This year, I am officially the Matriarch of our small family. So, yeah, you might want to say a prayer for my husband and kids. Matriarchs are not supposed to still be operating (at least mentally) on a 20 year-old level. I’m having to navigate everyone’s food preferences, and make sure that there is plenty of gluten-free stuff for my hubby, and non-Thanksgiving type food for my daughter. I have to make the Pumpkin Cheesecake, lest the entire family mutiny. I have to do most of the cleaning up for myself, because Mom is no longer here, and Gaylon and Abby are working. And I have to figure out how to make the things my mother always made, like her amazing fruit salad. And NO! I do NOT want it with yogurt or kefir or almond milk! Ewwww!!!! We are going to at least do the fruit salad correctly, and use good, old-fashioned Hellman’s Mayonnaise! And if we all die from it, at least we’ll die happy!

But in reality, all I want to do is crawl back into a safe place in my past, that looks something like this: I wake up on Thanksgiving morning to the entire house filled with the smells of my mother and grandmother cooking turkey in the kitchen. I will pad out to greet everyone, and there will be pumpkin pie (made by Granny), apple pie, and pumpkin bread (made by my mom) covering up one counter. (My brother will bring his World-Famous-Or-At-Least-It-Should-Be Pecan Pie when he shows up later.) My grandmother will probably already be tipsy, although there will be no evidence of this, since her main source of alcohol was the vanilla! Or vodka, but that’s another story. . . Daddy and Granddad will be drinking coffee and discussing all sorts of things that I don’t care about or understand, but now that I will never again awake to the hum of their voices, would give anything to hear. In addition to the wonderful smell of turkey, the air will be filled with the scent of coffee, cigarette smoke from my grandmother and my dad, and with the steam from the potatoes my mother is boiling on the stove.

Granny will worry that the turkey will be too done, and that the stuffing won’t work. She’ll fuss over how much it cost at Tootie’s, and whether or not she should have gotten the potatoes at another grocery store. Daddy will laugh at her, and tease her, and make her laugh, too. My grandfather will sit quietly, taking it all in. He was crippled, so he couldn’t do much around the kitchen, and wouldn’t want to, anyway, since he was born in the day when women did all the cooking. Except in my dad’s case, in which he was an amazing cook, and taught my mother how to cook after they married.

At some point, various relatives will show up. My brother will come, with his (now ex) wife and her bratty kids. She’ll bring sour cream potatoes that were absolutely divine. My Mom’s brother will probably come, too, with his wife and my two cousins. They will have already eaten at her mother’s house, but will make an obligatory stop at our place later in the afternoon, during a football game. Sometimes, my dad’s sister would come, too. Sometimes she brought people with her, sometimes not. My sister rarely joined us, but would call from Albuquerque and talk to Daddy, since we had different moms.

And ah, yes, the football game! After everyone has eaten their fill of the turkey, cornbread stuffing, giblet gravy, rolls, potatoes, corn casserole, fruit salad, cranberry sauce (plopped unceremoniously from the can onto a plate, which I always thought was hysterically funny), candied yams and green beans, we all migrate into the living room to watch football. My mother will scream and cuss and shake her fists at the television, never doubting that her antics would help propel her team to victory. I will probably fall asleep on the big floor pillow in front of the television. After the game, we will all wander back into the kitchen and eat more. There is, as of yet, no such thing as “Black Friday”. In a week or so, depending on when Thanksgiving falls, I will celebrate my birthday with my friend, Maureen, and we will watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at either her house or mine. And the whole world will feel completely safe and cozy, with no threat of ISIS or terrorism or economic meltdown.

All of that is, of course, an amalgam, a mixture of my memories of Thanksgiving with my family over the years. My brother and sister are still alive, as are my uncle and his family. Everyone else is gone now: my mom, my dad, my grandparents. And it feels very empty. My husband’s family usually doesn’t invite us to join them, now that his dad has passed. His mom just really isn’t up to it anymore. And even though we are back in Texas with most of the rest of the still-living family, it’s a long drive for any of us to get together, and now, of course, I’m on call for several births. Thanksgiving just ain’t what it used to be.

And yet, my little family still wants to get together and celebrate, and eat perennial favorites, like the corn casserole and the fruit salad. I am doing my best to fill in the gaping hole left by my mother, and yes, I’ve already sat down and cried my eyes out several times. I know I’m not done; this is our first year without her. But we will carry on, and we will enjoy each other and the food, and honor her memory, as well as the memory of all the others who no longer join us at our earthly table.

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