A Turkey Story

A Turkey Story
Originally published: Wed, 23 Nov 2011


I’m making Thanksgiving dinner this year. All by myself. It’s times like these that I feel like a real grown-up, like I’ve earned my spot side-by-side with the matriarchs in my family, the women who always smelled like dish soap and had standing weekly appointments with their hair dressers. I’m a big girl now.

Most years we travel to either my family in Tennessee or my husband’s in Virginia for Thanksgiving dinner, but this year I volunteered to host and my perfectionism is beginning to do me in. I started putting together the menu more than month ago, collecting recipes and debating on what to include. Fortunately, I decided to scrap my plans to make my now deceased ex-step-grandmother’s famous homemade sour dough bread. Doing so would have meant starting the starter weeks ago and feeding it every day, so … I’ll be serving store-bought, frozen yeast rolls instead. But everything else will be 100 percent homemade. My menu includes an 18-pound turkey (brined overnight), gravy, sausage-apple stuffing, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, green beans, kale, cranberry sauce, cranberry relish, orange salad, pumpkin pie, pecan pie and coconut cake. And yet it still seems like I’m forgetting something.

This will be third time in my life that I’ve tackled the big meal alone. The second was a few years ago when my husband was deployed and I didn’t feel like traveling, and the first time I’ll tell you about right now…

It was 2002 and my husband and I had just gotten engaged. He already lived in Fayetteville and I was still living the sunny, single girl beach life in south Florida, so we didn’t get to see each other much. Worse, he had been on a short deployment and was scheduled to fly back on Thanksgiving day on a commercial airplane. A buddy of his was responsible for booking his flight and he managed to find him a flight that landed in Miami in the wee hours of the morning, with a connection that wouldn’t leave until the evening. We’d get about eight hours together on Thanksgiving Day and I was determined to impress him.

Thanksgiving for me, as for most Americans, is all about the home-cooked meal, so having the mother of all dinners in a restaurant was not an option. I was going to have to cook. Besides, I am a good cook. I love to cook. I have a blast in the kitchen, I really do. But I had never before made Thanksgiving dinner. At most I’d made one side dish or a dessert to take to someone else’s Thanksgiving dinner. I’d always thought of Thanksgiving dinner as the Super Bowl of cooking, a task best left to the pros – the old ladies, the women who own roasting pans, the sorts of women who don’t use measuring spoons and who actually plan meals. My cooking adventures usually turned out well, if eclectic. If I was in a sweet mood, I might make four pies and a cake. If I was in a vegetable mood there would likely be no meat served. If I was in a meat mood, you can forget side dishes. So you can imagine my anxiety over flying solo and having to make the biggest meal of the year for my new fiance.

A week before the big day I called his mother and asked her what foods he likes on Thanksgiving. At least I had enough sense to know that not every family does Thanksgiving the same. Fortunately she didn’t name anything that sounded too difficult to make – and she seemed pretty pleased that I planned to cook for him. She’s told me since then that I scored major points with her that day. I bought a whole turkey and all the other ingredients and I started cooking four days in advance. I figured that by starting early I could make everything in my tiny apartment kitchen and serve the meal on time without cutting into the precious few hours that he and I would have to spend together. Everything was going swimmingly until I got to the turkey itself.

I had never roasted any kind of bird and didn’t even know where to begin, so I did the most sensible thing I could think of – the night before Thanksgiving I called my grandmother.
“First you need to put your hand into the cavity and remove the organs,” she said, not even bothering to hide her laughter.
“The cavity, the hole. Oh, Hell,  just stick your hand up the damn turkey’s butt!” she said.
I looked at the headless bird and tried to picture it with a head so that I could figure out which end was the butt. It is not as obvious as you might think.
“The organs?” I asked.
“There’s a little bag in there that has the neck and gizzards and stuff in it,” she said.
And sure enough, there was.
“Pull out all the organs and throw them away, unless you want to make giblet gravy.”
“Umm, no. I bought gravy. I’ll just throw this, umm, stuff away,” I said, pinching the bag between two fingers and eyeing it distastefully.
“Now you just want to rub the bird down with butter real good,” she said, adding, “Make sure you soften the butter first.”
I was glad that she’d mentioned that.
“Then slice an orange in half and shove half of it up the turkey’s butt.”
A lot of butt shoving was going on with this turkey. Who knew Thanksgiving dinner started so intimately? My grandmother went on to help me figure out how long to cook the turkey for and then she asked if I needed help with any of the side dishes. She gave me a few tips on the stuffing and the sweet potatoes and wished me luck, telling me to call her when it was all said and done and tell her how it turned out.
I cherish that conversation. She was diagnosed the following year with an inoperable brain tumor. The memory of her laughing as she explained how to cook the turkey is one of my favorites.

His flight arrived at 5 a.m. I got dressed in a really sexy outfit, heels and all, full make-up, the whole shebang, and planned to meet him at baggage claim. But when I got there the stupid Miami airport wasn’t even open. I think that airport has been under construction since like 1975 and Thanksgiving day was no exception. At that hour on a holiday even the parking lot was closed. I had to just keep circling the airport until he called to tell me that he was standing on the curb. I tried to get out of the car so that he could at least see how cute I was, but he was tired and just wanted to leave. I’m not sure he ever actually noticed my sexy outfit, come to think of it. Seems like a total waste of discomfort to me now.

Thanksgiving was wonderful, though there so many leftovers that I was eating turkey and the trimmings for weeks. When it was time for him to go back to the airport I put the pies – pumpkin and pecan – a couple of forks and a can of whipped cream in the car so that we could eat them on the way.

Come to think of it, our whole married life has been kind of like that: Best of intentions always altered by a mad dash out the door.


Originally published: Mon, 20 Jun 2011

IMG_3663I’ve been laughing since yesterday afternoon when my sister Kim sent me this picture of my father’s grave. And, yes, I do realize that “laughing” and “father’s grave” are not words one normally uses together. Allow me to explain:
The past few Father’s Days have been melancholy for me. Like many people who’ve lost a parent, I’ve had to fight off the urge to feel sorry for myself, especially after seeing pictures on Facebook of friends hugging their dads and celebrating together. I even got irritated with my husband yesterday when he snapped at our daughter for hanging onto him. I snapped right back at him: “She just wants to spend time with her father. I wish I could.”
(I’m cringing now admitting that I actually said that.)
My sister Kim was apparently also feeling maudlin yesterday and she sent me these pictures of my father’s grave:

IMG_3665 IMG_3666


(That’s Dad’s truck behind the tombstone. She was feeling maudlin enough to drive around town in it, apparently.)

She also sent this text message:
“I have been to Dad’s grave several times and there was no foot stone. I am riding in his truck for old times’ sake and went by the grave. They do have it now. I think he would be pleased.”

To which I wrote back:
“Umm, yeah, except that they got the year wrong. Dad died in ’08.”
And then the laughter started — and it hasn’t stopped. Chalk it up to a dark sense of humor that started several generations back on my father’s side and continues right on into my children and nieces and nephews, but the fact that Dad’s tombstone is wrong is perfect — the perfect end to a hilarious story.

If you’ve been following my blog for awhile you may recall reading this before. I wrote this post in October 2008, but it bears repeating now.

Read on:
Posted: October 28, 2008
Back in the summer I promised that when more time had passed I would tell the story of what happened the day my dad died. I needed some time to pass for it be more appropriate for me to share such an irreverent chain of events. Well, it’s been three months – which may or may not be enough time, but here goes…I’m going to skip over the sad part because I don’t want to go there right now and you all probably aren’t in the mood for it either. This is just the funny stuff.

First off, I was the only one in the room with Dad when he died. My brother John had stepped outside to call our two sisters to let them know that it was the end. All of us had spent the entire weekend sitting by Dad’s bedside and they had to get back to work on Monday. Dad died that Monday morning, July 21st. The hospice nurse arrived just after he had taken his last breath and she began ushering me through the what-happens-next process. My brother gave her the name of the cemetery where Dad was to be buried and the nurse called the funeral home at the cemetery to ask them to come pick Dad up. As she was calling the funeral home, my brother and sister Laura met up to drive over there to begin planning the funeral.
Over the weekend we had all decided that Laura should go with John because John is notoriously frugal. Like my Dad, my brother has never found a penny he couldn’t pinch. Dad told John weeks earlier that he didn’t want us to spend more than $10,000 on his funeral. He was insistent – $10,000 and not a penny more.  And if you’ve paid for a funeral recently you know that $10,000 doesn’t go very far. Dad had the money to pay more, but he just couldn’t stomach the idea – even in death – that he might have paid too much for something. So John started casket shopping a few days before Dad died. John was very disappointed to learn that he hadn’t started his hunt soon enough. Apparently if he’d planned a bit more he could have bought a heavily-discounted casket at Costco.

(Who knew that Costco even sold caskets? Not only can you self-cater your wake with Costco, but you can self-plan your funeral there, too.)

Unfortunately the Costco in Nashville didn’t have any caskets in the store and we knew we didn’t have time to wait for one to be shipped. John went around town all weekend casket shopping, looking for the best deal. He came back and said that he had gotten a really good quote on a wood casket and asked how we felt about wood. We all said that a wood casket, provided that it was pretty and of good quality, would be fine.

“Great, then the one I found will work – so long as it doesn’t rain on the day of the funeral,” John said.
“What do you mean? Why does rain matter?” I asked, my voice getting suspicious, high-pitched and borderline hysterical.
“Well, it’s MDF. The salesman said that it might swell and could possibly come apart if it gets wet,” John said.
I was furious.
“John,” I said, “You cannot bury our father in a MDF casket. I won’t stand for it.”

That’s when John said he was just kidding. He’d really had me going but I think he actually would have looked for a MDF casket if we’d all signed off on it. That’s why we said Laura had to go with him to make the funeral plans.

Anyway, so Laura and John were on their way to the funeral home just as the funeral director was on his way to the house, where I was sitting with Dad’s body and the hospice nurse. The funeral director came into the room and introduced himself. I looked up and nearly fell out of my chair. He looked exactly like the only boy in high school that my sister and I had ever fought over, a fight that I, incidentally, won. The funeral director said his name was Josh, the same name as the boy from high school. It took me a few stunned minutes to collect myself again and to realize that my ex-boyfriend wasn’t my father’s funeral director.

My mother came into the room sometime around then and helped Josh take Dad away. After that Mom and I just sort of looked at each other and didn’t know what to do. After months of working around the clock to manage our lives and help Dad, we had nothing to do. It didn’t feel right for her to go back to work and I didn’t have anything else that I needed to be doing. It was around noon at that time and she asked me if I wanted to go get something to eat. We went to a trendy, noisy restaurant and had just been seated when my cell phone rang. It was my sister Kim, calling from her work.

“Well, is there any change?” she asked me.
“What do you mean?” I said, confused.
“With Dad,” she said. “Has his condition changed any?” she said.
“Kim – Dad is dead,” I said. “Didn’t John call you?”

All of this while waiters are barking lunch orders in the background. I stepped outside to tell Kim all that had happened. Dad had been dead for a couple of hours at that point and I felt awful that Kim was just then hearing it from me. I’d already sent a text message to all of my friends and my mom had made sure that pretty much every member of their high school graduating class has been informed of Dad’s death, all before his eldest daughter even knew. It turns out that Kim was the first person my brother called just as it became apparent that Dad was about to die. John just never followed up with Kim to tell her that it had happened.

(He later said that he didn’t think he needed to call her back because he figured that she would just assume that Dad had died. “It’s not like she thought Dad was going to get better,” John reasoned defensively.)

Kim, surprisingly, was not upset that she was the last to know. She was pretty nonchalant about it all, in fact. I went back into the restaurant and sat back down to eat my food. That’s when my mom’s cell phone rang. This time it was Laura, laughing hysterically. She said she and John were still at the funeral home and that she had excused herself and was calling from the bathroom because she said if she had stayed in the funeral director’s office any longer she would have laughed so hard that she might have pee’d her pants.

Laura said that they started out the meeting with Josh, the funeral director, when he came into the office and greeted them solemnly, offering his condolences. John interrupted him by saying, “Let’s cut to the chase. We’ve done a lot of business with you all and we expect some discounts.”

(Some background: Five years earlier my grandmother died and was buried in that cemetery. The same day as her funeral, my aunt died and was also buried there. Two years after their deaths, my grandfather died and was buried there. My grandfather’s funeral was a disaster. When we got to the graveside the hole hadn’t yet been dug and we all had to stand around – in January – and watch and wait as they dug the hole. And there were other problems with his burial, as well.)

So my brother went on to tell the funeral director that we were regular customers, that we’d had some bad experiences and that we expected some price breaks.

“Five years ago we even had a double header here,” he said, referring to the funerals for my grandmother and aunt.

Laura said that when John used the phrase “double header” she knew it was going to get ugly. She bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud right then and there.

John then reminded Josh about all that went wrong at my grandfather’s funeral. Josh excused himself to get the file on my grandfather and learned that, sure enough, his staff had completely screwed up. So he came back into the office all apologetic and ready to bargain. He knocked quite a bit off the price of funeral but it still wasn’t enough to satisfy my brother.

This is where it gets really bad – and really funny.

John told Josh that he needed to do much better than that if he wanted our business.
(Remember, at this time Josh’s staff had already collected my father’s body and they had Dad on the premises.)

John said to Josh, “If you can’t work with us on this we’re prepared to walk.”
Laura said she nearly busted out laughing at the thought.

“Sir,” Josh said, “Your father is already here. We brought him here a couple of hours ago.”
To which John said, “I don’t care. I’ve got a pick-up truck and some Mexicans I can call and we’ll just take him somewhere else ourselves.”

The way Laura tells it, Josh didn’t know what to say to that. She said she was reminded of that scene from “Summer Vacation” where they tie Grandma’s body to the roof of the car. Josh – having been reminded of our “double header” and previous bad experience and having learned that my brother is perhaps the least sentimental person on the planet, came way off the price.
Dad, I’m sure, was rolling on the floor laughing in Heaven. He must have been so proud.
And now this, a screwed up tombstone which may well mean we get even a little more money back from the cemetery. For my Dad, that’s gotta be the best Father’s Day gift ever.
In the meantime, Kim took it upon herself to correct his tombstone using some stickers she bought from Staples. I think the “Oops” is an especially nice touch.