My Gramma’s kitchen was always one of the most comforting places for me to be. But, on the night before Thanksgiving, the pungency of chopped onions sautéing on the stove sent me scurrying out to the bathroom for a wet washcloth to put over my stinging eyes. The only thing that pushed me through my pained tears was the thought of the stuffing that would emerge the following day. I could taste it, onions and all. Gramma had probably chopped about five pounds of onions before even beginning to cook. Her eyes had adapted over the years, but she would still have to remove her glasses and keep tears at bay as she stood and stirred. There was also fresh sausage, and bags and bags of bread cubes salvaged from the remaining ends of bread over the past month; we knew Thanksgiving was drawing near when the drying racks of bread began to emerge on the dining room table. She placed thick slabs of bacon over the top of the stuffing once it was placed in its baking pans, which infused a smokey essence throughout the savory dressing. Perfection.
The night before Thanksgiving, there were also cranberries to be ground in the old, clamp-on metal grinder with a hand crank. Cranberries were picked over and ground together with oranges…peel and all..and mixed with spoonfuls of sugar until it took on a simple, tangy-sweet and ruby-red elegance. Tomorrow, I would heap this relish next to the turkey and the stuffing. Tonight, the flavors would intermingle in a large, Tupperware container behind the door of her cold pantry. There were pies to be baked from sweet, seasonal apples and pumpkins already puréed. An elderberry pie would emerge from the freezer, where it’s honey-like sweetness was baked in between golden crust earlier in the summer when berries were at their peak. The taste was still every bit as sweet.
Tables were moved through the house, reconstructing separate farmhouse rooms into one continuous family Thanksgiving table. I would be charged with counting the silverware, and the glasses, and the plates to insure there were enough place settings. The table setting itself would wait until morning…the night before was to take stock and make adjustments…borrowing a few forks or a set of glasses if needed. Somehow, there was always enough.
The night before Thanksgiving, we would calculate pounds of turkey divided by people, always worried whether another bird should have been purchased. Gramma would plan to start roasting the first bird around three o’clock in the morning, always making sure there would be enough ready in time for noon-time dinner…and extra for sandwiches for supper. I marveled in my younger years that anyone could get up that early. Now I also welcome those early, quiet pre-dawn hours and savor them as a private treasure, just as she did. I inherited the same birth-mark as my Gramma…some of her feisty attitude, too…and definitely her habit of waking after five hours of sleep. That was always plenty of sleep. And there was always plenty of turkey.
During the evening, we would count and double count the number of guests, and think about the additions and losses to the family from the past year. Marriages, births, deaths, divorces, new loves, old friends…the ebb and flow of family life in a rural community was reflected around the table. The number still grows. My cousin Carol is score-keeper now…and she says it will be 47 this year, and 51 pounds of turkey. Even though I haven’t travelled to join the family feast in recent years, I still like to keep up with the score. I am there in spirit, even if not in number.
Thanksgiving day was loud with conversation. The night before was quiet. Onions sizzled, and the house filled with aromas of sweet and spice. Gramma was a full-motion action plan, taking it all in stride. I was growing up and learning from her…about cooking and baking, and about living and moving with purpose through the world. We would work, and we would talk. My mouth would water. My eyes would water. Anticipation was palpable. The night before Thanksgiving fed my soul.
Thanksgiving is about thanks, and not about gifts. Thankfulness for who we are and where we came from is the gift offered by this celebration. We can gather together at massive tables, or simply with a few of our closest family and friends. Thankfulness is gathered wherever we are, and we connect over the simplicity and elegance that are part of our lives. And the night before, we prepare.
I baked my pies tonight, and made my plans and preparations for tomorrow. I will wake early to make cranberry relish and bake cranberry nut bread before my daughter wakes, savoring the quiet nostalgia of the early morning. No onions will be chopped in my kitchen until tomorrow.
My eyes are already watering, though.
That is just how it is for me the night before Thanksgiving….and I can’t imagine it any other way.