presents and everything else needed for the long weekend. Usually, it hardly seems as if two years have gone by since we all sat down to our favorite meal ever: Grandma Liane’s holiday spread. But not this year.

Much has changed in these past two years, particularly because of Lyra. Two Thanksgivings ago, she was still a freshly made person on this planet. Born in August of 2012, we were all still readjusting to the new family order. And really, more than Lyra being our only daughter, and perhaps even more than her diagnosis of Down syndrome, having five children radically changed life as Max and I knew it. In the past two years, several of my essays have described our struggle to find balance and calm, but only recently have we had the perspective to realize why our equilibrium feels constantly challenged: Parenting five children, unlike four, kicks our butts. If our home were a dollhouse with the back wall removed, those who peered inside would find a house as full of frantic activity as any Keystone Cops film, with a commensurate amount of efficiency. But just as the slapstick cops of the silent film era eventually managed to get where they needed to be, so too have we continued to find our children (if not always ourselves) fairly functional, one even fledging.

Besides little Lyra, the person who has changed the most in the past two years is the eldest child. In the fall of 2012, Claude was a freshman at the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. That October, he eagerly returned home for autumn break. Orange bled pink in the late afternoon sky that silhouetted Claude’s profile as he sat in the passenger seat on the drive back to Ohio, questioning out loud his choices. Months later, Claude determined he was just in the wrong major, but those first few months of college, he felt vaulted into an existential crisis. That he felt pressured was not unreasonable, the university was receiving nearly $50,000 a year, largely paid by scholarships, grants and loans, for Claude to be there and he was not sure it was worth it.

IMG_1565The experience echoed his kindergarten year when my bright little boy hated school because, as we later learned, he was severely dyslexic. But just as remediating his learning disability cured his academic low self-esteem in grade school, after switching to the College of Literature, Arts and Sciences at the University of Michigan, Claude eventually felt he was were he belonged. Initially resistant to becoming an English major because, as he told me, he didn’t want to do what his parents did, he’s no longer much interested in anything else. Unlike me, however, his focus is poetry (I have an M.F.A. in creative writing, but then again, Max has his Ph.D. in English Renaissance poetry). While what he does with his life is still an unfolding story, Claude came to Thanksgiving this year looking more like a person comfortable in his own skin than I have ever known him to be. He also came in his girlfriend’s car. And, yes, she came too. He tells me that he and his girl might not go home for the summer this year, they may stay at the co-op where they both live, and work on things that are harder to do during the regular school year. My boy, a man now, who was so unsure of his life two years ago, isn’t launching. He’s launched.

Next to launch, hopefully, will be Hugo. Every year, either Hugo’s birthday or mine falls on Thanksgiving weekend. Our birthdays are exactly one week apart and at the end of November. Two years ago, Hugo turned 16 the Friday after Thanksgiving and we spent the day driving home because the Saturday after Thanksgiving Hugo was scheduled at his then-job, grooming dogs at a canine salon (read: washing scared, furry creatures who frequently bit and defecated on said “groomer”). Even though nobody wanted to leave Grandma’s that soon and the only reason we did so was to get him to his job, Hugo was disappointed at how his sixteenth birthday turned out and he sulked about it. For several months. So last year, in order to acknowledge Hugo’s feelings, however misplaced, we took the entire family to Kalahari, a ginormous indoor water park, the night before and the night of Thanksgiving. For three months, all the big boys talked about how excited they were with this plan. We had over two days of aquatic fun (though, honestly, I would rather have been in the toilet bowl ride with the biggins’ than in the kiddie pool with the babies) and a Thanksgiving meal that, while not as good as Grandma Liane’s, was pretty spectacular with all the traditional dishes plus a prime rib carving station and tables of desserts that would make Willy Wonka drool. Then, on the morning we were packing to leave, Hugo told us, “You know, I realize I’ve pretty much outgrown water parks.” Oh, that kid.

Lily & Hoover, 2012
Lily & Hoover, 2012

This year, we left him at home. No, not to punish him. His vocal instructor strongly encouraged him to apply to a specific music school, which had a December 1 deadline. While we were working our way into food comas in Michigan, Hugo was videotaping three songs for his pre-screening, filing out the application and writing the essays. We left our younger dog, Lily, with Hugo to keep him company. Our older dog, Hoover, however, went with us. Of all the dogs I have had in my adult life, it is only Hoover who has indiscriminately loved everyone he meets. “Boy, your dog sure does like me,” is a refrain we have heard countless times from innumerable mouths. Not pesky, Hoover walks slowly up to each guest, wagging his tail in greeting. If a guest is seated in our house, Hoover will lie by his or her feet, not requiring anything, but always grateful for a scratch of the head or belly. Last month we thought our sweetheart Sheltie was dying of kidney failure. Then, after nearly 72 hours of IV fluids and penicillin, Hoover made a marked recovery from what is now believed to have been pancreatitis. Still, the day we left for Grandma’s house, Hoover had yet another full week of antibiotics to take and, let’s face it, my confidence that Hugo would consistently remember to give the dog his pills was non-existent. Besides, from now until the day he takes his last breath, which at over 13 years old could be any day, Hoover is on the deluxe pampering plan. I frequently imagine, unfairly, I’m sure, that Hoover is milking his recent medical crisis: You know, I’m a sweet, but old, old dog. I could go at any time. Those scraps on your plate might be the last I taste. Rub my belly today, for tomorrow I may die. Well, even if he is milking it, nobody minds spoiling the old boy, who was loved up by many hands all the holiday weekend long.

Two years ago, my essay on Thanksgiving considered the constituent ingredients of family, blood not necessarily being one of them. Cooking in two kitchens in side-by-side houses, which really is one of the best ways to have all the dishes of a good Thanksgiving spread come together at once, Leif and Jules traipsed back and forth collecting and delivering whatever ingredients were needed at the other kitchen. Other than these errands and the big dinner itself, I hardly saw Leif. Unlike his older brothers, all of whom clung to me like marsupial offspring until they were in grade school, Leif’s independence is at once surprising and refreshing. Perhaps it is because he was only five weeks old when we first packed him off to daycare three days a week so I could finish my master’s thesis. Or maybe having so many older brothers, who all seem like adults from Leif’s perspective, along with a father who parents all the children as much as I do, his needs are always tended whether or not I am available. Or it may just be the way he came into the world. Whatever it is, Leif abandoned us in the guesthouse and remained his Grandma’s constant companion, both day and night, for the entire weekend. I am not sure who this pleased more: Max and me for a lessened load of child duty, Leif for the indulgent treatment his grandma gave him (we, who have no cable TV, found her serving him hot breakfast on a TV tray while he sat in Grandpa’s recliner, watching cartoons), or Grandma who loves nothing more than to take care of someone, especially if they are little and a little difficult, both categories to which Leif qualifies.

In ways I had not yet considered two years ago, I see the transitory beauty of family. More people will be welcomed into our eccentric complexity, which may be unique in substance, but no less eccentric or complex than most families. From time to time, one or another of us will ask or be asked, and may choose, to formalize our relationships to one another, as recently was asked of me. No, not what you might be thinking. Max and I are content with our arrangement.

“I want to ask you to consider doing something before I die that I have wanted to do for over forty-five years,” said my stepmom.

“Wow, now there’s a way to set up a question!” I said, laughing. Although she giggled at my comment, when she next spoke I thought my stepmother, who came into my life shortly after my third birthday, sounded a little nervous.

“Would you consider letting me legally adopt you as my daughter?” she asked.

Of course.