Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A heaping helping of stuffing balls and nostalgia

When I was a teen, Thanksgiving took place at Ma-Ma's home.

Ma-Ma was my paternal grandmother. She shared a gigantic second-floor apartment in my home town, living there until the end of her life with her youngest son and, for awhile, his son—her oldest grandson. The place had to be nearly 3,000 square feet. It had tall ceilings, and a ridiculous staircase at both the front and back entrances (where both doors sported multiple locks, always securely locked). Running down one side of the length of the place was a spacious but dark hallway that could easily have been divided into three or four decent-sized rooms; off this hall there were several bedrooms, and a bath, with another half-bath accessible from the dining room. A cheerful sun porch faced the back parking lot, crammed from top to bottom with the bulk of Ma-Ma's bounteous plant collection. Anchoring the other end of the place was a huge living room complete with decorative fireplace. The living room conveniently faced the street, so you could sit in Ma-Ma's favorite rocker by the middle window—if you were lucky enough to land such a prime seat—and there you could watch the comings and goings of the entire town. You could look up the hill to a nearby park, to the college campus housed there, or you could look down the street toward the middle of Main Street (High Street, as it is named in that small town).

When we arrived, others were almost always there already—aunts, uncles, cousins of various ages, all wandering to and fro and getting in the way at times. The turkey was roasting, the potatoes were being mashed to perfection, the corn pudding and green bean casserole were warming somewhere safe... and the stuffing balls were likely being fussed over by my grandmother. Generously portioned, not too wet and not too dry, she formed them all by hand, and they were never baked to perfection inside a bird's carcass! Absolutely not. They were wonderfully browned on cookie sheets, I think. She was always very concerned about their safety, or at least that's what I recall. Would they dry out? Become too hard? We didn't want to bat them in a sports event, we wanted to savor their crispy-tender wonder. The stuffing balls must be protected. The gravy was very important, too; it was another delicate delight to be nurtured and watched.

The dining room in that apartment was grand, right out of the 20s I suppose, with beautiful woodwork, double glass-paned doors leading in from the grand hallway, and my grandmother's table in the center of the room as its stupendous crowning glory. I seem to remember that the big wooden table was always pulled out to its full length, even when the holidays were done. The room was large, the table almost as large, and we filled it and still required a kids' table; I think that was a card table at the end of the room opposite those swinging double doors.

When the meal was ready, we all took plates and filled them, or had help filling them in the case of little ones. We sat, we usually remembered to say a grace and ponder the things we felt thankful about having, and then we ate like the hungry, fragrance-teased people we were. The food was always fabulous. The whole experience was loud, confusing, a bit crowded, and immense fun.

When the meal was done and the kids long gone from the room, the adults lingered, eating more, talking more. I think I lingered most of the time, perhaps realizing even in my spoiled youth that these were precious moments, that some day I would be penning a memory as I am right now. Talk of family, of the people in town, of political developments, all swirled around the warm room. And then, everyone gathered dishes and carried them to the kitchen, and the great food preservation and dish-washing events began in earnest.

I do remember being expected to help wash or dry dishes. I think I usually dried, probably not yet trusted in my girlish giddiness to handle Ma-Ma's pretty China when fully submerged in soapy suds. I don't recall us ever breaking into song or anything, but the mood even while we worked was festive and upbeat. I've never minded getting up and doing something immediately after a big meal, so the clean-up was a welcome chance to move around and remain standing instead of folding my stuffed belly into a soft chair. (That still just impedes my digestion, truly.)

Then it would all be done, or at least the main meal. Maybe we delayed the pies; I really can't remember. I feel as if we held off on desserts and enjoyed them a bit later, after people had squeezed in a rest. When everyone had eaten, that vast living room was like a morgue, bodies everywhere, the couch and recliner always occupied but also large portions of the floor; people everywhere were flung in the half-joyful, half-suffering poses of the gorged. The room was never silent, though; that was the decade of MTV's birth, those early days when the station actually played music videos. My lucky grandmother had a cable subscription, something that we country folk couldn't even fathom, and a day at Ma-Ma's was one of my only chances to absorb as many videos as possible. I never napped, but I did jockey for a position on the floor in front of the television, so I could stretch out on my stomach and gaze, in my overfed stupor, at the musical mindlessness before me.

Now, I am about the same age that my aunts and uncles were at that gathering. Now, my child is small, and my nieces and nephews are teens and young adults. Now, that apartment is inhabited by someone else. My parents are the grandparents. MTV has become something unrecognizable; indeed, much of this culture is unrecognizable to me—strange and empty. Ungrounded. Shallow.

I am realizing, in my old age, that there are scenes and people that you will never stop missing.

Happy belated Thanksgiving. Remember it all, cherish it. Take photos. Write it down. It will fade, and change, and then suddenly it will be part of the past.

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