It was a gentle nudge from a delightful dream. My eyes opened slowly as my brain detected the delectable aromas wafting through the house.
“It's Thanksgiving,” my sleep addled brain realized.
“Mom's cooking her portions of the annual feast. Smells good. Wonder how long she's been at it?” These were the thoughts rummaging through my head as I tossed the covers aside and reached for my clothes.
I pulled on my shirt sniffing the air as I pushed buttons through button holes.
“MMM… macaroni and cheese. My favorite dish,” I spoke aloud to myself.
There was fatback in boiling water permeating the butter beans and the air with its down home aroma. My mouth began to water. Oh, and there it was the smell of pumpkin pie in the oven. Spices tickled my nose as I closed my eyes to soak in the wonders of the day's offerings.
I finished dressing then brushed my teeth. I peeked into my parent's room to see dad still asleep beneath the covers. He wouldn't be awake for a few more hours. I glanced at the clock. It was 7 in the morning. I wondered how he could sleep so soundly with such a wondrous aroma filling the house.
“Mornin' mom,” I mumbled. “How long have you been up?”
“Oh, I don't know. Early. I had to get these dishes started if I'm going to have them there by 11.”
“Is that when it begins?” I asked lifting the lid to the beans boiling on the back burner. The steam gushed out fogging my glasses and filling my thoughts with mounds of rice covered in these soft green morsels.
“Is grandmama cooking the turkey?” I preferred my mother's cooking to anyone else's, including my grandmother.
“Yes. She was given a beautiful 30 pounder by the Y. She's been up since 4:30 baking and basting every 15 minutes. It should be plenty for us all.”
My mother smiled, then asked me, “Do you want some breakfast? I can move this pot of rice to get to a burner if you'd like some eggs.”
“No ma'am. Thanks, but I'd just like coffee. Gotta save room for turkey and all these good foods cookin' here.”
My mother got up and put the full kettle on the stove. She reached for a cup, then the jar of instant Maxwell House.
“I can get it!” I said. Her expression was one of surprise. I'd always sat back letting her serve me but of late my sense of independence had begun to blossom.
“Sure you can,” she said smiling. “You're growing up.”
She sat down at the table while I stood waiting on the kettle to whistle. Dad was asleep and mustn't be disturbed. Catching the kettle just prior to its piercing sound of urgency was the same as easing doors closed or walking in stocking feet so that there was absolutely no noise to awaken dad from his sleep. It was one of the cardinal rules of the house. Dad worked nights and the days for us were like those of church mice quietly moving around. We were very careful to keep the house as quiet as possible so that he could get his sleep.
Years earlier I had learned my lesson about his needing his rest. It was about 3 in the afternoon. I jumped off the bus at the foot of the driveway driving my new shoes into the dirt. My foot kicked up a shark's tooth from the crushed shell fill that lined the drive. I picked it up marveling at it as I walked up to the door. Still looking at the relic from ages past, I pulled the screen door open and reached for the knob on the front door. It was locked. That wasn't normal. I slipped the shark's tooth into my pocket then placed my hands on either side of my face at the glass. The interior was dark but I could see dad's form under the covers in the back room.
I knocked on the door. Nothing.
I knocked on the door again. Still nothing.
This time I knocked louder.
I looked toward my cousin's house next door and knocked one more time almost breaking a pane of glass.
Before I could close the screen and turn toward my cousin's a whirlwind threw the inner door open and grabbed me by the arm. Words blistered the air around me. I was over my dad's knee and his ham of a hand was slapping my backside for all he was worth.
“NEVER WAKE ME UP AFTER WORKING ALL NIGHT AGAIN!” he yelled in my ear.
Through tears and squalling I choked out, “But the door was locked. I just wanted to get in.”
He held me firmly by both arms as I stood in front of him tears pouring down my face. It was the first time I ever felt shear terror in my home.
The fierce anger-clouded eyes focused on me as if he didn't realize who I was. I was swept up into his arms. He held me tightly then let me go. He got up and returned to bed.
“You're in now,” he shouted at me from beneath the covers. I looked into the back room through tear filled eyes to see a form draped completely by the bed covers. His head was beneath those covers as well.
The kettle whistled slightly as I yanked it from the burner. The stream of water turned the brown crystals into a cup of black coffee. Into that a teaspoonful of Creamora turned it a lovely tan.
“That smells good. Would you fix me one, too?” asked my mother.
“Sure.” I produced a cup for her. We sat sipping coffee as we watched the clock.
“Those pies should come out soon,” she said. “I baked two this year since everyone wanted more pumpkin pie last year.”
“Everybody loves your cooking, mom. You know that.”
“It's nice to hear,” she said smiling into her cup.
There was a knock on the door. It opened and Clyde peeked in.
“Everybody up?” his voice boomed.
“Shhhh!” said mom. “Al's still asleep.”
“Oh, sorry. I just came over to see if you had any canned corn. I've gotta get started on my corn pie and forgot to get corn from the store. I've already got my other dish cooking so I can't leave for too long.”
“I think I have a can or two,” said my mother. She stooped down to view the shelves by the stove.
“Yup. Do you want both?'
“Yeah, better be on the safe side. You are cooking your macaroni and cheese aren't you?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye. “It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without that.”
“As well as your corn pie,” I chimed in.
“Maybe so, nef, but there is no comparison with your momma's macaroni and cheese. What time were ya'll going to Momma's?”
“Around 11,” said mom. “Mother wants to start eating between 12 and 1. Everybody should be there by then.”
“All right, then. Let me get this started and we'll see you then.”
He left slamming the door on his way out.
We both cringed. Silently we listened but there was no sound from dad.
“He must really be tired,” I said.
“He had a hard night I think. It will take a lot to wake him. I hate to do that when it is time to go to mother's.”
“You could let him sleep and leave a note.”
“We'll see,” she said. The lid on the pot of beans began to rattle. She got up to check it. She also opened the oven door to check the pies.
“Hand me a broom straw,” she said.
I got the broom and snatched one straw from it. I broke it in half before handing it to her.
“Thank you,” she said. She stuck it into the middle of each pie. It was clean both times.
“Time to remove them. Clear the table, please,” she said grabbing the potholders. Out came one straight to the table. The second one followed suit.
The aroma coming form those two filled the kitchen with the joy of Thanksgiving.
“How's the macaroni and cheese?” I asked.
“It's looking good. It should be ready soon.”
“What about the rice for the beans?” I was thinking of the mountain of green and white fatback permeated goodness that would be the base for my piled high plate.
“Just starting that now,” she said. The water was boiling in the pot she had placed on the stove. Uncle Ben's lent his delicacy to the roiling surface.
“That shouldn't take long,” she said placing the lid on the pot.
We sat a moment.
“I'm going to mother's as soon as that is finished,” she said. “Do you want to come with me or wait for your dad?”
“I'll go with you. You're going to need some help with the dishes.”
“Hand me that pad over there, please.” She pointed at the desk next to the wall.
She wrote a note to dad. She knew he was tired and if he did not feel like going to grandmama's she understood. If he didn't come we would bring him a plate.
She signed it, then placed it next to the teapot. That would be the first thing dad would do upon waking, fix a pot of tea.
We both knew he was not a fan of these annual meals. So we figured he would wait for his meal to be brought home after everyone left grandmama's.
That done, she began to pack everything that was ready into the car. Dishes and bowls were filled with her offerings for the 8 foot table at grandmama's.
It was around 9:30 when we left. Dad had still been sound asleep. I helped with the transporting of blazing hot dishes from car to table.
The back door opened and I was slammed with the rich overpowering aroma of turkey roasting in the oven. Grandmama was practically inside the oven basting the golden browned bird. I think I drooled at that wafted fragrance.
“Hello darlin',” said my granddad to mom. He was in light tan slacks and a crisp white shirt, almost unrecognizable to me without his bib overalls. He was smiling as he glanced over at the turkey being shove back into the oven.
“Hello daddy,” said mom. “Will you be carving the turkey?”
“Just as soon as maamay says it's ready,” he said, smiling as always. “You did bring your macaroni and cheese didn't you?”
Everyone loved her dish. It was usually the first gone after the first round. Everyone made it around the table at least 3 times every year.
The table sat in the middle of the back room covered with a white cloth. As aunts and uncles and cousins began to arrive, the ladies lined up hot pads to be covered with dishes containing delectable temptations from every family. Vegetables, potatoes, sweet potatoes, candied yams covered in marshmallow sauce, rice, gravy, rolls, ham, meatballs, corn pie, macaroni and cheese, and, finally, the guest of honor, golden brown mouth watering Turkey.
“Is it time to eat,” said one of the younger kids reaching for a roll. His mother slapped his hand.
“Wait! Like the rest of us.”
Granddaddy picked up the knife and fork. With a huge grin he began slicing. It sliced easily without crumbling. Grandmama's constant basting had worked wonders for the moistness of the slices being placed on the platter. The bird took a bit of time to cut away. The slices piled up while all eyes were glued on them.
When it was done, granddaddy laid down the knife and fork. He looked at everyone and said, “Let us give thanks.”
He prayed a short word of thanks ending with, “..and bless the little cook.”
With a rustle of movement we began inching around the table. Forks stabbed at meat slices, spoons dipped into casseroles and vegetable plates. Slices of cranberry sauce were slapped on plates. Rice topped with beans was piled high, especially on my plate. Sweet potatoes and yams were mixed along with healthy slabs of macaroni and cheese.
My plate was over flowing. I had to find a seat before it began to spill. I grabbed a spot on the couch in front of the coffee table. My first plate of the season. It lasted about 10 minutes.
“Do you want a glass of tea?” asked my mother.
“Let me go around the table again. Then I'll get one, thanks,” I said grabbing my plate to go back.
Once again I piled my plate with such abundance that I didn't know if I could finish it. But I would give it a hardy try. I added an extra portion of Clyde's corn pie. He had outdone himself this year. Must have been my mother's canned corn, I thought to myself.
Returning to my spot I placed my plate on the coffee table, returned to the banquet to rescue a glass of tea. The second plate took a little longer but it was just as good. Everyone was heading back to the table with empty plates. I joined them.
My granddad from England visited one year. He and my grandmother were here during the holiday season on their visit. When he saw the table and its bounty he whistled.
“I've never seen so much food in one place,” he had remarked.
After we had returned home that day he sat holding his stomach.
“What did you think of Thanksgiving?” I asked him.
“Is that what it is called?” he asked. “I think it should be called Glutton's Day.”
He laughed after his comment then held his stomach following a notch adjustment on his belt.
We all began to moan with contentment when someone yelled out,”I want dessert!”
And desserts there were. Pies, cakes, cookies, fudge, and grandmother's must-have: Whipped cream cake.
Every year my mother would make the trek into town to the Piggly Wiggly on Meeting Street.
“I ordered it yesterday,” said my grandmother to my mother at the first of the week. “They said it would be ready today. Would you please pick it up for me?”
“Of course I will,” said my mother every year. I would ride with her on those excursions. That particular Pig was not my favorite one but the bakery produced the best whipped cream cake in town, according to my grandmother. It was huge. I'd have to hold it in my lap while mom drove us back to grandmother's.
Into the house my mother would carry it for fear I might drop it. She'd place it on the dessert table allowing grandmother to open the lid. She'd sigh then look around furtively and touch her finger to the top pulling a bit from it. She'd stick the frosting covered finger in her mouth a smile with pure joy.
“They make the best whipped cream cake in town,” she'd say as stars danced in her eyes. With one more finger touch she would close it up and ask us to clear out the bottom tray of the fridge. Then she'd slip it onto the shelf, look at the box longingly, and slowly close the door.
It was a ritual. And yet I never truly cared for that cake. But you could see how much it meant to my grandmother. I'm tickled when I think of her cutting here first slice every year. I believe it was a little slice of heaven for her.
Approaching the dessert table hesitantly I eyed mom's pumpkin pie. Should I? Could I? Would I? You bet I would. I sliced a nice wedge. I piled it high with whipped cream. I took it back to my spot on the couch and slowly consumed it. That was my little slice of heaven.
The day wore on as many of us dozed in front of the football game on TV. My cousin Hayne used to love watching the game after eating his plateful. I would smile at his enjoyment as I dozed with my aching belly straining my waistband.
When the game was winding down everyone would poke their heads back into the back room to see if anyone would mind their taking some home.
“Of course you can take some home. It'll be thrown out if you don't. We could never eat all that.”
So again the line would form as dishes were piled high once more but this time to be wrapped with tin foil or cellophane so it could be carried home. Folks began to drift out the door to return to their homes. While that was happening my mother and grandmother would begin gathering the dishes for cleanup.
My dad would usually stay at the house so that we would fix a plate for him and ourselves.
The cleanup took from 2 to 3 hours normally. The sky had gone dark with the setting of the sun when we took our leave carrying 3 covered plates.
The lights were on when we arrived at the house.
“Hello!” we chimed in upon entering.
A muted hello came from the TV room.
Mom would immediately go to the back and offer dad the plate she had fixed for him. He'd draw up a TV tray. She would unwrap it then place it on the small table.
“Whoa! You expect me to eat all that?” he'd invariably ask.
“No, it isn't necessary. I just thought you'd like a little of each dish.”
“Dad was right when he called it Glutton's Day instead of Thanksgiving.”
My mother would just ignore his words. She traipsed back to the kitchen to fetch silverware. The kettle I had put on the burner was beginning to whistle. I'd put the pot next to the stove along with the teabags. While she took dad his utensils I would make the tea.
I went to the TV room to prepare the TV tray for the teapot, milk and cups.
“You should have come down, dad. It was fun to see everyone. And so much food.”
“I woke up too late to go, son. I had a hard night last night and just wasn't up to it.”
“It's OK. We did get you some of the food. Hope you enjoy it.”
“It looks good. I'm sure I will.”
“I'll get the tea.”
“I could use a cup.”
Back in the kitchen mom would be getting our plates ready and I grabbed cups and the milk container. After setting those in place I'd fetch the teapot.
“Mind you don't burn yourself,” dad would say.
Then we would all sit in front of the set and eat. Dad's first meal. My fourth. I couldn't eat much but that was all right. It had been a grand day spent with our whole family. The bounty of our celebration was carved into the memory banks of my life never to be forgotten, always to be enjoyed. ...and bless the little cook.