This is a post I didn't think I'd be writing--at least not like this. This is the Thanksgiving holiday I thought would be our worst in family history. This is the Thanksgiving week that we passed the stomach flu around the family from Sunday to Wednesday morning...afternoon.
But last night I decided to go gather up my courage and what little strength I had and head to the grocery store. I had already informed my family that we might not have a Thanksgiving Dinner at all this year, but if we did, it wouldn't be until Friday or Saturday, maybe even Sunday. I was only going to the store to pick up a few basic essentials that the healthier members of the family were needing.
When I got there, I was overwhelmed. Oh, the hordes of people, all holding lengthy shopping lists in one hand while they discussed with fellow shoppers the differences between sweet potatoes and yams! Oh, the special displays set up everywhere so loudly proclaiming the sales on crackers and cheese balls and table wines! Oh, the sample stations offering little bits of onion dip and shrimp cocktail and the deli's own mashed potatoes! It was enough to make a girl with a still slightly-not-right stomach want to turn around and flee.
I had come for a few groceries, however, and I set my jaw. The grocery store, after all, is too far from home to waste the trip, and really, we were out of most everything. Two of the five in my home were healthy and needed to eat. I began to force myself, mind over matter, to place items into my cart, even though NONE of it looked appealing to me.
And then a funny thing began to happen. I watched the people with their lists and I began to notice what they were picking up. Fresh cranberries. I do love to make my own cranberry sauce. Sweet potatoes. Like the shopper in the gray coat, I too prefer them to yams--and with a little brown sugar, some crushed pineapple and chopped pecans, they can be almost heavenly. Bags of dried bread cubes from the bakery--the bags with every variety of bread in them. I love to make my own stuffing this way, with lots of sauteed veggies, chopped Granny Smith Apples, lots of butter and chicken broth, parsley, sage and thyme--the works.
A desire to make a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner swelled within me, even though I still couldn't bear the thought of eating any of the food. I realized that I even love preparing it. I love seeing my table covered with my favorite steaming dishes, no room to move because it is so crowded, in constant danger of a wine glass being bumped and spilled. I love the wonder on my family's faces when they look at the spread before them and the tiny cockpit of a kitchen from whence it came. I wanted to make this meal. I stopped in the middle of the produce section and pulled out the little note pad that I carry in my purse for such occasions--the sage green faux leather one with the elastic strap that keeps it from opening as it gets jostled around. I scrounged for a pen and sketched out a menu:
Green Bean Casserole
White Wine/Sparkling Cider
From memory, I listed the things I would need for each dish, making allowances for the fact that I was not yet very strong, physically, and just couldn't spend long standing in the kitchen at any one time.
A whole turkey was out of the question, but I did want turkey. I remembered the Thanksgiving of 2001 (I think that was the year)--the year that I had emergency oral surgery, the removal of all four wisdom teeth, the day before I was scheduled to have 30 people come for Thanksgiving Dinner. That year I saw a recipe for turkey roll-ups--deli sliced turkey about a quarter to a half inch thick, spread with stuffing, rolled up, skewered, covered with gravy and heated in the oven for half an hour or so. SO EASY. So delicious. So perfect for the Thanksgivings that just aren't going as desired. I would do those again. I knew my kids would love them. I estimated that I could fit twelve of them into a 9x13 baking dish, so I got 12 thick slices made at the deli counter. It was a lot of meat and it came to $20, but that's cheaper than a whole bird, with none of the carcass to deal with, no carving, no thawing--just instant, boneless pre-cooked, pre-sliced goodness. And with only a family of five to feed, that's more than a whole solid meal of leftovers. Perfect.
Homemade pies were also out of the question. I didn't have the strength or the time. My good friend, Marie Callendar, came to my rescue.
I would have to forgo the traditional holiday carrot bread; just not enough time or energy, no matter how much it would break my heart.
Cranberry sauce was easy. I could make that in the evening fairly quickly so it would have time to chill and mix flavors overnight.
The green bean casserole--my own take on the traditional mushroom soup one--wouldn't be difficult. And those fried onions almost sounded good to me.
Stuffing was easy and didn't take much planning or precision.
The only things that would take a bit of time and effort were the sweet potato casserole and mashed potatoes. I would do them when I felt strong enough and Ellie would help. No problem.
I would do this thing.
When I got home with my bags of treasures, I had my brawny teenage son and my less brawny but healthy daughter carry them in for me while I rested. Once I'd gathered my courage, I went into the kitchen and made the cranberry sauce while Ellie made dip for the veggies and crackers on the appetizers platter. That wasn't so bad. I rested a bit and then went back to make the green bean casserole. It could sit overnight, too.
I got it into the fridge, slumped on the couch to rest some more...and the lights began to hum and buzz and flicker, resting at half-strength for a brief time, and then went out altogether. We glanced out the window just in time to see a spectacular light show. Down at the highway, a third of a mile away, an electrical storm was raging. Blue light arced across the sky, power lines were visibly dangling, sending out showers of sparks that looked more like fireworks, touching other lines and arcing all over again.
Fearing that the neighbor's house might be ablaze from their proximity to the action, Andy and Ellie grabbed a flashlight and headed out into the blackness--heavy cloud cover had blocked even the moon and stars from shining through. Tano and I waited, but the sky down by the road had an eerie color to it. It didn't look good. We waited a little longer. There was no word from Andy. Realizing that a car has likely crashed into a utility pole and perhaps more cars have piled up in the darkness, we decided we'd better go down there, too. I grabbed some blankets and a water bottle, in case there were accident victims that needed attending to while we waited for ambulances to arrive. Part way down to the highway, we saw a flashlight coming toward us. It was Ellie and she was crying.
"The fires are everywhere. Everything is on fire!"
"The gullies and the hillside are on fire! I'm going back to the house."
Ellie can tend toward the dramatic at times (ok, often), but still, that sounded alarming. Fire is fire, dramatics or not.
She gave us her flashlight and we made good time covering the quarter mile remaining. My weakness from being so sick slowed me a bit when Tano wanted to run, but the adrenaline helped. The scene at the bottom of our hill looked like a scene from a movie. There were spot fires here and there on both sides of the highway, power lines dangling from several poles and more emergency vehicles than I could count. Firefighters combed the gullies slowly and gingerly with huge spotlights, looking for downed power lines. The fires were quickly controlled and we found ourselves glad that the earth was muddy and damp with two inches of recent snow melted off just that day. Had this happened in summer, the results could have been catastrophic.
*Note: There had not been a car accident; the whole thing was caused by a tree branch that fell in the wind, knocked some main lines down, which fell into some other lines and started a terrible chain reaction.
Eventually, we all went back home, having been informed that this was a very serious power outage involving main lines and the electricity might not be restored for a day or two. We sat around the candlelit house, too keyed up to go to bed until after midnight. Tano took his phone to bed with him in case he needed a light. We tucked Ellie in with a flashlight and instructions not to leave it on. Andy and I blew out the candle next to our bed and talked for a while longer in the blackness of the basement. I had a hard time falling asleep, for some reason, so I spent my time planning out how I might cook our Thanksgiving Dinner on the flat top of the wood stove. I was fairly certain I could still make the whole meal work as planned, and I was actually glad for the opportunity to do it. What an amazing memory that would be for us to look back on--the Thanksgiving when dinner was prepared on the wood stove in the basement and then eaten by candlelight.
I was almost disappointed when the lights came back on at five o'clock in the morning.
Having slept only fitfully all night, I stayed in bed quite late and didn't get started on the meal until nearly eleven. I really was hoping to still pull the meal off, despite my fatigue and the history of the week, but I decided early on in the process to cut myself some slack. If I ran out of steam and just couldn't do it, I would refrigerate what I'd done so far and we would try again for tomorrow. As the day went on, however, I found myself full of energy and excitement. This was going to be a great meal and I was thoroughly enjoying the preparation process in my tiny little kitchen.
Andy and the kids, by the way, were cleaning house for the first couple of hours of prep time, and with great motivation: I had told them that I wouldn't be setting out the appetizers until the house looked pretty. They worked quickly. I set out the appetizers and also set out a basket with a sign that said "What are you thankful for?" along with some strips of paper and a few pens. I put the first few entries in between stirring pots in the kitchen and encouraged others to do the same. I told them I was anxious for this first stack of papers to run out so I'd have to cut some more. The kids looked at me like I was crazy--but then they did it. They got in the spirit of it and kept writing more and more things and folding them up to toss into the basket.
Ellie also began having fun with the walnut shells, making them into a flotilla of pirate ships and a turtle.
Between writing our thankfulness notes and marauding pirates and passing the phone around to talk to loved ones far away and even a Skype session with the Vancouver Chidwick clan, the time passed quickly. The dishes came together without a hitch. I forgot the brown sugar in the sweet potatoes, but it didn't matter. The crushed pineapple was plenty sweet and the dish received rave reviews. Note to self: don't ever bother adding the brown sugar again.
Ok, maybe just a little.
As Andy poured the wine and Ellie poured the sparkling cider for the underage set and I finished the mashed potatoes, I smiled, all alone in my kitchen. I couldn't believe I had pulled it off! Yesterday, it was a challenge even to drag myself out of the house, climb into the van and trek the miles to the grocery store. Once inside, I'd wanted to turn and go right back home without buying anything. Then there was the crazy power outage, a poor night's sleep, and sleeping in too long. And now, at only 3:15 (I'd predicted dinner at 3:00, once I decided I was actually going to do it), I was ready to sit down to a wonderful meal with my family. And everything was hot at the same time (except for the cranberry sauce and the beverages, which were appropriately chilled). A.Mazing.
Andy prayed a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving over our meal and we dug in. Everything was delicious. The soundtrack that had been playing on Tano's Pandora station all day, stirring and dramatic movie scores from epic adventures like The Lord of the Rings and even the Halo video game, suddenly seemed perfect. The passion in the music built, the strings tugging on our hearts until we were actually giggling at how majestic it all felt. As it began to crescendo and the cymbals began to crash, we all raised our glasses and began to nearly shout our praises to God (all in time with the music, of course). He had brought us to this victory, this celebration of the bounty He provides. We were on top of the world. We clinked glasses all around and giggled a little more at the dramatic nature of it all, but as the song finished, we all agreed that it really was perfect. It really was a worthy moment and the soundtrack enhanced it perfectly. Epic movie scores as background music for holiday meals will become standard around here, I think.
As we ate, we passed around pages of Bible verses that Andy had printed out and took turns reading them aloud. Then Andy, the first one to finish as he was still guarding his stomach against large portion sizes, took the basket and, one by one, read all of the many folded up papers within. It was a wonderful time. Really wonderful. Hard to believe it almost didn't happen.
We finished the meal, pleasantly full, scraped a generous amount of scraps into the dogs' bowls to mix in with their kibbles and let them dig into their own special meal. They'd been sitting on the front porch all day, noses in the air, catching wind of all the good smells coming from the cracked open kitchen window, so they were truly grateful for their turn to dig in.
As I began to collect tupperware to use for leftovers (and the leftovers are PLENTIFUL), Andy came to me, forced me to put the mashed potatoes back down, and ceremoniously removed my apron. He then guided me to the living room and commanded that I stay there. I was grateful and perfectly willing to comply. His dad laughed to his son that he really had me obeying pretty well. I smiled and said nothing. Andy and the kids took care of everything. I have a refrigerator full of leftovers that will last us for most of the weekend and a perfectly clean kitchen. Me? I sat here and typed the first half of this post.
Once they were finished cleaning up, we went over to a friend's house for pie and games--a most enjoyable way to round out the day. It was a day of Thanksgiving all around, one that I'll always smile to look back upon.