One of my favorite Thanksgivings, I was twenty-seven and eking out a living as an actor—with the help of a part-time job at a tony New York law firm. My boss called me on my day off to say I had won their prized turkey and would I please come and get it! This was a fancy-schmancy $75 free-range bird from Pennsylvania (it would probably cost about $200 today). It weighed at least 25 pounds and was frozen solid, vacuum packed in plastic with a mesh cover. How the hell was I going to schlep this leaden, unwieldy thing on the subway? But schlep it I did on the Lexington Avenue line to my small one bedroom apartment on 95th Street. Now, how to defrost it? The behemoth turkey wouldn’t fit in my tiny kitchen sink—so I stuck it in the bathtub.
Heavy as it was, it kept floating to the top of the tubful of cold water. Looking around for anything I could put atop the turkey to hold it down, I thought I’d have to resort to sitting on it. But my large, flat refrigerator crisper drawer, coupled with a couple of books balanced on the top, did the trick. I kept visiting with the turkey overnight to check on its progress. By Thanksgiving morning, I had accomplished my mission. I don’t remember how I got the bird out to Queens where my mom lived, but my beau at the time must have picked me up in his car.
When we arrived at Mom’s apartment, she gasped upon seeing the huge bird, as if it were going to eat her. “I hef no idea how to make a big tourr-key like det!”
Mom was a good cook, but roasting chickens was more her speed. She was stylish and resourceful, with boundless energy and determination, yet anything remotely out of her wheelhouse was intimidating to her.
She eyed me suspiciously as I rinsed the bird in her sink. Mom was never big on trust, particularly owing to her low self-esteem—a trait exacerbated by years of my late father’s browbeating. Mom felt obligated to always get everything right, thinking she needed to be perfect just to be acceptable. She thought if the meal wasn’t scrumptious, it would somehow be her failure. Dad had passed away eight years before, yet the weight of his mean words remained, no matter how my sister and I tried to counteract them. Her perpetually pleasant expression put up a good front to everyone else watching–but I knew the truth. Mom is going to enjoy our day, dammit!
“You’re not cooking it, Ma. I am.” I cooed at her, “I promise, I’ve got this. Just make your creamy mashed potatoes and those carrots we like and I’ll do the rest.” The turkey, homemade stuffing and gravy were my department.
I’m no genius at turkey prep, but I can follow the roasting and basting instructions on the label as well as anybody. To this day, that free range Pennsylvania turkey was the best one I’ve ever made. Plump, moist, tender and yummy.
The meal was a triumph. Mom beamed at me, smiling softly, her eyes dancing.
Since Thanksgiving is the most stressful meal of the year anyway, I knew Mom’s elation was also coupled with relief. Since I’m so like my mom, I admit I was relieved, too. It was not lost on my mother that all of us gathered in her home were as sated and happy as she was. For the entire rest of the day, she was content. Relaxed even! Mom, her beau Al, my sister and her husband and me and my boyfriend shared laughter and affection as we lounged, our bellies full, our labor complete.
I think I went up a few notches in Mom’s esteem that Thanksgiving. It was a miracle to her that I had managed this unruly bird. I didn’t think of my turkey feat as that big a deal. But the smile on my mother’s face was worth everything.
I wish I could tell you I was surprised that years later, though Mom would eventually enjoy many Thanksgivings with my hubby David and me in Los Angeles, she still didn’t trust me to cook a meal. While Mom would declare that I was “de purr-fect hostess,” she’d still follow me into my own kitchen, mumbling instructions to me under her breath every step of the way.
But not that day. Not with that turkey. That day I could do no wrong.
I’m so grateful for all the years I got to spend with my dear mom, her endless instructions notwithstanding. Reciting them must have been comforting to her somehow. I tried my best to smile through them at the time, not always successfully. In my few smarter, calmer moments, I remembered to just put my arms around her and say, “We’ve got this, Mom.”
This Thanksgiving, however you choose to spend the holiday, I wish you joy, the comfort of home and the nearness of those you love.