A Quiet, Clean, Thanksgiving

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This Thanksgiving has been the most relaxing one that I have ever had. It has also been the only one where I actually cooked the whole dinner for the household, and while that took some work, there was quite a bit of comfort that came with that control.

When I was a child, my family always put together a large feast, no matter what, and while we had our traditions (that I do hold dear), something about the food I made this year seemed cleaner, and more vibrant. The level of hygiene in our relatively modern suburban apartment kitchen is much higher than that of the 100 year old farm house kitchen of my (later) childhood. The tile and cabinets in that old house were from the 1940’s. One of our double (very chipped) white porcelain sinks was hooked up to a decades old garbage disposal- which was out of commission, and I can guarantee it was never really cleaned out or sanitized after we broke it.

We had mice, crickets, and other various, more minor, vermin, but somehow we managed to never have a roach problem. I would, from time to time, scrub the kitchen with bleach, making everything as white as I could get it, but in a house with three growing children, an elderly person (who shared the mother role with a teenager) and a mother (in the role of a provider and who was always worn out), two ill trained dogs, and a menagerie of passers through, nothing ever stayed clean for more than a day.

My grandfather was the neatest of us, but he was getting too old to keep up with the constant mess making. My mother, who is hopelessly messy, usually only added to the problem. My younger brother and sister were not much for sharing in chore duties. After the dogs used the legs of our kitchen table and chairs as chew toys, any neat and tidy illusion I could create in the kitchen was completely lost.

The dinner itself took place in the dining room.  The house we lived in matched well with the location, as it was on the brink of falling apart. The old couple that sold it to us managed to clean it up and make it look pretty decent. However a growing, rough and tumble family made short work of destroying it.  We did have a nice set of dining furniture, handed down from my great aunts, remnants of a bygone time of near affluence in my family. My great aunts came from the same depression era brood as my grandfather, but with their good looks and sparkling personalities, they were able to marry up a class. The best option my grandfather saw was to become a soldier, and he was eventually shipped off to fight in WWII.

Grandpa managed to become a decorated war hero, which we never knew until after he passed away. He was never proud of being a soldier.  The experience haunted him deeply. He suffered from severe PTSD, which he used alcohol to cure. While he did kick his alcoholism later in life, he never managed to work his way out of poverty. He had a daughter, who began having children while she was still a child. We all used to live in a government funded housing complex for seniors. When they changed the apartment complex into general public housing, transplants from the closing Cabrini Greens housing project in Chicago started moving in. What was once known as Vermilion Gardens eventually came to be known as the VG’s. We started hearing gun shots at night. My mother started coming across used needles and condoms in the parking lot, on almost a daily basis. Now in her early 30’s, she was established enough at her job to buy us a little house on the edge of the good and bad side of town.

So, our little broken family, with nice, antique furnishings would have our more fancy dinners in our beautiful dining room. The carpet was old, ratty, matted brown shag that was popular in the 1960’s. My mother wanted to replace it when we moved in, but never got around to it, I’m assuming because we couldn’t actually afford to do such a thing. While my mother did us a solid by moving us out of that dangerous housing complex, I don’t think that she understood that keeping up a house that you owned, and not rented, took money and time. Because of this, when the already old fittings and furnishings in the house were sullied or broken, they did not get replaced. We trekked around the house, our shoes full of mud and dirt, and it got so you would rather not remove your shoes inside. The dogs were not avidly potty trained, so a faint smell of dog piss was almost always present. We had a little piano, with broken keys, that didn’t make much noise because it needed work. This was also a gift from deceased aunts. It was never worked on, and it became a fine home for some of our many families of mice.

While my grandfather did most of the everyday cooking, my mom seemed to relish in preparing holiday meals. I think he was a bit too frail for heaving around a turkey, as well as spending the hours in the kitchen it took to prepare such a feast. She developed specific methods and recipes that my sister and I carry on religiously. In the morning, you make a cheesy potato dish that my mother refers to as “company potatoes.” There are recipes for this online, but she has her own special way of making it that is perfect. You must brine your turkey, and stuff it with apples, oranges, and spices, not stuffing. (This year we were given a free turkey from my boyfriends side of the family: precooked! I was horrified.) The stuffing must come from a bag, not a box, and you mix it with crumbled breakfast sausage, brown sugar, butter, chicken broth, sage, and maybe some nuts. Relish trays must have whole pickled beets on them, as the sliced ones do not taste as good.

We also ate the other holiday meal staples, like mashed potatoes, and yams, and deviled eggs. We used the nice china that our aunts left us for awhile, until the serving bowls were all broken, and then we just used old margarine tubs. Nothing was wasted in our house, and we saved every bit of plastic and glass that came through the door. We never purchased a single piece of Tupperware. I continued to do this until the practice was shamed out of me by the more cosmopolitan friends I made, after leaving home. Even now, my boyfriend heckles me if I try saving a nice jar that some over priced spaghetti sauce came in.

No, this year, there were no dogs, with long nails and ill manners, scooting underfoot looking for scraps. Our food was served in lovely fiesta-ware vessels; there was not a single up-cycled margarine tub in sight. Heck, there wasn’t any margarine period, as everyone I know now much prefers butter. No mice were skittering in the background. I cooked my meal barefoot, and we ate in the living room, which has clean, new beige carpeting, no one thinks of keeping their shoes or socks on for any reason. We made the stuffing as my mother does, I have already mentioned the turkey outrage, but it wasn’t that bad, really. My yams were fresh instead of canned, and they tasted amazing.

I don’t yearn for those dirty days, but I reflect on them. The nature of my rearing has determined my trajectory for life. It helps me understand why I am where I am today, but what I don’t understand is why the vision of how my life would turn out was so very askew from how it actually did. Not that I would change anything, I would not trade a shred of wisdom gained for any sort of comfort or affluence I might of had if I did the “right” or “better” thing. But still I wonder, where am I going? What is the purpose of my life?

I feel incredibly grateful for the comforts that I have, but there is a nagging feeling that I obtained them at a price. Maybe that price is simply giving up some of my bohemian tendencies. I have experienced so much crazy in my 34 years, I feel like I could write ten books, easy, based on all of the experiences I have lived. It’s a strange feeling for me to even be able to spend a nice holiday weekend inside, because for most of the past decade I’ve spent the holidays working as a commercial horse carriage driver.

I think I can come to see this stage in my life as a quiet resetting of myself. If I am going to write some books, it will be helpful to have a nice, comfortable place to write them in. I have kicked some really bad habits, and I am working on reintroducing more healthy ones back into my life. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s okay to be stable. If anything, I am rebuilding myself for new, and better, adventures.

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