Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thanksgiving by the Sea

When I was a kid turkey used to invade my dreams the night before Thanksgiving. Not that I knew any turkeys I had special concerns about. There were wild turkeys in the woods behind our home, it's true; our Labradors kept themselves amused for hours, chasing them from the field to watch their awkward bodies settle in the bare trees. But, no, it was the store-bought turkey Mom was cooking in the oven all night with its rich aroma settling in one's nostrils during sleep that evoked such dreams. She cooked it at a high temperature for a couple of hours and then turned down the oven to a very low temperature and left the turkey to cook for the rest of the night, tented in foil. My friends, it was wonderful turkey, moist and spicy. My mom would bring my dad a sampling of it for breakfast, sprinkled with salt and black pepper.

What did the children have for breakfast? Pie! Pie! Pie! Mom made apple and pumpkin every year on Thanksgiving Eve, and we kids were granted our first taste at breakfast. Unorthodox, yes, but incredibly scrumptious - and also the reason why I can sniff out a pastry at breakfast like a sweets-loving hound dog.

I have spent several adult years trying to replicate Mom's apple pie in my own kitchen - its creamy filling, its thick and pale butter pastry. I curse my laziness as a child! I was so content to fatten myself with the miraculous food given me but never took the time to actually learn how to make it. I could not foresee then that I would indeed grow up someday and would have to make food for my own family. And I did not marry (as I thought was my natural destiny as a lazy, culinary-challenged teenager) a rotund and jolly gourmet chef named Gerald.

I have many great Thanksgiving memories like those of the one our family spent with my sister Vinca at Topsail Beach in North Carolina when I was fourteen.

Vinca and Dave had a two-month-old son, my nephew Marcus, and they were living in a small bungalow apartment so near the beach that it stood on stilts.

It wasn't a perfect holiday (is there such a thing?). There were minor disasters that year, such as when Mom went to help Vinca take Marcus' temperature, using the traditional method, and the little guy had an exploding poopy all over her and the surrounding furniture. My darling Mama, intoxicated by the joy of being around her first baby grandchild, simply laughed heartily and took a long shower.

The requisite family squabble took place, too, between Dave and my brother Nate. Nate polished off the last of a batch of Vinca's special cheesy mashed potatoes for which Dave had a particular fondness. When Dave made the discovery of the scraped-empty bowl and saw the evidence on the plate in Nate's hands, he gave Nate the cold penetrating stare of a disgruntled Marine while the rest of us squirmed, looked around at each other and thought rather loudly, awkwaard.....

That Thanksgiving held the magic of my first ocean experience. Annie and I walked along the beach every day, encountering its briny smell, the sound and feel of the waves and the pleasure of comparing the contrasting gray blues of sky and water. We even had a short but close encounter with its seagulls. One day we found a woman surrounded by a flock of these birds and the cacophony of their eerie calls. She told us she had spent years enticing them with her bread crumbs, gaining trust. She kindly lent us some bread. They swooped and dived around our heads as we threw our offering in the air, fearing from their aggressive flight that they might drag us off by our hair if the meal train stopped. Annie eventually panicked, dropped her food and ran from the fray. Trying to be brave in the midst of what felt like a possible Hitchcock situation, I held on a little longer before fleeing myself, throwing the remaining crumbs over my shoulder as I ran.

Dave and Vinca had a dedication for Marcus that year in a church that had long windows facing the sea. It was a beautiful setting for their family gathering. I only regretted that our Thanksgiving meal had to take place in that same church's windowless basement where one could not gaze out at the ocean over a plate of turkey, yams and cheesy mash potatoes. What better view to inspire reflections about the pilgrims and their journey to that first feast, after all?

The morning before our meal Vinca took me along to her pastor's home in order to borrow a turkey roaster from the pastor's wife. When she introduced me as her little sister, I felt bashful but proud to be the sister of such a beautiful woman with a husband and small baby, her life full of mysteries which were still so remote to me at that time.

It was a good year, and if I ever get the chance to go back to Topsail Beach, I'll take it. Maybe, just maybe, I'll find the same fearless lady throwing crumbs to her Hitchcockian seagull friends. And if she invites me to share in her labor of love, I just might. But this time I'll wear my hair in a bun and a hat pulled over my head just in case.

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