My wife told me yesterday she can't find my mother's oyster stew recipe. It wasn't in its usual place. "Well, we'll wing it," I said with a false bravura. The recipe involves, in addition to the oysters, much butter and much cream and a lot of flour for thickening -- which is what starts happening to my waist about six seconds after I've taste-tested it. No matter, I've never known a friend or a relative yet able to resist my mother's Irish oyster stew. In fact, a lot of people who have been to our house on Thanksgiving have ended up begging for a second bowl. The dish is always the opening card in the day's onslaught; that positioning is the one thing I feel is nearly sacrosanct. Familiarity -- that's the idea, the sense of harkening back to what you remember as good and time-honored and true, even if what you also begin to remember is how absurdly caloric this stuff is -- and there's a whole meal yet to get through. Oh, clog those arteries, it's only for today.
Every year I try to make sure to get in on some phase of the stew's preparation, even if that really means nothing more than getting in my wife's way and stirring the concoction with a wooden spoon as it brews, like white tar, in its great stone pot on the back of the stove. Now that I think of it, this is exactly what my father used to do: allow himself to think he was actually creating it. I remember being not very sympathetic to this indulgence when I was growing up: Pity, isn't it, that his male ego needs to be pampered like that. And now I'm doing exactly the same thing. The apple doesn't fall all that far from the tree, not in most cases anyway. That is the mystery of families, of fathers and sons. That is the chain.
Somehow the oyster stew's broth -- or "gravy," as my mother called it, and as my wife usually refers to it now -- always seems to come out of the pot creamy smooth, the oysters bobbing like great bulbous prizes just beneath the surface. "When they curl," I remember my mother saying gravely, referring not to her guests but to that critical moment when the oysters should be added to the mix. Ladling the stew out at the dinner table -- my job, as it was always my father's -- it is of great importance, both ceremonial and actual, to attempt to give each person roughly the same number of oysters, say about seven or eight per bowl. For ladler and consumer alike, going after those plump prizes is a little like going fishing.
I think it was about a decade and a half ago that I got from my mother the exact measurements and the 1-through-8 order of steps in the making of her stew -- when to add the chopped celery, when to mount the second thickening -- writing it all down on a piece of newsprint copy paper as I held the receiver in the crook of my neck. We were talking Washington to Chicago. I wasn't married then. My parents were together then. The notion of a son wasn't gleaming in me then. My kitchen then was also my living room and my writing room and my dining room and my sleeping room and whatever else I wanted or needed it to be. And every year since then, at first on my own and now with my family, while time has continued threading its ironies -- old twists and new surprises -- I've taken out that old yellowed piece of 8 1/2-by-10 copy paper, and followed its directions to the letter, and then folded it back into creased fours and stuck it again into the spiral-ringed, seldom-used Betty Crocker cookbook in the closet just to the right of the refrigerator.
And now it's lost, a pretty gloomy thought. Well, maybe we'll find it. I'd try calling my mother right now, if I knew where she was. But I don't. She's traveling.
"Don't worry, we'll make it," my wife said last night in her wonderfully reassuring voice. I was fretting out loud, and not just about the stew. I think she meant "make" on several levels. But then she said, her own doubt slipping in so slightly, "Do you suppose it's corn starch or flour your mother always used to mix with the ice water in that little glass jar?"
Gloomy. To my mind, the proper Thanksgiving weather, the proper Thanksgiving landscape, is overcast and raw and infertile-looking. Somehow that seems to stoke my appetite, but in any case I know I'm never quite satisfied unless the sun stays low on the horizon all day, casting long shadows on dull flat colors. This odd wish for bleakness is atavistic in me, I suppose, going back to the gone Novembers of a not-altogether-unhappy gone Illinois boy. The mere picture now in my mind of one of those canvas-colored Thanksgiving skies of three and four decades ago can produce in me a kind of surreal sensation of walking dream. Because walking dream is what so much of winter in the Midwest used to feel like. The suspension you sensed as winter came on seemed to parallel the suspension the land itself was undergoing, between the first fortnight of October's brilliance and the last two weeks of November's melancholy. "There's a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons, that oppresses, like the Heft of Cathedral Tunes," Emily Dickinson said. She could have been writing about my home town, Kankakee, in the early 1950s. Thanksgiving, right at the end of this slide into sunlessness, was a kind of penultimate moment, the reprieve.
In an essay called "Home-Coming," which is not about the Midwest but rather about his return to Allen Cove, Maine, at Thanksgiving time, E.B. White wrote: "... and the light that leaves the sky at 4 o'clock automatically turns on the yellow lamps within, revealing to the soft-minded motorist interiors of perfect security, kitchens full of a just and lasting peace." That is it, exactly. I don't think it has ever gotten dark in Washington at 4 o'clock. At Thanksgiving time in mid-Illinois, the days were almost an equinox, a perfect time balance, dawn to dusk, dusk to dawn. Harmony, inside the glumness.
I also think of Thanksgiving when I look at a painting by Andrew Wyeth called "Roasted Chestnuts." Its subject isn't really Thanksgiving at all. A boy in a woolen stocking cap and a too-short-at-the-wrists olive-drab Army jacket is standing at the side of a Pennsylvania road, waiting for the cars that don't come. He wants to sell their drivers bags of chestnuts. The boy looks so lonely standing there and staring off into the near-infinities, and I think he is me. The colors of the painting, in egg tempera, are the colors of the idealized Thanksgivings of my mind.
For seven straight Thanksgivings in my teen-age years I was away from home, and sometimes now I wonder if I haven't idealized every part of this holiday, remembered none of it actually or historically. I was a seminarian in the South in those seven years, and to fill the holiday's inevitable homesickness the priests used to stage the Turkey Bowl. It was faculty pitted against students. The contest was usually softball (though once I remember volleyball and another time a football game that was "touch" in name only) and was supposed to demonstrate good-natured family rivalry. Usually it was played out to mock hatreds that weren't so mock. For a few hours every Thanksgiving morning it was open season on frustrations -- theirs and ours. What we tried to do was dance with our taunts and jeers just this side of outright disrespect. By the time we got back up to the dormitories and were taking our showers, the joke was over. The faculty was back in habit. And so had we better be.
I also remember several Thanksgivings, before I went away to the seminary, when my father wasn't at the head of the table to bow his head and say the grace and then start ladling out my mother's oyster stew. He was an airline pilot, making his way up on the rungs of seniority, and often he had to fly on holidays when we were young. My mother prepared a huge meal anyway, stew to nuts. My father was up there in his glass bubble of glowing knobs and dials, while his little arc of diminished family was down below praying for his safe return, creating the leftovers.
This was hardest on my mother, of course, and she had lived with this anxiety in even starker ways when I was an infant and her then brand-new husband was overseas, in the Pacific, flying P61 Black Widows. In Kankakee, in the early '50s, while I swam to consciousness, my mother waited for phones to ring from Midway Airport in the middle of bad winter nights. None of us talked about it very much, and certainly not around holidays, but once I recall asking my father if he worried about all those lives lined behind him in rows of twos and threes. "Yes, but you don't let yourself think about them, son," he said. "What you concentrate on is getting yourself back down and they'll be fine."
My son and I were making out the menu the other night. He dictated, I scribbled. He's almost 4. "Turkey, pie, wine," he said.
"Got it," I said. "What should we do about snacks?"
"Marshmallows, peanuts, yogurt, cranberries, coffee, mud pies."
"In case Oscar the Grouch comes. Also sunflower seeds for the cardinals out back."
I think I have come to appreciate Thanksgiving better than any other holiday we have because it asks so little, yet is able to evoke so much. It is just one afternoon, part of a day, in the middle of a work week. It seems over almost before it has begun, and yet it manages to summon so many things that are both tangible and intangible: values, sense of family, community, gift-giving. What you buy at Thanksgiving, you consume: It's a very efficient holiday in that sense. But more than that, it's a gift to a group, a community, whether that community is family or friends, and in my mind that now seems far better, more egalitarian.
What very much besides the meal itself can the store merchants really manipulate us into buying? Firecrackers? Nope. Egg coloring? Nope. Skeleton suits? Nope. Giblet gravy, cranberries, pumpkin nut bread, sausage-apple stuffing, pearl onions in cream sauce? Yes. And it's all wonderful.
This year, as last year, as the year before, I won't be spending Thanksgiving with any of the family I was born into and raised in. That unit has pretty much dispersed, even disintegrated. But I have my own family now, and there is great comfort in that, the sense of home. Additionally we will have old friends and new friends sharing our meal. Some of them go back a decade of Thanksgivings with my wife and me. Back then I had worries and fears in my heart, and I have them now, a whole new set, but I am still here, and so are those who have shared the day with us, and that is cause for celebration. It makes me want to shout the words of a little-known American folk song by a man named Ira F. Stanphill, who wrote, in the '50s, when I was small: Come home, come home, it's suppertime. We're going home at last.
I suspect that one way or another the oyster stew will get made.