My column for The Elgin Review November 4, 2020
The smell of turkey roasting wafted up from the basement as I ran from there up the three flights of stairs to the top floor on the far end of my sprawling dorm, Clay Hall. My room was the only place I had access to a telephone in those dark ages before limitless long distance and phones that weren’t wired into the walls. It was on three south. Breathlessly, I dialed the number I’d memorized before heading to kindergarten, (402) 453-2384. Mother answered and when I said, “Mom,” she called out, “Marshall, it’s Becky again, get on the extension.” (In the dark ages there were no speaker phones). Daddy picked up the phone in their bedroom. They both laughed when I gasped and then asked my question, gave me a quick answer, told me they loved me and I flew back down the stairs.
When I learned I was the Resident Assistant with dorm duty for the Thanksgiving weekend, I was sad. I’d never missed a Thanksgiving Dinner with my family. The tv tuned to football, grandpa breaking dried bread into pieces in the big stainless bowl that only came out for stuffing, Mother sautéing celery and onion, perfect pumpkin pies baking in the oven upstairs, while the turkey roasted in Grandma’s old apartment downstairs, and me preparing a relish tray and setting the table with a pretty lace cloth, the once-a-year china and silverware I’d polished the week before.
Here I was, twenty-one years old, in Oklahoma, far away from Omaha preparing Thanksgiving Dinner in the little apartment of the Dorm Mother who’d gotten to go home. The guests would be the stragglers; foreign students and those who had no way to get home or no friends to go home with for the holiday. And I, whose prior culinary skills were mostly mac-n-cheese, beanie-weenies and chocolate chip cookies was cooking the kind of dinner my mother, an exquisite cook, always prepared for Thanksgiving. Two weeks earlier her letter arrived along with recipe cards for dressing, cranberry ice and pumpkin pie. In it she detailed, “Becky dear, for the dressing you will want to start two days ahead by setting the bread out to dry…”
My father laughed so hard he cried when on one of my forty-eleven breathless phone calls home I asked what to do with that weird little bag of stuff I pulled out of the turkey along with the dressing. “What? Mother asked, giggling. “You were supposed to take that out before you stuffed and roasted the turkey!” “What do I do with it?” I insisted. They told me to throw it out and promised never to tell anyone what I’d done.
My parents and I laughed through that day. Though I wasn’t home, it is one of my all-time favorite holiday memories. I still have the letter my mother wrote to me, the recipe cards she sent, and my notes from those phone calls home scrawled on little lime-green squares of paper from a note cube that sat on my dormitory desk. I’ll be pulling out the recipes and age-stained instructions in Mother’s beautiful script three weeks from now as I prepare a meal this year for Mike and me.
This year loving our families and our neighbors at Thanksgiving means not getting together unless we can all quarantine for two full weeks before and then for another two weeks after Thanksgiving. It feels terrible thinking about it.
We’re not traveling to share the holiday in Minneapolis with cousins and our Minnesota kids. Our Lincoln, NYC and Pittsburgh offspring aren’t heading here, either. Instead, we’ll be calling each other on the phone or “Zooming,” comparing cooking notes, laughing and giving thanks for the technology that allows us to be together even as this pandemic keeps us apart. We’ll share cooking tips, and laugh at cooking disasters, rejoice in our good fortune, and look forward to being together next year when COVID-19 has run its course and scientists have had time to develop a vaccine. If it’s warm enough to eat outside, who knows? Maybe local friends can safely join us for a feast on our patio.
I hope you are beginning to make your plans for how you will keep each other and our community safe this Thanksgiving. God will certainly be happy to receive our gratitude whether we’re together or apart. Who knows? Years from now, our memories of the year the pandemic upended our holiday traditions may be among our fondest.
You are always welcome to join us for worship at Park Congregational United Church of Christ, ten miles west of Elgin on HWY 70 and ½ mile south. Worship is at 9:15 am and available on Zoom. I love to hear from you. firstname.lastname@example.org.