Posted November 21, 2012
Why My Family's Thanksgiving Will Always Be Bittersweet
By CAREN CHESLER
The juiciest turkey I ever made was Thanksgiving 2001, though it came about by happenstance. I was preparing the meal at my mother's home in Florida and was supposed to cook the bird for three hours at 350 degrees. Once the plastic meat thermometer popped up, I was to put the bird back in the oven for about 15 minutes at 500 to crisp the skin. But when the alarm rang after three hours, I looked at the turkey and saw the thermometer hadn't yet popped up, so I left it in the oven longer to continue to cook.
About half an hour later, I checked the bird again and still the thermometer had not yet popped. Thirty minutes later, same thing. This went on for about two and half hours. Finally, my Aunt Gloria came into the kitchen and said, "Caren, it's almost 8 p.m. The thermometer must be broken. It's got to be done."
And sure enough, it was. What I didn't know about my mother's stove is that when the timer rings, the oven automatically shuts off. I had been cooking a bird for hours and hours in an oven that was no longer on. The result was a bird that was so moist, it was downright juicy.
My mother didn't tell me about her oven because she had gone upstairs, locked herself in the bathroom and sat on the side of the bathtub all day. She had refused to come out because she was upset and angry, on account of the fact that my father was dying of cancer. He was so gaunt and withdrawn at that point, we knew it would be his last Thanksgiving.
Given my father's rapidly deteriorating condition, we'd actually had our Thanksgiving a week earlier, with lobster instead of turkey, because we'd always celebrated birthdays and Mother's and Father's Day with lobster. The gravity of my father's condition was clear even then when he asked me during the meal to open his can of soda, not because he was too weak but because he didn't understand how the can worked.
When actual Thanksgiving rolled around a week later, it seemed silly to sit there and do nothing. So I went out and bought a turkey and began to cook a meal with all the fixings. But no one was really interested. I'm not even sure my father knew what day it was.
My father died two weeks later, on December 4, 2001. It's been 11 years, and my life has changed quite a bit since then. I became a full-time freelance writer, bought a brownstone in Harlem, got married and gave birth to a son, whom I named Eddie, after my dad. But every year at this time, as I prepare a Thanksgiving dinner, I remember that the best bird I ever made was the year no one cared about the meal.
My son had his first Thanksgiving today, at school. All of the classes congregated in the church's Fellowship Hall for a dramatization of a Thanksgiving meal and then grace. They ate Chicken McNuggets and macaroni and cheese. When I dropped him off in the morning, the spot where I usually park was blocked by orange cones. I figured it had something to do with the children's feast, or even the Thanksgiving dinner the church will be serving to the needy on Thursday. Perhaps it was for a delivery of food. I double-parked, grabbed Eddie out of the car and carried him inside to his classroom. When I got back outside to my car, a hearse was parked in the spot where the cones had been, and soon, I saw several people dressed in black heading toward the church. It saddened me because I knew that like me, not a Thanksgiving will go by that they don't associate with a death.
While cleaning my apartment in New York City last weekend, I found a box with some old VHS tapes. I got excited because I've been searching for two particular tapes since my father died. One is a movie he made of the 1970s that was like a time capsule of events going on at the time: the hairstyles, the clothes, Nixon and the Vietnam War. My father included some animation in the film that he made himself by drawing on pieces of clear plastic with multicolored Sharpie markers and moving the pieces up and down to simulate movement. He made someone talking, for instance, by drawing a mouth, and he filmed a few frames of it open and then a few frames of it closed. In another part of the film, he filmed a map of Asia with little flags on it to show viewers what was going on at the time in Vietnam. Much of the film was set to Simon and Garfunkel's soundtrack for the movie, "The Graduate." When people hear the song "Mrs. Robinson," some probably think of Dustin Hoffman banging on the windows of a big church yelling, "E-laine! E-laine!" as he tries to stop her from marrying another man. I think of plastic pieces of acetate moving around a white background, showing the U.S. Army's move into Cambodia.
But the tape I was really hunting for was a recording my father made in the final months of his life. Knowing he would be dying, he sat down in front of the camera and spoke into it. I watched it once, not long after his death, and shockingly, I can't remember what he talked about. I was still too grief-stricken to absorb it. Since then, I've been wanting to watch it again, but I can't find the tape.
I'm actually afraid to watch the recording. I was so utterly shattered by my father's death and overwhelmed by the loss of him that I've buried the memory of him to avoid the pain. I didn't cry at his funeral, and I seem to have lost a sense of him, the specifics of what he looked like, the sound of his voice. I'm afraid if I see him talking on the tape, it will bring him back to life, and I will then have to experience his death. You can't lose something that you forget you had, right?
I brought the bag of VHS tapes into my son's room, where we have an old VCR player, and sat down on the floor. With Eddie on my lap, I inserted the first tape into the machine and braced myself. There were a few frames of fuzz as the tape was "tracking," and then the movie began to come into focus. It was a recording of Ken Burns' epic series, "New York," the episode where the sewing factory downtown catches fire with the workers inside.
I stuck the second tape in. It was a recording of Peter Jennings covering New Years' Eve in Time Square, December 1999. The third tape was my accountant, Alan Brachfeld, being interviewed on ABC News. I'm not sure how I came to possess that one.
I braced myself before inserting the final tape. Bored from sitting on my lap, Eddie had started playing with his train set but then went over to the bookshelf which contained his own VHS tapes, plucked out an episode of the Australian group, the Wiggles, and started trying to jam it into the tape machine. I grabbed his tape, put it on the floor and picked up my tape. It had a sticky note taped to it that said, "Jitters" in my mother's distinct cursive handwriting. I ripped the note off and stuck the tape into the player.
The screen was blue for a while. My heart began to pound. At long last, I was about to be reunited with my father. Suddenly, the picture came on. It was a woman with big wide eyes standing in front of a meat counter. She was flirting with the butcher, who appeared to be an old flame. I was disappointed but relieved. I ejected the tape and threw it in the bag with the others. I've gone 10 Thanksgivings without my father now. One more wouldn't make a difference.
I picked up the Wiggles tape and put it into the player. I then grabbed Eddie and sat him in my lap and wrapped my arms around him, a little more tightly than usual.