This year, as we prepare our Thanksgiving tables, I wanted to re-share a true story that was originally published on this blog several years ago. A remembrance from one of my own Thanksgivings past. A consummate illustration of grace. And which, in whatever form, is always amazing.
Autumn, 1978. The Jonestown massacre had just splashed across the nation’s newspapers, and my mother protectively drew her family into her bosom in an almost hysterical way. She was due to be the keynote speaker at a conference in Atlanta just a few days after the coming Thanksgiving. She often traveled for business, leaving us to hold down the fort, but this time decided that the whole family would go with her, take off early, and make a little vacation out of it. On Thanksgiving morning, we piled into a roomy, rented twenty-six-footer RV mobile home, and headed east on Interstate 10, out of Los Angeles and into the breadth of these United States. I was a teen who had just gotten her driver’s license, and my stepfather promised I could have a try behind the wheel of this giant bread box, probably somewhere out in the desert, where there would be fewer other cars for me to endanger.
My mother and her best friend Dolores (whose kids were with their father for the holiday, so she was joining) had packed the RV with all that would be needed to prepare a turkey feast, and with Dad at the wheel the women immediately commenced to cooking in the small kitchenette of the RV. The plan was that wherever we were by the time dinner was ready was where we’d stop and have our Thanksgiving dinner. The two of them took up the whole middle section, which included the kitchenette on one side of the RV and a large table for eating on the other, against a huge picture window, and which immediately got covered with all the food preparation. My sister Pam, brother Mike, and I were mainly relegated to the back, an area that was much like a large restaurant booth and table, around which we sat with our many board games, and stared out of the large back window onto the vista of road behind us. Above us were pull-out bunks for sleeping. Mike ran back and forth between the stern to riding shotgun with Dad. The women kept begging him to find a spot and sit still. Yeah, good luck with that.
The whole way across California, and by the time we hit the Colorado River, Mike and I had just about exhausted the adults with our impressions of bits from our favorite TV shows and hit songs, and I even shared some of my teen-angst poetry with Dolores, who seemed genuinely interested in it, though I’m pretty sure none of it was very good. She was just great that way. Pam had her head buried in a book, a constant place for my bookworm sister.
My stepdad was a bit of a video recording fanatic, so from the moment he invested in his new camera our family wasn’t given much peace or privacy. On this trip Mike was in charge of the camera whenever Dad was doing the driving. And while Dolores would shy away any time Mike aimed the camera her way, my mother was in her Norma Desmond element, always ready for her close-up. Pam and I hammed it up whenever Mike aimed the lens our way, and Dad couldn’t help micro-managing Mike’s shooting technique from the driver’s seat.
“You’re not doing it right. Here, let me show you.”
Mike ended up being responsible for lots of accidental vérité-like shots, but then, frankly, so did my stepfather, who often forgot that the camera was still on when he’d lay it on its side to go do something else. The shot would be a thrilling twenty-minute study of an ant crawling across the sideways table. Andy Warhol would’ve been proud.
And all the while, the women cooked.
Cooking was a calling for my mother. If she was in the kitchen, we knew an old-fashioned jubilee was about to happen. At home I had often watched her when she’d make her monkey bread. And sometimes she’d even try to teach me a few things. It would be an all-day affair. Learning to scald milk, which is a delicate procedure that requires precise timing and a hands-on skill. Feeling the yeast between my fingers and dipping it in the lukewarm water. Adding just a pinch of sugar to the softened paste, then watching it dissolve. Separating the egg whites from their yokes, and adding them to the yeast paste. Watching the miraculous alchemy of flour and milk and yeast and eggs become dough, dusted then kneaded. The sensual nature of my mother’s hands to the sticky white mixture, and the way she’d dip her fingers into the velvety flour in order to handle the doughy mound, was artful. She never rushed it.
The soft mound was then left in a glass bowl to rise. She would always declare the watched pot never boils edict to me whenever I wanted to stare at it while it rose, but all I wanted to do was stare at it while it rose. And once it was ready to be brought back out to the wooden block, perhaps an hour later, she would knead it some more. A rolling pin would lay it out large and flat, and the flick of her wrist was something to see.
Next would come that part of the ritual in which the whole family was encouraged to participate. We’d each take a diamond-shaped cookie cutter, several of which she’d collected over the years, and carve out squares that we would then dip individually into a pot of melted butter, and place in a Bundt pan.
Layer upon layer of little buttered squares would fill up the pan, which would then be placed in the oven, until some forty-five minutes later the bubbling brown masterpiece, with the molten jigsaw puzzle resemblance, would be a most aromatic table centerpiece quickly devoured.
This age-old Southern-tradition side dish is called monkey bread because when it’s turned over and released from the Bundt pan onto a bread platter it merely needs to be pulled apart with one’s fingers, not cut with a knife, and that was an especially enticing notion for us kids. My mother made a pretty spectacular monkey bread.
I loved watching her stand back and enjoy satisfying her family’s bellies, and I knew that this, for her, was a kind of sacred meditation.
So, though we were all having a ball driving through town after town, on this holiday mobile-home odyssey, singing songs, telling jokes, and either ducking or mugging for the video camera, my mother never lost her stride or focus in preparing our food. Dolores was equal to the task with her revered soul-food pigs feet and hot-water cornbread, but it was my mother whom I’d watched and studied for more years than I’d ever put into homework, so her talent was palpable for me.
Before long, the RV cabin started to fill up with the aroma of turkey and oyster stuffing, and yams laden with marshmallows and brown sugar, and sweet potato pie, and collard greens and cabbage, and macaroni and cheese, and lima bean casserole, and the famous monkey bread (which was actually prepared at home, and brought with). It was insane and inexplicable how Martha and Dolores had managed to accomplish all of this culinary breadth in the tiny kitchen of this moving tin-can. And that fact was only a testament to their cooking prowess.
It was still daylight but inching toward dusk by the time dinner was called, and we were in the middle of the desert somewhere in Arizona. I’d finally been given my turn to do the driving. I hadn’t killed us, or anyone else, but I had made a few precarious lane changes that had my mother and Dolores yelling at me, for almost losing a bowl or a dish to the ground.
“Sorry!” I would yell, while secretly giggling and feeling my oats.
Dad filmed the whole thing, laughing at my cowgirl driving and Martha and Dolores trying to hold onto the pots and pans.
I continued to drive only until we spotted a rest stop with a cluster of picnic tables off the highway. I parked. We all stepped outside. The air was cold and crisp. Colder than we Angelenos were accustomed to. We bundled up in our various parkas. There was no one in sight. Because, who plans picnics at the threshold of winter? In the middle of the desert? On Thanksgiving?
We all unloaded the many suitcases that my mother had packed into the undercarriage of the RV, and dragged the heavy things out to one of the picnic tables. While Mike and I immediately commenced to chasing jackrabbits, and while my stepfather found his challenge in keeping up with a camera perpetually glued to his eye, my mother, with Pam’s and Dolores’ assistance, began to unearth from the suitcases her prized Dutch linen table cloth, the eight matching napkins, her silk Damask table runner, crystal water goblets that had been carefully bubble-wrapped, silver place-settings and napkin rings, china, candles, and an ornate candelabrum. I mean, this thing could rival anything that ever sat on Liberace’s grand piano. It was like watching a magician pull the kitchen sink out of his top hat. And she proceeded to transform the prickly, cactus-surrounded dust bowl of rough and tumble nature that we’d claimed as ours for the afternoon into a dining experience for kings. And thought nothing of the peculiarity in the whole affair.
My stepfather managed to capture all of her nutty splendor on tape (though it is fairly heartbreaking that some 40+ years later that cherished video footage has been lost).
She then yelled for Mike and me to stop chasing rabbits unless we intended on capturing one to go with dinner, which had us screaming in mock horror, and she bade us help her unload the RV of the many hot platters and fragrant casserole dishes and steaming pots and containers, and we took them, in several trips, over to the finely dressed table.
And right there in the middle of endless Arizona horizon and desert stillness, save for the periodic lizard or tumbleweed that might scamper by, and as the sun began to set, leaving us with only a dusted dusk and my mother’s candlelight, we bundled up in our coats, we sat to a king’s spread, we bowed our heads, and we held hands as Martha prayed, “Thank you for blessing this food we are about to receive, for the nourishment of our bodies, and for the love and communing of family. Amen.” We raised our glasses to toast the feast, dug in to ridiculously mouthwatering fare, and absolutely loved the crazy novelty of it all.
Grace was not a word often associated with my audacious mother. Ballsy was more her word. But like catching a shooting star in one’s periphery, I would see, just here and there in my growing up, brilliant evidence of it. Sometimes in only tiny, fleeting swatches. At other times still, as with our never-to-be-forgotten wilderness Thanksgiving, it would scream out in bold strokes of wild color, like a magnificent comet.