I wouldn’t call anything about my mother or our household conventional — not her behavior, personal style or the manner in which she entertained. The woman was an eccentric by any standard or era. And that was always in full display as November rolled around.
At Thanksgiving, my mother typically invited foreign students to join our festivities. Dinner wasn’t a formal affair and her attitude was always "the more, the merrier.” She was especially fond of Hispanic and Asian cultures (she spoke Spanish and later Japanese), though she enjoyed anyone with a sharp mind, a tolerance for bawdy humor, a penchant for word play and a willingness to engage in lively debate.
The old round table in our kitchen may have been designed to seat four or six people, but we somehow managed to crowd eight to ten and occasionally more. It was a messy, jammed, noisy, exuberant, rowdy and energizing mix. Even now, I can sometimes hear my mother insisting that we “have another serving,” despite our protests that we couldn't eat another bite.
As for the menu, tradition was served with my mother’s singular flair. All the action took place in the large kitchen of our Victorian home, complete with a worn saloon bar on which she laid out an abundant buffet. Included were New England favorites — turkey of course, with homemade gravy; stuffing with apples, walnuts and celery; candied yams with just the right amount of brown sugar; cranberries mixed with bits of orange; and what I remember best — cornbread that was baked to perfection. I can still see my mother in her oversized apron, mitts on her hands, holding the weighty, antique iron mold in which she had made her golden cornbread. Naturally, there was pie for dessert — pumpkin and occasionally spicy apple.
Strangely, this is the season when I most resent my mother — we never had the relationship I hoped we would — yet I also miss her something fierce. She was a complicated but brilliant woman, constrained by her times, though she tried her best to conform to conventional norms. She met my dad at 19 and married him at 23. They settled into suburban life as expected, but the domestic roles never quite suited her and by the 1960s, she had registered for college and spent 10 years pursuing subjects that fed her spirit.
In her forties, she completed her degree and not long after, settled into an administrative job at MIT. She was utterly in her element in academia. By her fifties, my mother had traveled on her own through Spain and climbed Machu Picchu in Peru. In her sixties, she was taking evening courses at Harvard, studying Japanese with a passion.
While I rarely cook for a dozen people (or invite students into my home), I take great pleasure in preparing Thanksgiving dinner — the same sort of satisfaction I imagine my mother experienced. Like her, I baste my turkey with love, I make my gravy from scratch, I fuss over the yams and stuffing with apples. But I’ve yet to attempt New England cornbread.
I went searching for the iron mold this morning — I’m certain I have it packed away somewhere — but, annoyingly, I couldn’t locate it. However, I did unearth other treasures that once held pride of place in my mother’s display cabinets — a tin tankard, a mortar and pestle, and small glass bottles from a nearby antique shop.
I also came across two photographs. The first one is from the 1950s. It's of my parents together, very young. How beautiful and innocent they seem. The second is a picture of my mother at the last Thanksgiving we shared together. That was more than a dozen years ago. She stands in her apron at the kitchen table where so many memories were created. She’s pointing to the turkey she has just stuffed and tied. She is exactly as I remember her — a big woman with an insatiable appetite for learning — in her own way, larger than life.