In Reunion on the Rainbow Bridge: My Parents’ Past Lives and the One They Shared With Me, I share fond family memories, which were made all the more meaningful because my mother was a paraplegic. However, I didn’t include any Thanksgiving memories in the book. So, I would like to honor my parents and family today by reflecting on precious Thanksgiving moments at the Swanson household.
Thanksgiving Day would always begin with my Mom waking me up. As she did every morning, she would push her wheelchair through the doorway, stop right by the bunk beds, and begin singing, “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day. I’ve got a beautiful feeling that everything is going your way.” As soon as I would awaken, I would smell Thanksgiving–the aroma of the turkey that had been cooking for hours before I had awakened, the smell of buttery cornbread that would later become our stuffing, and pumpkin pie. It was glorious! Excitement and hunger would immediately begin to build.
Because my Mom was so busy preparing a veritable feast, we didn’t have our usual hearty family breakfast; instead, we just had a bowl of cereal or a honey bun spread with butter and warmed in the oven. And that was all we were allowed to eat. My Mom insisted that we arrive at the Thanksgiving table with empty bellies anticipating the most amazing meal of the year. I understood her logic, but she didn’t understand how hungry it made me just to smell what was cooking in the kitchen–wafts of green bean bake and homemade cranberry sauce, marshmallows melting on candied sweet potatoes, and bread fresh out of the oven. I thought I’d die before we were called to the table!
That’s why Mom kept us busy. We were sent outside to collect beautiful fall leaves for the centerpiece. We decorated the house with our hand-print turkeys. And, until we were able to write for ourselves, Dad would help us write our gratitude lists, which we would read during our sacred family meal. In between, we watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and delighted in hearing Mom singing in the kitchen to the marching band Christmas songs. When The Rockettes appeared at the parade grandstand, she would always take a break and watch them dance, telling me and my sister that she could picture us doing that one day.
Then, about mid-morning other members of our family would arrive at our home. Nanny, my maternal grandmother, would bring her famous sweet potato pie. The meringue would be beautifully sculpted on top of the pie with peaks showcasing droplets of golden honey. My Aunt Agnes, known lovingly to me as Bubba, would drive all the way from Bartlesville, Oklahoma and would bring the most delicious desserts, usually creamy, melt-in-your-mouth Louisiana pralines and banana pudding with just the right amount of freshly-sliced bananas and Nilla Wafers. My cousin Jimbo (Bubba’s son) and his children Katie and Jennifer would also join us. He always contributed his famous Cranberry Cloud to the Thanksgiving table (ground fresh cranberries, purple grapes, green apples, pecans and mini-marshmallows folded into soft, white whipped cream).
Finally, as the women gathered in the kitchen to finish the cooking, the men corralled the kids in the den while watching pre-game football coverage. I have a vivid memory of this when I was about 10 years old. I was standing by the dinette table, which was made larger when my Dad added the extra table insert. The table was in between the kitchen and the den. I just stood there by myself, watching my Dad talk with excitement about football, while hearing my Mom laugh in the kitchen. At that moment, I felt utterly content and full of indescribable gratitude. Butterflies filled my stomach as I felt my happiness swell. I don’t know how long I stood there, taking it all in, but I can still remember to this day how happy and peaceful I was at that very moment. And, now, when I think of childhood Thanksgivings, this is the memory that I hold most dear.
Thanksgiving lunch was always served at my parents’ house, even after I married and had a family of my own. Sadly, though, my parents have both passed away–my Mom in 1999 and my Dad in 2006. That was the end of our Thanksgiving tradition. My childhood home on Lynda Lane is now occupied by a new family, a family that I have never met. They’ve painted the house a different color and enclosed the carport, but the pine trees that my Dad planted to commemorate each of his children’s births, his beloved pink azaleas, and the Sweet Gum tree that turned the most brilliant shades of red and gold in the fall are still there. I know this because I frequently Google Map our address and just look at, what was, our happy home. I hope, somehow, the family who inhabits my childhood house feels the love and laughter that filled it’s walls.
Now, in the year 2011, I and my daughters (Anne-Marie, age 22 and Isabella, 19) have created our own Thanksgiving tradition. It must accommodate Anne-Marie’s need for food that nourishes her body and soul and Isabella’s need for vegetarian, sugar-free, and nutrient-rich food, as well as foods that will appeal to the palate of my precious, one-year-old grandson, Bentley. What about my husband, Matthew? Well, fortunately, he will eat anything and is easy to please. However, if I could make Wild Rice Salad like his Mom did, that would please him even more. When we first got married, I prepared the traditional, Minnesota Thanksgiving dish according to the recipe that his sister provided me; but, after two years, Matthew finally said, “I appreciate that you are trying to incorporate one of favorite childhood Thanksgiving foods into our tradition, but you don’t have to try anymore. It isn’t anything like my Mom’s, and I don’t think it will ever be.” Don’t worry, I didn’t take offense. There are a million foods that I will never eat again because it can’t be prepared just like my Mom made it. Before I became a vegetarian I immensely missed liver-and-onions, meatloaf, and fried chicken.
So, today, my daughters and I spent hours in the kitchen preparing a veritable feast, while Matthew talked about the finer points of football with Bentley. At noon, we sat down to enjoy the abundant bounty on our table:
- Herb-roasted chicken and roasted Tofurkey
- Stuffing made from whole-grain bread, quinoa cornbread, fresh herbs, sauteed vegetables, and roasted chestnuts
- Green Bean Bake made with white sauce, mushrooms, and crispy fried onions (I mean, real ones)
- Maple sweet potatoes
- Mashed garlic potatoes
- “Daddy” gravy (one of mine and my daughters’ favorite sauces that their Dad traditionally prepared [before he passed away in 2003])–it’s heavy cream, vegetable stock and herbs that cook down for about 10 hours–pure decadence!)
- Cranberry Cloud made, of course, with sugar-free whipped cream
- Cranberry Applesauce
- Pumpkin Pie prepared without white sugar and baked in a whole wheat crust.
As we sat down, we all took turns to talk about what we have been grateful for during the past year. Clearly, we are blessed beyond imagining. And, as we talked and laughed, I wondered what Thanksgiving memories my daughters will share with their families one day. I hope they will be as happy as mine.
Sherri Swanson Defesche