Originally posted on Medium.com
It was the cranberry sauce that did me in—of this, I am sure as I draw the Kleenex up to my nose for the umpteenth time and wheeze wearily into it. Of all the Thanksgiving dishes—though it might seem the most innocuous, the most easy to prepare—that was the dish that pushed my immune system over the edge so that I spent the five days subsequent to the holiday in bed, barely able to turn my head without cramps and nausea racking my body. It wasn’t food poisoning—it was exhaustion.
I had set out, facing the approaching holiday with bold enthusiasm—I felt confident that my baster and my bookmarked list of webpages would be able to carry me through the season of gratitude as smoothly as the gravy that would inevitably materialize at the tip of my whisk. This was my first Thanksgiving away from my parents—and our first Thanksgiving as a newly married couple—and I had a mission to prove. My mother had worn the mantle of holiday host for innumerable autumns, and now it was my turn—as her sole progeny, her ambitious gay son—to take up the stole for myself and demonstrate everything that I’d learned from the years as sous-chef, kitchen-aid, and dish-washer.
It all began five months prior, when my husband of .half-a-year was offered a new job in sunny Florida. Florida? we both thought, aghast. We were both confirmed urban dwellers. I grew up on the skirts of Chicago and moved into city proper as quickly as my degree was earned and the el’ trains were ready to carry me. After a brief stint in Los Angeles, I had circled back to that cavernous and blustery city-of-big-shoulders to take my place amidst its towering shadows. My husband had bounced between New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, and Chicago until we met—we were both happy with grid patterns, starless nights, and twenty-four-hour greasy spoons.
So when the Florida opportunity presented itself, we initially scoffed. Who would ever want to move to Florida? we joked between ourselves—a remote possibility that neither of us dreamed would land on our doorstep. But when the job package arrived, tied with a neat bow and a salary-offer nearly twice what my husband was making in the windy-city, we scooped it up like it were slices of hot turkey and stuffing after a morning of anticipatory fasting.
Loading all of our belongings and our bewildered pup in a U-Haul, we barreled down the countless succession of highways—leaving behind our comfortable, northerner haunts—for the land of swamps, ‘gators, and sunset paradises. Before we left, my mom offered a cryptic warning.
“Be careful,” she said. “This is going to be much harder for you than it is for him.”
“What do you mean?” I replied.
She cast me a knowing look, an expression that I so resented at the time, as if she knew me better than I knew myself.
“Your roots are here—his aren’t. He’s wandered around for much of life—you’ve spent most of it here. You’re going to miss this more than you know.”
I undoubtedly laughed and pecked her on the cheek as I glibly hopped into the truck and frolicked across the Indiana border.
But then, as the weeks in our new haunts passed and the reality of our tropical situation set in, I began to see she was right. Not only was this lifestyle totally foreign to me—vacationing here was one thing, settling into the heat, dampness, and requisite guarding of my political views was entirely another—but I was totally, unaccustomedly alone. No family, no social network, and—for the first time—no career to pursue. I moved here entirely for my spouse—to support his dream and mission. I had no purpose.
Within a few weeks, I was sinking firmly into a state of what Holly Golightly would have called “the mean reds.” I was aimless, and my friends back home were getting tired of my relentless barrage of text messages and video calls. Their attempts at bolstering me and keeping my spirits lifted were understandably petering out. When I realized that autumn was arriving and bringing with it one of my favorite holidays, I pounced upon it like our dog chasing toads in a rainstorm.
I decided that I would become the ultimate holiday host of all time. I would make the traditional dishes by myself. It didn’t matter if there were only my husband and me to feed—I was going to bury us with food and culinary ambition. It served as a distraction from the depression that was closing in around me.
I puréed the cauliflower with clotted cream and two whole-bulbs of garlic that I had roasted in the oven like I had seen at that French café off of Michigan Avenue. I sautéed and smashed the squash, whipping it into a light, foamy mouse that would have made Paul Hollywood proud. The turkey sat in our fridge for days being brined and rotated at regular intervals. All said and done, I made from scratch thirteen dishes for our Thanksgiving feast.
Realizing the ridiculousness of my endeavor, I invited our neighbors—another gay couple we hardly new—to dine with us. Even with their hungry bear-bellies, we barely made a dent in the embarrassing display of gastronomic excess.
Admittedly, I had a surreptitious mission to prove to myself beyond just distracting me from my despair. My mother—albeit a startlingly deft host in her own right—had earned a reputation for possessing quite the temper in the kitchen. She’s been known to hurdle a ladle or a searing comment across the island when the people helping her prepare weren’t meeting her expectations. There have been a couple of seasonal tantrums that still live in vivid memory and get danced around delicately during holiday conversations as deftly as a Sugar Plum Fairy en pointe. She’s a great entertainer; she just sometimes give people more to stomach than just their desserts.
I had her eccentric behaviors in my thoughts as I roasted the last of the Brussels sprouts and asparagus. I not only wanted to match her gourmet skills, but I wanted to outdo her in my level of equanimity—to demonstrate that being an engaging, lively holiday host did not require antics in front of the stove.
Despite my best ambitions, I failed to pull it off. While I may have retained a certain measurement of poise before the buttered yams, I couldn’t prevent the mounting tension that inherently comes with being Thanksgiving cook. For days after the festivities, I lay confined to bed, coughing up phlegm that looked more vibrant than my pumpkin pudding ever did. The stress had walloped me—I may not have ended up screaming or crying, but I had succumbed to it another way.
Looking back, I was so desperate to escape my emotions, my cloying sadness. I wanted to shove my feelings down and say, “I can be cheerful and level-headed, no matter what.” What should it matter if I felt totally alone and abandoned in this ocean-side apartment? What should it matter if I missed my social safety-net? What should it matter if I took on an entirely-too-massive project to distract me from the depth of my doldrums?
My immune system knew better. As the last of the stuffing was boxed into color-coordinated Tupperware, I sniffled and felt unusually tired. By the end of the night, I was tucked under the covers with a box of tissues by my side. It was overwhelming—all of it. Leaving everything known to start a new adventure with your just-acquired spouse was exciting, but also taxing. Letting go of your career so you could support your significant other’s was worthwhile, but also flummoxing. Needing to prove your worth through the quality of your glaze was frankly embarrassing.
A week later, I was back on my feet with a new-found respect for how my mother managed all those years. Not just hosting the holiday dinners, but how she fostered her family’s wellbeing throughout all the seasons—all the things she’d sacrificed and endured to make our family strong. How she supported my dad for the decade he couldn’t find work, supported me through my years of uncertainty and confusion as I struggled with coming out. No matter how much she may have balked under the stress of the holidays, those few nights with stuffing-laden theatrics were nothing compared with the burdens she uncomplainingly bared to support us the rest of the year. She handled the strain and the wear-and-tear of living with so much more grace than I ever appreciated—a quiet composure that exceeded my best moments whipping the cinnamon butter.
Through the struggle of failing to prepare the holiday feast with as much grace as I would have liked, I came to realize that my mother was so much more than a host: she was a champion. She was resilient, she was caring, she was sometimes tumultuous—but more than any of this, she was a powerful role model for me and the kind of human I want to be. I came to appreciate her so much more thoroughly.
That’s the thing about a Thanksgiving done well: it gives us time to reflect on and appreciate all the blessings we have in our lives, even the ones that we never really noticed before.