By TAMMIE TOLER
There never seemed to be enough room inside Nanny’s kitchen on Thanksgiving.
Perhaps that was because her kitchen was always a little unconventional. For as long as I can recall, the most special room of my grandparents’ house has included both an electric and a wood cook stove, and until a few years ago, it always featured a soft lounge chair between the table and the wood stove. The lower seat, rocking mechanism and extra softness were better for soothing sick babies, visiting with friends and reading than the dining room chairs that surrounded the table.
Then, on Thanksgiving Day, the otherwise spacious room seemed to overflow, as Nanny, Mom and Aunt Debbie — and in later years, Cristi, I and the various friends, fellows and children who accompanied us — worked our way through the maze of family members, hot pots, rising rolls, and sometimes frayed nerves, all while completing myriad contributions to the annual turkey dinner.
Sometimes Granddaddy would sit quietly at his spot at the table, experiencing the cooking cacophony all around him. Others, he’d join the men in the living room for a football game, but he was always a very present force, if we needed him to fetch more emergency supplies from the basement, transport the turkey or taste one of the treats.
There were times when Nanny was positive the turkey wouldn’t be cooked just right by lunch time, and days when a bagged buck pulled some of the men away from the house for the dinner’s preparation. There were definitely family feuds over the years, and childish hurt feelings amid the chaos created when people who love each other take the license to be brutally honest.
But, I can’t recall any real disasters. Perhaps they happened, and that part of my memory has faded amid the delicious smells, warm thoughts and happy moments that stuck. Or, maybe things just always fell into place at the last minute.
Because there was never enough space at the main table for everyone, for many years, we somehow crammed a card table into the overflowing kitchen to make room for the kids.
In the days before there were great-grandchildren involved in the holiday celebrations, Cristi and I were always relegated to the smaller table, where at least one of the grown-ups must have drawn the short straw and joined us. Our table was perfectly fine, but our seating may have been anything from an extra chair stashed in another room to the widest plank on a stepladder or an ottoman full of sewing notions. And, all the food was situated on either the big table or one of the two loaded stoves. The kids’ table was situated smack dab in the middle of these two Thanksgiving hot spots, so there were lots of times when we ducked under a steaming pot of newly mashed potatoes, dodged a carelessly passed roll and dripped some of Nanny’s yummy turkey gravy from a precariously tipped plate.
It was what I imagine Opie, on “The Andy Griffith Show,” would have deemed adventurous eating, but it worked for us for a long time.
As our family grew up and expanded in numbers, the kids’ table remained tucked in the closet or behind the beige living room couch, and the dinner expanded to include a small table on the enclosed carport that serves as a Thanksgiving annex. By Christmas, sitting out there could be impossible, depending on how frigidly winter’s winds blow, but Thanksgiving is usually pretty cozy.
As much as I’d love to be able to say our family was whole again this year, no matter how far we had to stretch the dinner, that wasn’t really the case. Last year, we lost Granddaddy to an angry illness that claimed his ability to live like he wanted several months before it took his last breath in September 2010. Despite an uncertainty whether any of us felt thankful enough to celebrate Thanksgiving with comfortable consciences, we prepared a scaled-down feast, and we ate together because we knew that’s how Granddaddy would have wanted things.
Yesterday, we did much the same. For most of us, the piercing pain of Granddaddy’s absence is gradually easing, allowing the joyful memories of the beautiful life he shared with us to return. Yesterday, I think I can speak for all of the people who filled Nanny’s kitchen, when I say we were thankful for the blessings, and even the occasional curses, that come from being together, even if the void at the table and the holes in our hearts hurt a little.
I read an interview with best-selling author Nicholas Sparks recently, in which the interviewer asked Sparks why he so often closes his love stories with heartbreaking tragedy. His answer, like his story and our holiday, was bittersweet. He said that there must be great love if there is great loss at its end, and his passion is writing about great love.
In a way, I think our overflowing, strangely empty kitchen yesterday is a reflection of Sparks’ belief. Although I didn’t always see my blessings before, this Thanksgiving, I was eternally thankful for all the perfectly imperfect holidays our family celebrated before we knew what it was like to mark them with parts of our hearts missing.
There was always great love, and there will continue to be great loss. But, there will still always be blessings inside Nanny’s overflowing kitchen.
Tammie Toler is Princeton Times editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.