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Waifs, strays, and grace come to Thanksgiving dinner

How far we came to be here .

I brought the green bean casserole. This is a disgusting dish, in a way, dependent as it is on canned mushroom soup, but I have always liked it because it reminds me of the Eisenhower years.
  • I brought the green bean casserole. This is a disgusting dish, in a way, dependent as it is on canned mushroom soup, but I have always liked it because it reminds me of the Eisenhower years.
  • Image by Norman Rockwell

Big-hearted people often host Thanksgiving dinners for what my friend Hazel calls “waifs-and-strays.” Many of these meals are potluck; the drill is that your hostess, who provides turkey, dressing, and gravy, farms out the rest of the meal to guests. She recommends categories of dishes you can bring — hors d’oeuvres, vegetable, salad, dessert, bread, and booze. You know which men (for it’s most often men who do this) are hopeless in the kitchen: they bring booze. The more socialized of these males bring the Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc in pretty printed paper sacks. No doubt about it, though, the food at these events always tastes good. Why it’s good is not that the host and guests necessarily are fancy cooks; it’s that they so dearly wish to please and try their hardest to make a gossamer sweet potato souffle or the brightest red cranberry gelatin mold circled with the darkest green parsley frills.

I’ve always wanted to host a Thanksgiving dinner at which I got clear to the violet and melancholy sunset and still felt wildly thankful. Too often, I approach the day mean and cranky. I dread list-making, dread shopping. I dread washing and ironing linens. I dread chopping celery and onions. I dread the damned cranberries, when they come to a boil, popping on my bare arm and leaving a blister. I dread hauling the big-ass 25-pound dead turkey up onto the chopping block. I dread plucked skin and bony ankle knobs where feet got sawed off. I hear the butcher’s saw whine. I smell that singed poultry feather smell that reminds me of my childhood terrors of hell, where I knew I would burn— hair, belly button, mosquito-bite nipples, baby teeth, bitten cuticles and all — because I could not stop sassing my mother. I really, really dread reaching inside old Tom’s arctic interior and scrubbing in salt. Particularly, I dread this if I’ve got a miserable paper cut on one of my fingers. Salt gets in the cut and stings.

Once I sink to my knees in dread about the work and how rock-hard dead and not singing “gobble, gobble, gobble” old Tom is and how he got dead (I suspect electrocution—ZAP! ZAP! Tom is dead!), I plunge into the fear and trembling at guests, people kind and dear and even rude and deceitful and vile and rumpled, like me. That’s why I don’t any longer host Thanksgiving dinners. I’m not a nice enough person. I’m not sufficiently generous. I would like to be.

I’ve been invited to these Thanksgivings and I’ve gone. Although I feel grateful to be invited (for I adore invitations) to these waifs-and-strays meals, through no fault of my hosts, I felt an object of social charity, a poster child for the socially untouchable. I confess that I have imagined Bob and Carol Any-host seated at the kitchen table, penning the guest list “Let’s invite Judith,” says Carol, “I bet she doesn’t have anywhere to go, poor girl.” They were right. I didn’t. I don’t.

“Here they were,” my ugly thoughts go on as I gaze at the invitation, “the Anyhosts, all smugly and snugly tucked into marital bliss, easy with wedding Waterford and Wedgwood and Gorham and satiny duvets and monogrammed guest towels. They succeeded at domesticity and I didn’t. Oh, I hate them, and I hate me more.” And then I say to myself that this didn’t and doesn’t mean that my host and hostess necessarily fed smug. They may simply be offering the overrun of their own happiness. No doubt they are. But if you’ve been a waif-and-stray, I bet you know what I mean. You do.

While I’m confessing, I admit I’ve been invited some Thanksgivings to as many as four meals. What I take this to mean is that within my acquaintance exist four hosts who view me as unlikely to have anyone with whom to share a drumstick. I should, and do, feel grateful that anyone bothers to say, “Come to our house,” but I also feel humiliated that my lack of hospitable kith and kin shows so clearly to so many people. Wouldn’t you?

Some years I lie. I say, “I’m going to the wine country with an old friend from out of town.” I did, once, go to the wine country with an old friend, and he was from out of town. So it’s a lie whose scenes and events I know how to describe. Fact is, I stay home, alone. I don’t answer the telephone. I loll and read and listen to the radio. I do as I please. The big problem, given that I’m an only child and not often prone to loneliness, is that I like to walk. I need exercise. I hate walking along the street and seeing cars filled with families driving to grandmother’s house. I hate for the neighbors to see me and to imagine their thinking, “I wonder if she has any place to go.”

You hear about people so alone that when they die nobody knows it until the neighbors complain that there’s a funny smell. Or the neighbors punch in 911 and say the dogs keep barking. An elderly lady who lived next door to me lived that kind of alone life. She’d been in the neighborhood 20 years. You never saw her out on the street with anyone except in summer when her daughter visited from back East. One morning she had a stroke, this elderly lady did, and none of us who lived around her even noticed we hadn’t seen her. When her daughter repeatedly dialed her mother’s number and no one answered, she called the police. They climbed in the woman’s bathroom window and found her half-dead on her bedroom floor. She’d been on that floor for an entire weekend. Guests at waifs-and-strays Thanksgivings, we’re the sort of people, I’m afraid, that no one would miss, at least for a few days.

So when I walk into my Thanksgiving host’s front door and begin to be introduced and put out my damp paw to say how-do-you-do, I hardly dare look into the eyes that go with the hand I’m shaking. I think how hard I worked to get myself up in a proper dress and blot my lipstick and think how hard the tall man who goes with the rest of that hand worked to get himself into clean shirt, tie, and socks that match. He trimmed his beard that morning he trimmed his nose and ear hairs. He stared into the mirror; he said to himself, “I’m old.” He sprayed his mouth with Binaca to hide that he’d been drinking since 10:00 a.m. just to get his tall self through the front door. He is so dignified by fright that he might be the butler. When our hands meet I realize that when he’s nervous, his hand turns cold. That’s better, I think, than my hand. Mine sweats.

For all that I felt all this, once I arrive I put it behind me and pretend that I am simply one more very desirable guest on a guest list filled with desirable invitees. Yet, the fact is that almost everyone, myself included, hauls in with her almond-studded green beans or bronze pumpkin pie some terrible swollen bag of sorrow. This sorrow sits right there on the festive table, lined up with the autumn-leaf centerpiece. These sorrow bags veritably hum, geared to set off mushroom clouds that drift across the table and drop down dusty anguish onto lumpless mashed potatoes and a dressing so opulent it might have been brought down from heaven rather than from a kitchen.

I remember clearly the year I drew my chair up to a Thanksgiving table in a seaside home. A lively Mozart woodwind quintet fretted our pre-dinner chatter. I don’t know why I thought it Mozart except that as oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, and piano scattered sound through the high-ceilinged room, I thought of the little fellow in his powdered wig, his knee pants and shoes with buckles. I thought how Mozart ceaselessly owed money and had to churn out piece after piece of this celestial nattering to keep his shrewish wife Constanze quiet. I sighed, and when the man pouring wine into my glass asked why, I said, “I’m so happy to be here,” and grabbed off a nearby silver salver an angel-on-horseback, skewered and grilled, and proceeded to munch the warm oyster and salty crisp bacon wrapped around it. Then I grabbed a devil-on-horseback, a plumped-up warm Armagnac-soaked prune, also wrapped in bacon.

Our host and hostess had shined their house and pale wood furnishings the way when you were a kid you shined your shoes for Sunday school. Their turkey, a 30-pound free-ranging bird, who, we were assured, had “lived the good life” and came to us fresh and unfrozen, was in the oven, acquiring final patina. Turkey aroma and its accompanying brisk sage filled the house. We seemed landed on an island whose breezes all blew turkey.

Our hostess had the look about her of a presiding Madonna. She, in her ivory silk blouse, was all magnanimous bosom. Her long face was all luster. She grew as many hands as Shiva, and every hand went out to us and to fussing, rearranging vegetable platters, urging cranberries on a woman whose Burmese cat, she announced plaintively, gave her ringworm. “It spread,” the woman said, “down my stomach.”

Later I would think what courage it took for our host and hostess to bring together such a group. One of us that year had a double mastectomy and chemotherapy and lost her exquisite wheat-blond hair and soon would lose her terrified boyfriend. His father had died the previous Christmas after a long illness brought on by a brain tumor. Two needed anti-depressants to manage the simplest task. “Without my pill,” one said, “Christ, I can’t even get out the trash.” A gorgeous bulimic’s fork strayed from broccoli to corn bread dressing and then, suddenly, she ate like one possessed. Her teeth bit down hard on warm turkey and her eyes narrowed. I felt helpless against thoughts of PBS nature films: the scrawny wolf noshes down on his fresh kill; his muzzle bloodies as he laps up his crime scene meal: you are glad that the television’s glass screen shades you from his hunger.

A man whose girlfriend recently had moved out ate mechanically, appeared stunned, and all through dinner he never said one word. Also, sweat beads popped out on his forehead, although the air was cool. There was a woman who in the midst of her doctoral orals went blank, forgot everything she knew, began noisily to sob, and then ran from the room, where her puzzled examiners waited an hour before they gave up and left. There was a man in an elegant tweed jacket whose brother killed himself in Montana and whose mother had Alzheimer’s. I counted 14 divorces and couldn’t count the failed relationships that didn’t get as far as an altar. Among us were parents with estranged children and children estranged from parents and parents with children who disappeared into drugs and jail and faraway countries. There was job loss and car wreck and a DUI. And no one, surely, did not wish he were somewhere else and with someone else. No one did not long to be the haloed prodigal in the home from which he was exiled; no one did not think, about some long-gone someone, “I wish he (or she) were kissing me now.”

You deserve, though, to hear about the food. This is what I remember. The angels-on-horse-back and devils-on-horseback and a vegetable tray with garlicky hummus for dipping. Mr. Turkey, of course, carved in the kitchen and brought to the table by our soft-spoken, lean, and graying host. Mashed potatoes, with and without garlic; the aforementioned sweet potato souffle and the green bean casserole; the cranberry gelatin mold, the latter almost entirely tart ground cranberry and thankfully little gelatin. Small yams that had been baked, the yam scooped from its skin, then mashed with butter and honey and mixed with chopped pecans and then this mixture returned to the yam shelL Roasted root vegetables — parsnip, carrot, rutabaga, and turnip—sliced into neat batons, splashed with balsamic vinegar, and caramelized. Brussels sprouts, thoughtfully parboiled, then each adorable doll-cabbage-size sprout frisked in olive oil and garlic. Tender banana muffins and gingerbread muffins, the latter studded with infinitesimal candied ginger bits. A corn bread dressing that I didn’t taste but admired for its colors—canary yellow flecked with red bell pepper and green celery. Fresh broccoli napped in sharp Cheddar, tiny green peas afloat in cream sauce, baked onions hollowed out and stuffed with a bread dressing, a salad of fresh fruits that included pretty papaya but was ruined for me by inclusion of annoying pomegranate seeds. Rolls, white and whole wheat. Also four or five desserts, to which I will arrive in a minute.

I brought the green bean casserole. This is a disgusting dish, in a way, dependent as it is on canned mushroom soup, but I have always liked it because it reminds me of the Eisenhower years and Mamie Eisenhower’s bangs and Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers. It makes me want to sing, “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.” Too, my mother made it for Thanksgiving. Gourmets disdain it, but I’ve never seen even a spot of the green bean and mushroom and cheese and breadcrumb mess left in the baking dish.

So there I was, vintage green bean casserole in hand. Me. Too fat. My teeth are ugly. My shadow frightens me, and I walk splayfooted on wide feet whose soles are dirty from my going around the house and out into the garden without shoes. I shower every morning and sing hymns of regret and forget to scrub-brush my feet. Someone told me 1 wear too much perfume. Someone told me that I have let myself go. I have ink on the fingers of my right hand. I have trouble answering my mail. I have trouble opening my mail.

I let the envelopes sit in dim light on a table by the door. I let these envelopes wait for a week, ten days. I worry, daily, that light bulbs will burn out. I dread the snap of the bulbs’ filaments and the sudden long plunge into darkness. In conversation, I blather, simply to fill what feels an intractable, punishing silence.

I begin to say things I never before that moment thought. I say things I do not in any way believe. I babble. Someone told me, “There is no scale, dear, to your enthusiasms.” Someone to whom I look up said, “1 wish you would write about happier, more pleasant people.” As a child,

I prayed to be brave as Joan of Arc, and 1 sneakily started fires in the fireplace, and then I imagined myself burning; nothing has changed. I am hopeful. I bob back from catastrophe. I am a fool: foolish.

Our hostess set a lovely table—polished stemware, plain white china that all matched, beige linen tablecloth and napkins, Gorham’s heavy Melrose (inherited from her mother). The view out the wide dining room windows was to the ocean, and by mid-afternoon, when we carried wine glasses to the table and old-fashioned glasses filled with stronger drink, fog had burned off and sun shone down at a four o’clock slant, heading toward the violet melancholy time I mentioned earlier, and the air was chilly and windless.

Each mashed potato mound pooled with gilded gravy, as if sunset’s light were falling onto a high mountain lake. Nobody didn’t take a large serving of the ambrosial dressing. Nobody refused turkey.

Above each plate a face (I think there were 14) wobbled and jerked and gnawed and chewed for at least an hour, perhaps an hour and a half. Everyone, except the man whose woman a few weeks before walked out on him, talked. A middle-aged fellow, divorced for several years, said he didn’t know when he’d eaten as well, and then, eyes downcast into his heaped plate, added, “If you want to know the truth, I would like someday to have a family of my own again.” We all went silent for a moment, after that.

People complimented one another on various dishes. The talk was general, pleasant, and as the meal progressed and more wine was drunk, the talk was noisier. The music on our host’s sound system had advanced beyond Baroque clear into Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun.

On mouths I saw smiles and the glisten of turkey grease and of the gravy our indulgent hostess splashed with a salubrious few ounces of dry sherry. Eyes showed ghosts: what didn’t work out, lovers who left, children never born, dead parents, and the suicide brother, eyes agog as he hangs by a logging chain from the Montana rec room’s redwood beam. I saw in others and fingered in the calluses on my meaty self how far we came to be here, together, on that day, and how much, along the way, we lost. Every shoulder became a shoulder to be cried on.

Had all this sorrow and illness and bad luck and wrong turns taken been able to sing itself, lamentation might have reached clear down to the water, where along the shoreline people walked, alone, together, and in one moment, with two graceful Irish setters. The last of the day’s sun poured down like Sue-Bee honey on the surf s white froth and the dogs’ red coats.

Desserts were pumpkin pies, their surfaces bronzed the way I like them; sweet potato pies; apple pie I didn’t sample; black bottom cheesecake that I didn’t sample; blueberry bread pudding that I didn’t taste but should have, because I am fond of bread puddings. I took pumpkin and sweet potato pie. The sweet potato, of course, was heavier than the pumpkin and more serious about its own sweet potato flavor than was the pumpkin, which was so spicy, all that seemed left was texture and the word “pumpkin.” This led me to think later that pumpkin pie too often depends on memories of pumpkin pie and that no one truly stops and tastes the pie that between big molars they’re masticating. Pumpkin pie, I decide, has become text and texture, more a story about a delicious past than in and of and for itself a truly delicious taste. These things happen, though, in mouths; our food often is as full of stories about time gone by as it is vitamins and minerals.

At the behest of our hostess, her cheeks flushed with wine and excitement and her silk blouse front spotted, I think, by sweet potato souffle, we talked during dessert about blessings. One after another, up and down the table, we described some lucky break or blissful moment or generic godsend. Our breast cancer survivor, of course, said, “I’m glad to be alive.” She squeezed the hand of her boyfriend who was only weeks away, then, from moving out of her house, as he said, “I’m glad she’s alive too. That’s the greatest thing that’s happened to me this year.” The suicide’s brother declared himself thrilled to be made a partner in his law firm. The woman with ringworm announced that she’d been approved by the mortgage company to buy her first house. Our bulimic loved her new Lexus and her mother, “who always,” she said, “is there for me.” The woman who had problems getting out her trash said her son, finally, had finished his dissertation and that she could now run, without stopping, for three miles, which caused us all to clap.

I clapped so hard my palms stung. Our host was grateful for friendship, and our hostess, taking a moment to look about the table at her waifs-and-strays, graciously agreed. I remember that I, with a bite of sweet potato pie still hanging along the interior of my cheeks and hidden in my back molars, said that I, too, was happy to be alive, and it wasn’t a lie. These thanksgivings rose out of divorce, desertion, job loss, child in jail, vomiting up dinner, DUI, Prozac, lost breasts, the young man’s empty house. Our mundane little hosannas took wing that day and flew, flew, flew.

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