My Thanksgiving tomorrow is with one of my daughters. She has given me one job: mashed potatoes.
Mashed potatoes are the wallflower of the party, that poor pale kid forgotten about amidst the dancing. Turkey is royalty – the most elegant presence on the table yet dry and unapproachable. Stuffing and pie are the fun kids. Cranberry sauce too, slathered on the white meat that might otherwise require the Heimlich maneuver. And gravy, please – on everything. But mashed potatoes are just, well, mashed potatoes.
Still, I will do my part with conscientious aplomb. Sown within the spuds will be more real butter and cream than anyone should eat in a month. No one will shout, “Wow, what great mashed potatoes!” because they will meld into the whole as everyone pushes back from the table and says, “Ugh, I ate too much.”
One year when our four children were young, everyone but me had the flu. It was that ugly strain of yuck that simultaneously hits your head, chest, and digestive system. I shudder to think of it even now. Our children came down with it consecutively and so they were in various stages of recovery, from groggy to out of bed for short stints. But my wife was hit on Thanksgiving morning, hard and harsh as a winter storm.
Now please understand that Thanksgiving in my childhood was an epic meal requiring days of preparation, not to mention what would otherwise pass for church attire. Instead of spring house cleaning we had the runup to Thanksgiving (and then again to Christmas). Everything from the oven to the floors to silver and china had to be cleaned. I cannot remember now whether chestnut stuffing was for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but I sure do remember the steaming and peeling of chestnuts. Ugh.
With those memories seared into my brain, and with a household of the sick and suffering, I was overtaken by an obsession. Perhaps it was a grief-reaction to my mother’s death, but I became like some 19thcentury British Colonialist insisting upon observing Tea Time in a jungle monsoon. I was soon drunk with manic devotion to my childhood memory and got out my mother’s china and the best of everything with which to set the table. Then came the meal an NBA team could not finish. I made everything, as if all six of us would be sitting down for the feast.
What I remember is my wife’s empty chair and four bewildered children sitting at the table with a huge steaming turkey, covered serving dishes of stuffing and mashed potatoes, and on their plate a piece dry toast or chicken broth. Then, with everyone tucked back into bed, I calmly went about cleaning up and putting away.
As crazed as it may sound, this is one strategy for getting through the surrounding madness of the moment, and the next year that will surely include more and stranger lunacy than we have yet seen. Keep doing the small and ordinary things that make our lives meaningful and full. Don’t give in to despair nor neglect the rituals and traditions that have given texture and resonance to our lives. Do the things that are within our control and pray for a new spirit to enter with healing into the nation’s soul.