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Opinion | All the Empty Seats at the Thanksgiving Table

A year earlier, too, my grandmother had barely survived a shooting that shattered the feeling of safety in her close-knit farming community. She recovered, eventually, but she always needed help after that, and holidays shifted to our house. All the Thanksgiving gatherings of my childhood, the sideboards laid with pies and casseroles and corncakes glistening with butter, with bowls of creamed corn and lady peas; the arrangements of pink camellias and the delicate custard dishes of ambrosia, each with a sprinkling of coconut on top; the rocking on the porch afterward, the catching-up talk and the stories about loved ones long since buried in the graveyard just down the road — all of it was gone.

One year my grandmother was still cooking the feast she had always prepared, and the next year it was just our family at our own ordinary house in the ordinary suburbs. Overnight, it seemed, my mother became the de facto matriarch, and it was not a role she ever came to relish.

Mom would have been happy to serve stuffing out of a box and cranberry sauce out of a can, but my father could not surrender the traditions he had acquired by marriage. A child of the Depression, growing up with a single mother forced to travel for work, he spent most of his childhood in what amounted to an orphanage. Having gained an extended family at the age of 32, he would not give up the groaning table so easily and thereafter pitched in as a wholehearted sous chef. Mother Ollie took the recipe for corncakes with her to the grave, but the scaled-back Thanksgiving menu at our house included almost all the other favorites — plus, it must be said, some horrific innovations, like brandied fruit and cranberry Jell-O mold, that my mother must have picked up from a magazine.

After I left home, I came to recognize the gift of those gatherings, of being with my family together under one roof, but Thanksgiving never stopped reminding me of that homely old house in the country with pecan trees to climb and cousins to play with and bird dogs sleeping in a patch of sunshine in the yard. Of all the empty seats at the table.

Now I am the matriarch, the one who cuts the flowers and puts them in vases, the one who spends days in the kitchen with my husband, chopping and sautéing and stirring and buttering, all for the sake of two hours at the table with everyone we love. I admit that there have been times when I was cross about it all. Times when, like my mother, I didn’t want to be the matriarch. Why hadn’t I understood, all those years before, what luck it was to be the cherished child returning home, with a whole day set aside for eating and sleeping and reading the intoxicating words of James Agee?

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