It was bound to happen. November after November, our children gathered around the family table enjoying my homemade cranberry sauce and my husband’s consistently perfect turkey. Until, suddenly, I found myself at their tables, feeling grateful, but also a bit unsettled.
The table first turned a few years ago when my husband and I traveled to Portland, Ore., to spend Thanksgiving with our daughter, who couldn’t break away from her studies for a trip home. Her group house had all the familiar markings of bohemian student life: the funky couch on the front porch, the towels that smell like low tide, the floor that compels you to keep your shoes on. But hard at work in the kitchen, she and her housemates were crafting what turned out to be a gourmet Thanksgiving dinner. Nick brined and prepared the turkey. Lauren shelled shrimp. Donny baked bread outside in a stone oven. The plum wine was homemade, the mashed potatoes garlic infused. They had been up half the night to create a feast for their friends — and for us.
We did have one important role to play that day. As mealtime approached, someone noticed a discrepancy between the number of guests and the supply of tableware. We were on it! Dashing to the local grocery for paper plates and plastic cutlery was our contribution. My inner Martha Stewart longed for a table to set with my grandmother’s china and cloth napkins. But there was no place for Martha that day as we loaded up our Chinet and settled in an open chair, or squeezed onto a sagging couch or, for most, slid down to the floor.
I gave myself up to the day. Even when the punch bowl, a recent find from the Salvation Army, was extracted from its box unwashed and filled with the homemade wine. When a cup was offered, I graciously accepted, trusting the alcohol would offset, well, everything.
The tables turned for a second time last Thanksgiving when we ventured to Chicago to spend the holiday with our son. In contrast to my daughter’s household, he and his roommate gladly relinquished the meal preparation to us and went about their student lives. My husband and I overcame the obstacles of last minute shopping and a two-pot kitchen. We got creative about serving dishes and tried not to notice the stained (and only) tablecloth. We contentedly sliced and diced while the two of them entertained us on keyboard and ukulele.
Which brings us to Thanksgiving 2013. Once again we are headed to Chicago. Our son now lives in a group house of five, give or take. In my hostess sort of way I asked how many they — meaning “we” — expected for Thanksgiving dinner.
“It’s weeks away,” was his initial response. I reminded him that last year we had to go with a stuffed chicken, which elicited the number fifteen. The entertainer in me was doing a happy dance, envisioning a particularly festive holiday. I was mentally packing my roasting pan packed with the hardware for trussing the bird, maybe a tablecloth. In my mind, my husband and I would spend Wednesday grocery shopping. We would rise early on Thanksgiving and walk the mile from our B & B to our son’s apartment. We would work happily in the kitchen producing a classic Thanksgiving meal for all these young people who would marvel a bit at our culinary acumen and be oh, so grateful for the home cooked meal.
Then I asked my son if perhaps his friends could contribute a salad or dessert to the Thanksgiving table. Silence.
“What?” I asked, “Is that a bad idea?”
“Mom. No offense but it’s a little condescending to suggest that all we can make is salad and dessert. Two of my roommates cook for a living. They’re chefs. We appreciate you buying the turkey and everything. I’m not trying to hurt your feelings but we can make Thanksgiving dinner.”
Now the silence was on my end. How to quickly rearrange my thinking? How to hold back the first words that came to mind, “But last year …?” Because what I knew to be true, even in the immediacy of the moment, was that he was right. I had made so many assumptions, most of all that I was “host” when, really, my role was “guest.”
“I’m going to rephrase my question,” I finally said to my son. “Besides the turkey, will you let us know what we can contribute to the meal? And, can I make my homemade cranberry sauce?”
“Fair enough,” he responded. “And, Mom? I’m really looking forward to having you and Dad here.”