The fat turkey sizzled in the oven, and the smell of hot roasting bird wafted up the stairs to tease my two brothers, Blair and Brent, and me awake. By this time, the Pumpkin and Karo Nut Pies had usually been baked, and Mother was in holiday work mode. She had gotten up at 5 A.M. to be sure our feast would be done by noon or so, when our family sat down together. We usually had a good crowd, with cousins, uncles, and aunts who had driven from somewhere, near or far, to spend this holiday together with us, and our two grandmothers and one grandfather who had survived to know us -- to hug us up, tickle us, and tell us we were brilliant stars sparkling in the human universe, where our family was exceptional, smart, and proud.
We are a family who likes to eat, and I happen to come from a long line of good cooks, especially my mother, who wanted us to have a fresh, perfectly cooked, and piping-hot meal. She didn't do much actual cooking ahead of Thanksgiving Day for that reason. Oh, on the Wednesday before, she stirred up her Bing Cherry Jello Salad -- this my brother Brent loved and made for his own holiday feasts, for which he was well known when he moved away, finally living in New York City. Even when his Northern friends thought Jello salads strange he didn't care. Brent was secure with its Southern provenance, texture, and taste.
My two grandmothers, Abbie and Anna, always brought their favored dishes. And on other holidays or any other day of the year, they filled our bellies with their apple pies, snickerdoodle cookies, angel biscuits, and hot fried chicken. I never had a chance to taste either great-grandmother's meals, but how in the world could they have been bad?
Those were happy Thanksgivings in Batesville, Arkansas, where my roots run deep and will always tether part of me to the rich or rocky soil. I was a lucky girl and knew that then -- but not as much as I know now, since time and death have captured many whom I still love, several dearest to me long before their time should've been up.
The last Thanksgiving in which I had a meal with my mother was two days after Brent tragically died of AIDS in 1990, while I was holding his hand in his New York loft with my husband, Jim, and Brent's friend Lock beside me. My mother arrived several hours after her baby died. She slept in his deathbed that night. We flew back to Arkansas the next day, and, the day after, my family and I were in Batesville eating a Thanksgiving dinner that had lost its taste.
It took many years for me to want to celebrate this holiday again, though I do now -- and somehow I can appreciate it more living in Paris. Not being surrounded by too many "familiar" Thanksgiving cues in the culture gives me indulgent space to let my memories wash over me and find their bittersweet place in my heart.
In November, when Christmas is coming and the days are getting cold, when Parisian streets are festively lit and the grand department stores are decorating their windows with lush excess, it's Thanksgiving that inevitably comes to the minds of Americans here. We feel the need to be together, to feel one with home. We can relish our tradition and also give a taste of it to French friends and those of other nationalities who sit beside us.
And on this afternoon before Thanksgiving, I am making Southern Cornbread Dressing and Buttery Mashed Potatoes, thinking of my mother and her Pumpkin Pies and of my brother Brent's glorious Thanksgiving dinners, and of my brothers and me picking the bones as my father carved the big turkey in the kitchen.
This from my friend, B, in Little Rock:
The weather here is perfect Thanksgiving weather---cool during the day, cold at night, and muffled in early morning fog. The leaves have all turned, except for a few oaks, and are in piles everywhere. The azaleas lost their last blooms on the season's first frost, which came on time last week. The smoky smell of split-oak firewood sweetens the early evening air.
The gladiatorial games---football, as in American football, born on a scorching August day--- have built to a crescendo, season-ending defeat for some SEC teams, and an end to some coaches. The week will bring one last contest to save the spirit for building onto next year.
The pecans have fallen, and if one knows where to find them, they can be had for a good price, and already cracked, ready for picking and the Karo Nut pie. The delta is winding down from the harvest, the duck hunters have in turn replaced the deer hunters, and the traditions of a storied land will unfold this week, as family and friends gather to celebrate the completion of a circle of life rich with heritage.
Some are gone this year, and some are merely scattered.
This is dedicated to the ones I love.
Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris. To see more of her work, go to www.betharnold.com