I met her nearly thirty years ago: a older woman with a thick Bostonian accent. Opinionated. Forthright. Not afraid to share her thoughts. That’s the way it was. It was, after all, her house.
We met at the small wooden kitchen table that used the wall-hung telephone as its centerpiece and pierced the air with the loudest ring I’d ever heard. (I later learned her husband had been an infantryman in the Korean war who had heard his share of mortars.)
She had fixed dinner for the family – all of whom were arriving to meet her daughter’s new boyfriend: a small salad, ham, yellow mustard, mashed potatoes, and creamed onions.
The latter, I was to discover, was her personal favorite. Any gathering of family importance had them; the small iridescent pearls of tiny onions resting on cream-based sauce carefully created from a flour roux and can of the pearly whites. If it weren’t for her enthusiasm, I probably could have passed on them, but as it was, I had no choice but to place them on my plate. That’s the way she was.
A few Thanksgivings ago I sat with her, her eyes more sunken, her temples more defined. Her legs were thinner than I had remembered them just months before, and her voice was softer. Her graciousness, however, remained. She arrived bundled in her nicest jacket, her gait assisted by a quad cane and her husband’s gentle lift only a day after being discharged from the hospital. She smiled at the cacophony that greeted her. Folding chairs were pushed aside. She was led to a prime location to supervise the kitchen, a more stable chair arranged. The matriarch had arrived.
She saw that her son’s house was as hers had been this time of year: abuzz with activity and controlled chaos. Within the hustle and the bustle of meal preparation and family photos, came a phone call. Her daughter answered. Amongst the chatter a recipe was mentioned. It seems her granddaughter, unable to attend the local meal, had called to share a tradition involving small onions in her home. I saw the tiniest of smiles rise from her lips. For a brief moment the tumor didn’t matter, her pain forgotten as the recipe was recited.
Before long the meal materialized. Turkey, oyster stuffing, potatoes, green bean casserole, and there, hidden in the corner hidden in a warming dish, her creamed onions. More food than could ever be consumed. As we all waited our turn, her husband made her plate with tiny flecks of turkey, a strand or two of green bean, a half teaspoon of sweet and mashed potatoes, and a single creamed onion.
Her husband said the grace. “Bless us, o’ Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive…” I stared at our plates and then at hers. The tiny onion, there alone. Her eyes closed and soft hands folded. I wondered what she was thinking. What does one think at their last Thanksgiving? I hated myself for wondering.
Really, it didn’t matter. It was about the here and now that mattered. “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” my wife still reminds me. And sure enough, despite a week and a half of food intolerance and dehydration, she ate it all.
Even the creamed onion.
And for that, we were all incredibly grateful.
P.S. Here's wishing each of you the Happiest of Thanksgivings.