I thought about my family over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Well, I think about my family all the time. My siblings are on Twitter, and my mom texts or calls all the time. My cousins and in-laws are on Facebook. I think about that family all the time.
While I was cooking this Thanksgiving, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. I really prefer to cook for the holiday; I love going out and going visiting, but it just isn’t the same as cooking. Cooking all day, cooking dozens of things, remembering the oldest recipes you know and getting to glory in that SMELL. That’s 90% of the holiday for me, right there.
I thought about my family when I was a kid. My brother made an unexpectedly sweet comment on my Facebook about Halloween a few weeks ago. It plunged me into a nostalgia so deep that for a minute I didn’t know where I was. My brother is four years younger than I, and we grew up together. I only remember a little of life before he was born. Our time together was unstable and insane… I like to say adventurous, because that’s the best face to put on it. Always was. At Halloween, we would plan for weeks. We’d talk costumes and plan our route and watch all the Halloween specials and themed TV. It was always just us who went out. We knew our neighborhood, our haul was good, and it was the best night of the year. We had flashlights and plastic bags. We had homemade costumes and continual excitement. We had each other.
I realize now that I’ve been re-creating that ever since. I still make my own costume. I still make a big deal out of the holiday. I have the internet now, so I have a large download folder of Halloween classics and I start to watch them as time permits when October begins. Those days will always be with me. He’s a grownup now, but they’re with him, too. What holds us together are those stories and the memories that we both hold so deep we can barely put them to words.
Our mother’s bird feeder is still hanging from a tall tree behind a small house in Idyllwild. I will never forget the feeling of seeing it together, our eyes meeting, stunned. There are artifacts and there is evidence, but the kinship of witness outranks them all.
I made my grandfather’s stuffing last Thursday. He was an odd guy, and I’m sorry to say I did not know him well. I know stories, told by others, treasured and retold. I know that he learned to cook working in kitchens, becoming a chef the old-fashioned way. I know he worked in a Jewish deli because he taught me almost all the Yiddish I know. I picked up the words in old movies and loved their funny sound. He told me what they meant, and I loved him for it without knowing what language we were speaking.
His cooking was improvised and often bizarre. He loved richness and simplicity and his greatest skills stemmed from poverty. He buttered his saltines and took his coffee black. He taught my father to eat calf brains and other offal. There are a dozen recipes of his I cannot live without; his stuffing is one of them.
It’s fancy dressing or your own stale bread. It’s stock and butter with onions and celery cooked down and aromatic. The distinctive components are pork sausage and a can of oysters. An involuntarily Kosher cook most of his life, my grandfather built entire recipes on the love of trayf. Most of my favorites of his include pork and shellfish in compelling combinations.
That stuffing brings the house down. It’s dusted with sage and so savory you could cry. Nobody wants to know what’s in it; they think they won’t like it. Keep your mouth shut and watch it disappear.
You were an old man when I met you, and everything was so strange I didn’t even feel like we were related. Thanks, Tom.
Fractious memory remains, and the worst parts surface first. This year I found things to be grateful for. Someone read to me and taught me to read. It happened early on and I needed it so badly, I need it so badly now. Someone (my sister Melanie? Maybe?) played records of opera when I was very small and gave me something I could treasure. Opera is a beautiful, exotic, and gaudy habit I dragged with me throughout the strange episodes of my many lives. There are people out there who helped form my earliest life, and not all of them wounded with careless craziness. I have so much to be grateful for. There is salvage in the wreck and I’ve taken good care of it.
For this, may I be truly thankful.