I never really liked Thanksgiving as a child.
Tucked in between the candy and costumes of Halloween and the presents and carols of Christmas, it paled in comparison.
I don’t like football. Even before I was a vegetarian, I was never a meat and potatoes kind of person. My extended family is so large that Thanksgiving was usually served buffet-style and I ended up eating dinner in the kitchen with my favorite cousin, by ourselves.
I never really liked Thanksgiving, but the night before Thanksgiving was an entirely different matter.
Those are some of the clearest and happiest memories from my childhood. Nana invited just a few of her older grandchildren to spend the night at her house and help prepare the pies. I can still recall standing on a step stool at her counter in her green linoleum kitchen as she taught me the secrets of crust-making. It was never about the measurements, but always about how it looked and felt. She’d put my hands in the dough so I could learn to bake by touch. We always made two pumpkin pies, which my mom would greedily run a finger along the next day to snitch the fine layer of oil that rose to the top.
There was always a patch of extra crust that Nana would sprinkle with cinnamon sugar as a late night treat for those of us who labored in the kitchen. I remember pressing my face against the rectangle window of her oven while it baked, always wishing it would hurry up. We ate it hot out of the oven with mugs of milk, while the pies cooled all night long on the counter.
There were other duties that night, specifically making the cranberries, so Nana would have more space to cook the next day. Cranberries are important in my family. In fact, Granddaddy instituted a rule called the Cranberry Chop: if anyone didn’t like cranberries, they’d be chopped from the family. I always nervously bit my lip as new baby cousins had their first bite.
Luckily, they always made the chop.
We also polished Nana’s silver the night before. Tough work, it required a lot of elbow grease. I love watching tarnish transform into sparkling silver. I’ve always had a touch of glamour in me and I was so proud to see the gleaming silver displayed, if rarely used, in Nana’s dining room.
The next morning we took the rolls to church to be blessed at mass. I usually sang in the Children’s Choir on of my favorite hymns, For the Beauty of the Earth. That is where the switch was made from Nana’s custody to Mom’s. Nana would spend the day cooking the feast and hooting at the college football games. At 4 o’clock, we would come over with the rest of the family. Nana’s house would be loud, crazy and buzzing with energy that overwhelmed me.
It was nothing like the night before, where it was quiet and I was so specially and specifically loved.
The best part of Thanksgiving was, of course, the pies.
Granddaddy brought out canisters of whipped cream and allowed all of us grandchildren to squirt as much as we wanted onto our pies. Mom always objected and had looks of horror that egged us on. Who was she to talk with that pie-snitching she did before dinner?
I squirted a mountain every year and ate every bite of our delicious pie.
Last year, when I brought out a can of whipped cream, my friends were surprised. I always whip my own; it didn’t seem like a foodie thing to do. When I handed it to Max, their mouths fell agape: that is definitely not the kind of mom I am.
Except I am.
My own mother, Max and Jack’s Nana, was sitting at the table smiling as I relinquished my control of my kiddos to her father, who was buried twenty-five years ago and 3,500 miles away.
It was delicious.
Every last bite.