Sometimes you need a bad Thanksgiving to learn to appreciate the good ones.
When I was a child, I used to love Thanksgiving. We would go over to my step-grandparents’ house, where they had a big spread much like the famous Norman Rockwell print. My baby sister, my cousins, and I were relegated the kids table and I still remember being incensed when my oldest cousin graduated to the grown-up table. My mother and stepfather divorced before I was old enough to claim my own place at the grown-up table, so I never did get that honor. But the memories of those Thanksgiving dinners always stayed with me.
Fast forward ten years to my first real Thanksgiving as an adult. (I’m not counting the time my soon-to-be husband and I made turkey cutlets and Pilsbury crescent rolls in the toaster oven in my dorm room.) My (now) husband and I were in Germany, thousands of miles away from family, but we were determined to have a real Thanksgiving feast. Okay, maybe it was just me who was determined. We invited friends of ours, Germans who had never experienced an American Thanksgiving, and armed with my Martha Stewart Living magazine and Better Homes & Gardens cookbook from 1982, we set out to create a meal to die for. (Somewhat prophetic, but I’ll get to that in a moment.) I only had one condition: it had to be a happy time. I grew up with too much hostility and bitterness that came to a head every holiday, and I did not want that for my own family.
It started out fine. My husband worked on the turkey (still his job today) and I set about making homemade rolls. But then the rolls wouldn’t rise, and the ones that did came out of the oven hard as a brick. The puppy kept getting underfoot in this very small, galley-like kitchen that barely held the two of us, which aggravated my husband and he, in turn, upset me. I won’t go into details, but hard rolls were thrown and sweet potatoes were mashed with a bit too much force. There went my desire for a peaceful, happy holiday!
To make matters worse, our electricity went out. When it finally came back on, only the top element of the oven was working. We kept the turkey in and crossed our fingers.
My desserts came out fine, especially the fancy meringue cookies a la Martha Stewart I made. I was proud of those suckers. When Hans and his wife arrived a few hours later, the table was set with my best china and fabric napkins (folded in an elegant pocket-design, thank you again Martha Stewart). I still wasn’t speaking to my husband, but we managed to fake cheerfulness and explained our little mishaps. Because only the top element of the oven worked, only the breast of the turkey actually cooked. The four of us had minuscule amounts of dry, white turkey. But we had plenty of side dishes (minus edible rolls) and after washing down our bits of meat with a fine German wine, I brought out the desserts.
Hans loved my meringue cookies. I was beaming. Until his wife gently reminded him of his diabetes. I think I nearly smacked the cookies out of his hand! For those who don’t know what’s in meringue cookies…it’s pure sugar. Sugar and egg whites, and not much else. Sending our guest to the Krankenhaus (hospital) in a diabetic coma would have capped off a perfectly awful Thanksgiving, but gratefully, he survived. We all survived that dinner. Even the dog.
That was seventeen years ago, and we can laugh about it now. Since then, we’ve attended a few fine dinners and hosted many more. The food is always fantastic. My husband is a turkey expert and the turkey (knock on wood) is always moist and thoroughly cooked. And since that first fateful Thanksgiving, we haven’t argued on the holiday.
I think the secret to our now successful, happy Thanksgivings is that after that first holiday, I’ve learned perfection is overrated. I was chasing the memories I had of my early Thanksgiving dinners, trying to recapture the magic I held in my mind. Honestly, though, I was stuck at the kids’ table back then. So while from my perspective, it looked like a Norman Rockwell painting, it might have been just as stressful and unhappy for some of the adults as it was for my husband and I the first time.
I want my kids to have good memories of Thanksgiving, but we let them see the work it takes to put it together. They see the frustration when I realize I forgot something and the exasperation when I have to send my husband to the store. They witness the drudgery of peeling apples and potatoes, of rolling out dough, of chopping vegetables. They have been party to dishes that didn’t come out as intended (this year’s pumpkin pie is more a deconstructed pie…) and been guinea pigs for new recipes. They don’t just show up to the table after a day of watching the parade and playing and find a perfect dinner in front of them. What they find is a labor of love, a meal they each had some small hand in, a feast that is perfect in its imperfections. My hope is someday, when they have their own families, they won’t feel they have to live up to some idealized memory. They can relax, have fun, and make a memory that’s more about love and family than perfectly spiced pie and pretty napkins.
May your own Thanksgivings be less than perfect and more than real, filled with love and laughter and the things that really matter. Because as much as we’d like it to be, life isn’t a Rockwell painting. It’s more like a three-year-old’s fingerpainting, messy but colorful, and something to treasure.