On Thanksgiving day, I was scraping the sauteed onions, celery, walnuts and bacon into the bowl filled with toasted bread cubes. "What's missing?" I said aloud as my red haired Aussie stared inquisitively at me, waiting for something to fall on the floor.
Side dishes come and go. Creamed onions, stuffed mushrooms, twice baked potatoes and candied yams. We've even had tabouli and dolmas when my part Lebanese cousin and his family join us. But there are two traditions that have remained the same through the years, the stuffing and the way I cook the turkey.
Mama was a good cook. A really good cook. She rarely used recipes and when she did she was known to modify at will, making use of what Dad had growing in the garden. She had her specialties, things she became known for, but what I loved the best were the dishes she learned to make from her mama, dishes that were steeped in our Italian tradition. Dishes, I knew, she grew up eating as well.
My mother has dementia. As her memory continues to fade, she no longer recognizes my siblings and I and yet, amazingly, she is willing to visit with us, allowing us to take her "off campus", away from the facility she now calls home to get coffee or bagels or celebrate holiday meals. A couple of weeks ago, as I sat with her at a Starbucks on a strangely snowy weekend in October, I chatted with her about my life, sharing with her the news that I would be teaching abroad next fall. There was a vacant look in her eyes as she listened to me, trying to make sense of it all. "That's wonderful," she said when I finished. "Maybe I could come and visit you when you're there."
I felt a lump in my throat as I turned away, afraid that the sadness I felt inside would leak out. On the outside, she looks like Mom, but her eyes are vacant. Hollow. Confused.
It's not fair. It's just not fair.
When I was a little girl, we traveled to New York to spend holidays with our extended family. Mom and Dad felt strongly about waking up in our own beds on Christmas morning, but on Thanksgiving and Easter we piled into the wood paneled Country Squire station wagon and drove, 'over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house', as Mom and Dad broke out in song. It was Norman Rockwell-ish, at least in my memory, and we looked forward to the multi-course Italian meal that awaited us.
There was always antipasto, plates of cured meats, caponata, olives and cheeses. Pasta with a hearty meat sauce, eggplant parmigiana and stuffed mushrooms. There was ham or turkey and a vegetable or two, but my favorites included stuffed artichokes and the end of the meal pastries that came directly from Ferrara's, our favorite bakery in the City. Grandpa knew the family that owned it, and they always made sure we got a box of the freshest cannoli, sfogliatelli and baba au rum for the holiday. It was tradition.
When mama hosted Christmas, the dishes were the same. She made grandma's meatballs and eggplant and artichokes and sometimes, although we would never tell her, she made them just a little better. On the rare occasion when an expected dish was missing, someone would complain loudly, noting that the meal just wouldn't be the same with the ______ (fill in the blank). And within a minute or two, everyone else would chime in and pile on.
Mama's stuffing was my favorite. Cooked inside the turkey, it was chock full of onions, celery, walnuts and raisins. It was the raisins that made it special, swelling up and adding just the right bit of sweetness. She always made plenty so there would be enough for the days of turkey and stuffing sandwiches that would follow.
Not surprisingly, I do the same. I've varied the menu over the years, but never the stuffing. Never, ever the stuffing.
I reached into the cabinet and pulled out the package of raisins, sprinkling a handful of memories into the bowl, knowing that once more, tradition and a little bit of mama, would live on.