I wrote this personal essay in 1981. It was published in the Milwaukee Journal on Thanksgiving Day 1983.
The cranberries are washed and sorted. I have cleared my mind and my stove for this task.
It is time to find the recipe and begin the last chore standing between me and the relaxation of the holiday. I thumb through my recipe file to locate the 3x5 card, yellowed with age. Seeing the card brings on such a torrent of memories that I sit down for a moment to let them wash over me.
The recipe, written in my mother’s hand, is a simple one for whole berry sauce. She copied it for me when I was a bride of two months, almost twenty years ago. I have used it faithfully twice yearly since. I hear her voice: Don’t forget to skim the sauce when it gets cool.
She tells me that each time I make it, as she stands by my side in spirit. She has been dead for twelve Thanksgivings. A tear dismisses itself from my cheek and lands on the fading card, creating a little blur of ink.
This year, there is another absence. My daughter, just eighteen, will not be home for Thanksgiving. It is our first holiday without all of our children home. I am fiercely proud but mother-empty. My firstborn child has left the nest. Now I understand the unique sense of loss a mother knows, and it seems natural and good to be thinking of my own mother with this newfound wisdom.
I being to measure water, sugar, berries . . . remembering another kitchen in another era. Ration coupons had been hoarded to obtain the sugar for the sauce. I watched my mother measure these same ingredients and took my turn stirring until the berries began to pop. Her voice was as triumphant as a generals’ as she lifted the pot from the burner. “There, that’s done!”
I was told that I could skim off the foam when it was cool. Tasting the pink foam and finding it delicious, I asked, “Why do we have to skim it when it tastes so good like this?”
She replied, “Just for beauty’s sake.”
As the popping sounds of cooking cranberries begin in my own kitchen, I revel in my cranberry memories. After the war was over and gasoline was available for leisure driving, we took a drip that led us past blooming cranberry bogs. I asked my parents, “Did the berries get named for the color or the color for the berries? My sister laughed. My parents did not laugh. They recognized the quiet stirrings of philosophy and discussed the question with me gravely.
The Christmas I was fourteen, my father bought a gallon of the berries, hoping to rekindle the homespun goodness of his boyhood Christmases. We began to string them. But something had been forgotten—or never known—the trick of keeping them on the thread. As the overripe berries dropped onto the floor (and lay dying tin their clear, red blood), we began to laugh. It was such deep and healthy laughter. A newly fallible father was suddenly more dear than the one who never erred. With glee, we mopped up the mess and retrieved the foil tinsel from the attic. The birds ate cranberries in the snow.
As an adult, I traveled one November with my parents to Europe. It was my final vacation with my family of origin. Crossing the border into Italy on the fourth Thursday of our trip, we began to talk about how great it was going to be to have an authentic Italian meal. We hurried to the hotel dining room after checking into our rooms.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” were the first words from the maitre d’. After showing us to a table, he proudly announced the management’s ‘surprise for American guests, which was an adaptation of an American Thanksgiving dinner. We hid our disappointment as we ate roasted chicken, bread stuffing, acorn squash and lingonberry sauce masquerading as cranberries. My father teased my mother, whispering, “Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without your whole-berry sauce.”
My sauce has finished cooking. The berries all have popped, and the juice is translucent.
My reverie is broken by my three sons arriving home from school. These teenage men-boys swagger into the kitchen, ready to empty the refrigerator of its leftovers from yesterday. They are not interested in cranberry sauce or any food that is earmarked for Thanksgiving Day, but in the need to fill their cavernous stomachs now, just to hold them over until tonight’s meal.
They are joking and roughhousing and crowd the kitchen with their energy and activity. holidays force them into slow motion. On Thursday, I will gather memories of tenderness and togetherness for times bereft of such a luxury.
When my mother died, there was a matching pair of cut crystal bowls. There was no doubt in either my sister’s or my mind that we should split the pair and each have one. It is necessary to present the cranberry sauce in crystal. There is still a reverent silence when the berry bowl is set upon the table. Translucent berries shimmer in clear and brilliant juice. Candlelight spells red shadows upon the snow white linen. Anticipation of the bittersweet taste triggers memories of joys and heartbreaks throughout the year, and we give thanks.
The sauce in my kitchen is cool enough to skim. Cooking bubbles have risen to the surface and solidified into the pink foam. Suddenly, I understand my feelings of sadness and nostalgia. I am blessed to have my sons at home, but likewise blessed that my daughter has the courage to be absent. She is free to skim away the cloudy covering of childhood and, in so doing, will behold with clarity the beauty of her adult life as it unfolds. We will dine in one another’s presence in love and memory.
A voice interrupts me. It is my youngest son’s. “Ill skim off the foam for you. I like making the sauce beautiful and clear.”
We are ready for our Thanksgiving to begin.
© 1983 by Sara J. Glerum
All rights reserved. Electronic version published 2009