“It’s our last Thanksgiving.”
That’s what my sister-in-law said in 1987. My husband at the time, Karl Blankenburg, is dead, has been since 1989. Is she my former sister-in-law? I don’t know her official title at this point. I don’t know where she is, though I could find out. Karl’s mother calls me about once every couple of years, a lovely woman who lives in Florida.
Many stories go with that.
But for now, suffice it to say that Karl, who’d been diagnosed with AIDS and given 3 months to live in August of that year, was very pissed. He was thin, had trouble eating, felt continual pain. But man, did that statement make him angry. Me too. She tried to cover it, said, “that’s not what I meant.”
We didn’t care. We decided we would prove her wrong.
A month later, my parents flew us to Mexico. We got married. Karl had proposed to me the year before. My dad and I went to a tiny town in Baja, Mulejé, bought gold bands, hired a justice of the peace. She came to the resort where my brother, single at the time, and three sisters had all flown with their husbands and kids. The justice spoke in Spanish; my oldest sister Julie said that she had used the phrase, “to know the other with your heart.” Then my dad spoke, a quick and beautiful pronouncement that our love made us one. We had picked hibiscus on the grounds of the hotel, a place we had visited as kids that had been taken over by windsurfers. The sun painted the sky in violent hues of fire. We stood on a cliff and threw the flowers into the sea.
Karl had rallied briefly after his sister’s unwelcome epitaph and the wedding, but the disease was still new and wily. His doctor couldn’t outsmart it for long. Over the next seven months, Karl was in the hospital four times. Sometimes he was in so much pain, he cursed, the true sense of the word, cursed the disease, the pain, his own stupidity and shame because early on, that is what AIDS was about. Sometimes he squeezed my hand so hard I thought he would break it.
We had moved to West Palm Beach to try to reconcile with his father. We gave up. We went to Key West, where we’d been happy before. It is mile marker zero. You cannot go any farther.
And there, we stole Thanksgiving back.
I had received an infuriating letter from the sister in the fall of ’87. “Nancy, I know that cooking is not your favorite thing, but you must learn to cook nourishing meals for Karl.” It was well-intentioned, I know, but I took it as a challenge. I began to devour cooking magazines and cookbooks. By November of ’88, I was ready.
I have never forgotten my first Thanksgiving. I followed a Bon Appetit menu to the letter, a southern-themed dinner that included cornbread stuffing, sauteed kale, and sweet potato pie. It was a wonderful dinner, our only Thanksgiving just for us. Karl died in July of ’89.
And since then, Thanksgiving has transformed from my least favorite holiday as a child—didn’t like turkey, football, or doing dishes—to my favorite. I’ve planned one almost as meticulously as that first nearly every year. Three times, circumstances intervened and I didn’t get my Thanksgiving, and each of those three times, I’ve realized why it’s so important.
When we lived in New York, Dennis and I always knew people with nowhere to go for Thanksgiving. I’d cook a feast, our friends would show up, and I remember year after year of tremendous love and celebration. When all things would fall apart, there would always be Thanksgiving. When we moved to Michigan, as often as possible, we would hunker down, just the four of us. We had survived, together, trials and sadness. Thanksgiving made it all ok, if only for a day of feasting and a weekend of leftovers.
One year, when Dennis and I were still married, we took Thanksgiving to my parents, who were still living in Michigan at the time. One of my absolute favorite people to cook with on Thanksgiving is my dad. A superb baker, Dad was happy to do any chopping/kneading/picking herbs job for which I needed an extra pair of hands. That year, Henry volunteered to say grace, which he did simply and with true, well, grace. That night, we all watched Susan Strohman’s production of Oklahoma. Katrina hummed along; I had taught her all the songs, and Dennis’s rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” is an immortal Bauer/Perrin keepsake. Mom sat in front of Dad as he rubbed her shoulders. I remember all of us smiling in the soft light from the TV.
The year the divorce had been agreed upon but was still pending, Katrina came home; unbidden, she coerced her brother into helping her do dishes, one of the most loving acts children can ever commit for their parents.
Last year was chaotic. To be expected.
This year, Henry asked to spend Thanksgiving with me. I make a rather famous gravy, of which my immediate family is rightly possessive. He missed it. (I tried to make it last year for a new family, my kids far from me. It didn’t work, to the baleful eye of those present. I wondered if I’d lost it.)
On Thursday, Henry, S and I headed to the western side of the state for a regular Turkey Day. H had been away from home and I told him I’d be happy to take him home early Friday and bring him leftovers. He thought it over.
“Mom, I want to stay with you,” he told me Thursday night.
Friday morning, I started cooking. I’d brined the turkey all day on Thursday while we were gone. At 8 a.m., I started putting the whole thing together. S—oh heck, I’ve used all other names—Steve, who I adore cooking with, got out the chopping block and started dicing whatever ingredient I called out.
Onions sizzled in butter, cranberries popped on the stove. Henry kept circling the kitchen, gameboy in hand, just smelling. And smiling. So was I.
When Henry dipped his rolls in gravy, told me it was the best turkey he’d ever had, and leaned back with a look of unadulterated bliss, when Steve said that everything was perfect and sighed, I realized, this is the holiday that matters to me. This is mine. I realized that, no matter what things hadn’t been so wonderful in the years of Bauer Perrin, Thanksgiving had always been right. And from now on, it will always be right. And it will always be mine. And anybody else’s, of course.
Thanksgiving is something I can always have. Every day of the year.
My love to you all.