Fern was looking a lot better. The last time I’d seen her, just after she’d had her hip replaced, she had looked listless and ashen. Today, there was color in her cheeks, and she was getting around on crutches.
“See how well I’m doing?” she asked. “Pretty soon I’ll be dancing a jig.”
“We brought you some flowers, Mom,” my husband Ben told her. “An autumn bouquet for Thanksgiving.”
“Thank you,” Fern said. “Speaking of Thanksgiving, your father and I were just trying to decide what to do about it.”
John Benitez stepped up beside his wife. “Your mother thinks she’s going to have the family Thanksgiving here this year, like she always does. I keep telling her that she’s not ready for something like that yet. The doctor said for her to rest.”
“I’m getting better every day,” my mother-in-law insisted. “Thanksgiving is still more than a week away. I’ll be ready.”
“No, Mom,” Ben said. “Dad’s right. It’s too much for you.”
“But Tony and Leo are counting on it,” Fern argued.
“My brothers will just have to make other plans this year,” Ben told her.
“I’ve got an idea,” I interjected. “Let’s have Thanksgiving at our house this year. It’s our turn. You always have it. I’ll do all the cooking, and all you have to do is show up.”
“That’s a great idea,” Ben said. Both he and John gave me grateful looks.
“Come on, Fern,” I urged her. “It’ll give me a chance to use the dining room furniture my mother gave me.”
“Well, okay,” my mother-in-law conceded after glancing at her husband. “We would love to come to your house for Thanksgiving.”
“Do you think Tommy and Leo will come too?” I asked.
“Of course they will,” Fern answered. “And I’m sure Tony’s new girlfriend will be there too. What’s her name?”
“Sally,” I supplied.
“I could make a few things to bring to the dinner,” she offered.
“No, you couldn’t,” I insisted. “You’re taking Thanksgiving off. This year you’re our guest.”
“You heard your daughter-in-law,” John Benitez told his wife. “Now let me help you to the sofa, Fern. You’ve been walking around on those crutches for an hour. You’re still supposed to be taking it easy.” He turned to me. “Laila, thank you for inviting us to your house.”
As my husband and I walked out to our car, Ben put his hand on my shoulder. “Thanks for inviting my family, Laila. I know it will be a lot of work, and I’m really proud of you for offering to do it.”
“It’ll be fun,” I said, and I felt pretty good about myself as I enjoyed his praise. For a moment, I let myself imagine setting a beautiful Thanksgiving meal on the table in front of Ben’s adoring family.
Later that evening, when reality set in, I started to freak out. The Thanksgiving dinner that Fern served always included turkey with walnut stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, fruit salad, sweet potato casserole, homemade cranberry sauce, several vegetables, and pies. The guest list would include John, Fern, Tony, Sally, Leo, Leo’s girlfriend if he had one, Ben, and me.
I couldn’t believe that I had offered to make dinner for all those people—and not just any dinner, but Thanksgiving dinner, the biggest, fanciest dinner of the year—when I could barely cook.
I don’t think I slept at all that night. I kept remembering the first time I had gone to Thanksgiving dinner with Ben’s family.
When Ben and I had arrived, his mother had met us at the door. She kissed her son on the cheek, then turned to me. “Welcome, Laila,” she had said. “We’re so glad you were able to join us.” The smile she had given me was genuine, and her hug was warm and friendly.
I had only met Ben’s parents and his brothers a couple of times, but they treated me like a member of the family.
The Benitez house had a large family room adjoining the kitchen. There was a football game on the television, but no one was watching it. Everyone was hanging around in the kitchen, joking and getting in the way.
Fern had put me to work helping with a couple of things, and Ben kept looking over my shoulder, trying to get an early taste of some of the dishes.
As we all sat down to eat, I realized that everything about Thanksgiving at his family’s house was perfect: the food, the way the dining room table was set, and the loving atmosphere that seemed to flow through the house.
I’d never had that kind of Thanksgiving before, and until that day, I hadn’t known what I’d been missing. I already knew that I was in love with Ben, but that day I realized that I loved his family too. I felt like I belonged with them. That was a new feeling for me.
I also kept remembering the grateful looks on the faces of Ben and his dad when I had volunteered to make the dinner. Ben had said he was proud of me. He’d never said that before. But what if I couldn’t handle it? Would he be proud of me then?
When Ben and I were first married, Fern had given me the recipes for all the dishes she served on Thanksgiving, but I had never tried to cook any of them. Instead, I had shoved the recipes into a drawer without even reading them. The worse part was that I had never cooked a turkey in my life. I had never even roasted a chicken. I had no idea how to go about it.
When the alarm clock sounded in the morning, Ben rolled over and pushed the button to turn it off. I kept my eyes closed for a few more seconds, wishing I had gotten some sleep.
Ben put his lips to mine. “Wake up, Sleeping Beauty.”
I opened my eyes and kissed him. “Good morning.”
“You look a little tired,” my husband observed as we were brushing our teeth.
“I didn’t sleep all that well,” I admitted.
“Nothing,” I lied. “I just couldn’t sleep.”
He made the coffee, then set boxes of cereal and a carton of milk on the table while I finished my makeup.
I didn’t mention Thanksgiving while we ate our breakfast, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. After we finished eating, Ben rinsed the dishes and put them into the dishwasher. I watched, thinking about how much I loved him.
We had only been married for two years, and I couldn’t stand the thought that he might be disappointed in me for not being able to provide the kind of holiday meal his family was used to.
I worked as a bookkeeper for a large manufacturer of kitchen appliances. I also studied in the evenings and on the weekends for my accounting degree.
When I went to work that day, I happened to mention that I was having the family Thanksgiving at my house this year for the first time, and suddenly, everyone in the accounting department was talking about it.
“I remember the first time I had Thanksgiving at my house,” Estelle said. “My brothers were watching a football game when they decided to reenact a play in our family room. While going out for a pass, one of my brothers knocked over our new big-screen TV and destroyed it.” She shook her head. “It took us a couple of years to save for another one.”
“That’s pretty bad,” Angela agreed, “but you should have been to the Thanksgiving where my aunt and uncle decided to get a divorce. They’d been bickering all morning, but at the dinner table, they broke into a full-scale screaming match. I guess my uncle had an affair with his secretary, and my aunt caught him. My whole family was at the table when my aunt picked up the meat fork from the turkey platter and tried to stick it into my uncle. If my dad hadn’t grabbed her, she’d have poked my uncle full of holes.”
Everyone in the office laughed.
“I went to Thanksgiving at my former boyfriend’s house a few years ago,” Pam put in. “All the guests got drunk, and one of them passed out with his face in the bowl of mashed potatoes.”
It seemed like every woman in the department had some sort of horror story about Thanksgiving. The longer I listened, the more I began to worry that my Thanksgiving would turn into a horror story too.
I thought about asking Fern for advice. Maybe she could give me some tips on cooking the turkey, or even better, she could even tell me how to cook it from start to finish.
It wouldn’t be fair to ask Fern for help. She was supposed to be resting and recovering from her hip surgery. Besides, I didn’t want my mother-in-law to think I couldn’t handle a simple Thanksgiving dinner.
I had seen frozen turkeys at the supermarket—big icy ovals, covered in colorful plastic, and wrapped in netting with a loop for a handle. None of those turkeys seemed to come with cooking instructions. I knew this because I had looked for the instructions in the past. I wasn’t even sure what I would find inside the plastic if I unwrapped one of the birds.
When I got home from work, I got Fern’s recipes out of the drawer and spread them out across the dining room table.
Ben got home just after I sat down. He walked into the dining room and saw what I was doing. “Now, don’t overwork yourself planning the meal, Laila. Remember, I’ll help you with whatever you need. Right now, I’m going to call for a pizza. What do you want on it?”
He went into the kitchen to make the call, and I began to read the recipes. On every page was something I didn’t understand. One recipe said I should cream the butter. Another told me to cut something into flour, and the recipe for the sweet potato casserole said I should pare the potatoes. Did that mean I should arrange them in pairs?
In the past, I had gone to Thanksgiving at Ben’s parents’ house with biscuits that I had baked from a can and a pie I had bought from the grocery store. That was the total extent of my Thanksgiving responsibilities. I could handle baking biscuits from a can, and if I couldn’t, all I had to do was pick up some rolls at the same grocery store where I got the pie.
I thought about the turkey again and my not knowing how to cook it, and I remembered the other horror stories the women in my department had told me. One had said that the first time she had cooked a turkey, she had taken it out of the oven and served it before it was done. Her father-in-law had offered to carve the bird, and he had cut into the semi-raw turkey. She had to put the bird back into the oven, and when she took it out again later, it tasted like old shoe leather.
Another woman had told me about completely cooking her turkey without remembering to remove the plastic bag containing the giblets from the neck cavity.
The worst horror story had come from a woman who had just started working in our department. She’d said her whole family had gone to her sister-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving, and they had all gotten food poisoning from the turkey.
Ben’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “The pizza’s here.”
We ate the pizza in front of the television, and I managed to push all my worries about Thanksgiving dinner out of my mind for the rest of the evening.
The next day, however, my fears returned. I knew I should start grocery shopping for the meal, but even after reading the recipes, I didn’t know what to buy.
Ben offered again to help me, and I knew I should make it look like I was doing something to get ready for Thanksgiving. So I got out the good dishes and flatware, and ironed the only tablecloth I owned.
Then I dusted and polished the dining room furniture. Mom had given us that furniture, along with the tablecloth, not long after Ben and I had bought our house. The table, chairs, and buffet had all sat together in Mom’s dining room when I was growing up.
She had bought the furniture when I was a little girl, but she had never used it. As a matter of fact, I don’t think Mom ever planned to use it. She just bought it because her house had a dining room that needed furniture.
About the time Ben and I had purchased our home, Mom decided to sell hers and move into a smaller place. She noticed that our house had a dining room that needed furniture, and she gave us hers. She told us that she was giving us a family heirloom, and she joked about never having eaten a meal at that table.
Actually, I had been the only one who ever used the table. I had done my homework there, and when I got my first computer, I had set it up there too.
When I was growing up, Mom never had company over for dinner, and she and I ate our meals at the table in the kitchen or at the table out on the patio. Mom cooked even less than I did, but she was an expert at heating up food in the microwave.
Thinking about my mother made me want to call her and tell her what I’d done.
“I volunteered to have Thanksgiving at my house this year to give Fern a break,” I announced.
“How is Fern doing?” Mom asked. “I’ve been meaning to call her.”
“She’s doing pretty well, Mom. She’s walking on crutches now.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Laila, and I understand that you want to help Fern, but I don’t think volunteering your house for Thanksgiving was a good idea. You’ll have to do all the work that way.”
“I’m supposed to cook the meal,” I admitted.
“Sweetie, do you know how to cook a Thanksgiving dinner?”
“No, Mom. I don’t.”
“Well, I can’t offer to help you since I don’t know how either. You could buy a cookbook, but I have a better suggestion. I think you and Ben should take his family out to a restaurant for Thanksgiving. That way, everyone gets a break. Both Garden Gate and The Dinner Bell still have reservations available, and they make excellent family meals. But you’d better get your reservations in soon or there won’t be any left.”
“I’ll think about it, Mom,” I promised.
My mom and dad had divorced when I was three, and I rarely saw my father when I was growing up. Mom had sold new cars for a dealership in town, and she’d been good at it. It was a hectic job, and by the time she got home at night, she liked to relax. Cooking wasn’t her idea of relaxing.
Every Thanksgiving, she and a group of her friends made reservations for Thanksgiving dinner at a nice restaurant. That way, there was no cooking and no cleaning up to do. According to Mom, an added bonus was no leftovers either. That way she couldn’t keep eating Thanksgiving dinner and gaining weight for days afterward. When Mom and her friends finished dinner, they always went to a movie and made a day of it.
Before I met Ben, I had always gone with them. Mom’s idea of Thanksgiving dinner was a lot of fun, but after having dinner with Ben’s family, I discovered that I liked their family celebration better.
It would be easy to take everyone out to a restaurant, and I was tempted by that idea. I had been to Garden Gate with Mom’s group for Thanksgiving, and I knew that their meal was especially good. In fact, Garden Gate was one of my favorite restaurants in town, even when it wasn’t Thanksgiving. The food was good, the service was good, and the restaurant was pretty. What more could Ben’s family want?
I started to pick up the phone to make the reservations when I answered my own question. I knew what Ben’s family wanted for Thanksgiving: They wanted a meal in their son’s home, lovingly served by their son’s wife. They would be disappointed if I suggested going out to a restaurant, and the truth was that if we went to a restaurant, I would be disappointed too. I loved the family gathering. There was no way around it. I had to figure out how to make the dinner.
I wished I were the kind of person who could put on a big family meal without worry.
I could imagine the first Thanksgiving dinner that Fern had served. I’m sure the table was beautifully set, the mashed potatoes were perfectly smooth, and the gravy had just the right consistency. The vegetables must have been absolutely delicious, the fruit salad luscious, and the sweet potato casserole perfectly glazed. Mouth-watering pies would have followed the meal. But the best part of all would have been the turkey.
Fern probably carried the bird into the dining room on a platter—perfectly roasted, golden brown, and succulent. All the eyes in the room would have been on that turkey. John probably carved it right there in front of the guests.
“Who wants a drumstick?” he would have asked.
In comparison, I could imagine how my Thanksgiving disaster would go. Lumpy potatoes, runny gravy, and overcooked vegetables would be just the beginning. The fruit salad would be sour, and the brown sugar glaze on the sweet potatoes would turn black. No one would want to taste my pies after the turkey.
My bird wouldn’t be the golden brown perfection of Fern’s. My bird would be black on the outside and as succulent as shoe leather. Or it could be perfectly brown on the outside and not quite done on the inside. It could look done, but not be done. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Not long after tasting the turkey, we would all come down with food poisoning. Everyone would be violently ill, and we would have to be taken to the emergency room in an ambulance, or several ambulances—that is, if one of us had the strength to dial 9-1-1.
At the emergency room, we would have our stomachs pumped, and after a few hours, when we were feeling better, everyone would be angry with me for serving them a poisoned turkey.
Ben would be the angriest of all. He would blame me for making his family sick and ruining their Thanksgiving. He would point out that my cooking could have killed everyone. Then he would make the worst statement I could imagine.
My husband would tell me he wanted a divorce. He would say that a wife who could accidentally poison her husband’s family might accidentally poison their children someday. The judge would agree, and the divorce would be granted. I would never see or hear from my husband or his family again.
Ben found me crying my eyes out, sitting at the dining room table with his mother’s recipes spread out in front of me.
“Laila, what’s wrong?”
I tried to brush my tears away. “Nothing.”
“Don’t tell me there’s nothing wrong,” Ben insisted. “You’re crying like you’ve lost your best friend.”
I shook my head. “I’m afraid I’m going to lose you when you find out that I can’t do it.”
“You’re never going to lose me, Laila. I love you with all my heart.” He pulled out a chair and sat down beside me. “Now, tell me what you can’t do.”
I took a deep breath. “I can’t make the Thanksgiving dinner.” I pointed to the papers on the table in front of me. “These are your mother’s recipes. I don’t even understand what they mean. There’s no way I could cook them. I’ve never cooked a turkey in my life; I don’t even know how. All I know how to do for Thanksgiving dinner is bake canned biscuits and pick up a pie at the grocery store.”
Ben laughed. “My beautiful, wonderful wife, you’re getting all upset over nothing. Forget my mom’s recipes. Nobody expects you to serve them for Thanksgiving.”
I hadn’t thought of that. “They don’t?”
“No. This is our Thanksgiving. We get to choose the menu. We can have anything we want. I think we should start with that fancy tomato soup we like so much.”
“Yeah. We’ll pick it up the day before Thanksgiving at the deli. Let’s make a list. We’ll decide on the menu right now.”
“But Ben, what about the turkey? I still don’t know how to cook it, and it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a turkey.”
My husband took my hand in his. “Who says? Thanksgiving isn’t about the turkey. We’ll buy a turkey that’s already cooked and warm it up. In fact, I vote we order all our favorite dishes from all our favorite delis.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It couldn’t be that easy. “Really?”
Ben put his arms around me and pulled me to him. “Of course. Laila, you and I aren’t my parents. We don’t cook. We order in, we take out, and we zap our meals in the microwave. No one expects us to change our lifestyle for a family dinner. All they expect is good food. We can give them that. Now, let’s get busy on the menu.”
Is it any wonder why I love him so much? Ben and I made a list of what we wanted to serve at our dinner. Then we called and ordered each dish from a specific deli, and the evening before Thanksgiving, we picked up our entire dinner, including the turkey. In keeping with our family tradition, I baked canned biscuits.
Our dinner was a big success. We heated each dish up in the microwave and then put everything in the oven to keep it warm. That way, our whole house smelled like the warm food.
Fern and John arrived first, followed by Tony and Sally, and then Leo. Fern was still on crutches, but she said she barely needed them.
Everyone loved the food, and although I didn’t cook it (or maybe because I didn’t cook it), the turkey was spectacular.
“Well, it was a wonderful meal,” my mother-in-law said. “Thank you for inviting us.”
“I don’t know if it was as perfect as the Thanksgiving dinners you make,” I admitted.
“Perfect?” Fern laughed. “If my meals are perfect, then it’s because I’ve had years of experience. The first time I made Thanksgiving dinner, it was far from perfect. We’d invited John’s parents over to our studio apartment, and I’d wanted to impress them with my cooking skills. So I’d bought a twenty-two-pound bird. I don’t know what I was thinking. I didn’t have a pan big enough to cook that size of turkey, and even if I had, it wouldn’t have fit in the oven. We had a half-sized stove in our apartment. I had to cut the turkey into pieces to cook it, and it didn’t turn out so well.”
“It was like trying to chew rubber,” her husband put in.
“We had some disastrous Thanksgivings when I was growing up,” Ben said. “Remember the time the dog ate the turkey?” He looked at me. “We had a St. Bernard named Brutus. Mom took the turkey out of the oven and set it on the counter. While her back was turned, Brutus grabbed the bird and ran outside into the yard. He’d eaten half of it before Mom caught him.”
Everyone laughed at the memory.
Leo spoke next. “Remember the time Tony knocked over the kids’ table? There were six kids at the table, us and three of our cousins. We were just getting ready to eat. All the food was on the table, and when Tony went to sit down, he knocked the table over.”
“I tripped,” Tony explained.
“Remember the time Cousin Dolores threw up?” Leo went on.
“That was your fault,” Ben said. “Dolores used to put a lot of sugar on her fruit salad, and you thought it would be funny to fill the sugar bowl on the kids’ table with salt.”
Tony laughed. “Dolores was a snotty little brat,” he explained to Sally and me. “She was always tattling on us and trying to get us in trouble.”
“She put four or five spoonfuls of salt on her salad,” Leo went on. “Then she took a bite and threw up.”
Fern shook her head. “My boys were not always the angels they are now.”
We laughed and joked, and everyone had a great time at our Thanksgiving. Just as Ben had said, no one minded that I hadn’t cooked the food myself.
Later that day, after everyone had gone, my husband took me in his arms. “Laila, thank you for making this the best Thanksgiving ever,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.”
“I didn’t do it all by myself,” I told him. “You’re the one who came up with the idea to serve all our favorite dishes.”
And he was the one who had reminded me that Thanksgiving isn’t about the turkey.