Thanksgiving tales of turkeys lost

by Barbara Clowdus

The turkey breast was so dry I could have mopped the floor with it. I guess our Thanksgiving bird this year roasted about two hours too long, but I am not sure. I was too tired to know. The dilemma that single mothers so often face—wanting to create that “perfect” holiday memory for their children—slams hard against the realities of a job. I thought about past Thanksgivings when my children and I lived in West Virginia, all too similar.

One year I opened the oven door to see the turkey’s skeletal legs sticking straight up, no meat at all left on those bones. Another year, the oven’s heating element quit on Thanksgiving eve, so I roasted the turkey next door—for too long. In desperation, I think, my children suggest the following year that we “try out” a friend’s new restaurant for the big day. I think, ahhh, no cooking. They think, ahhh, juicy turkey. Not until later that evening—not until we find no leftovers to warm up for dinner, no pies and cakes to dive into after the Cowboys game—does the reality of eating out sink in. We decide then we will not eat out again on Thanksgiving.

A year later, I convince them to postpone Thanksgiving by one day. After all, no one else is coming. It’s just us. We gather around the table, but we feel somehow out of sync with the universe. How could one day make such a difference? Maybe it is because we miss football, but whatever the cause, I promise not to have any more Friday Thanksgivings.

The most dismal Thanksgiving, however, is when my daughters suggest potato soup and cornbread. “Really, Mom, that’s our favorite dinner. Really.” It may have been their favorite meal, but it is much less satisfying when nothing else is on the Thanksgiving table.

Years later, there I sit on Thanksgiving eve, squirming during a too-lengthy staff meeting that threatens to preclude a last-minute stop at the grocery. Dark at 7pm, I stumble up our sidewalk, my arms wrapped around stuffed grocery bags. I bring food! I am relieved and happy. I turn the oven knob to preheat while I whip up the cake batter, but when I pull open the oven door, no heat meets my face. How could this happen again? And what do we do now? We hated eating out; we hated postponing the day; and we certainly do not intend to eat potato soup again.

I had taught scores of Scouts how to build and cook over a fire, so I’ll build a spit for the turkey, I announce. And I do. In our front yard, the only flat spot on our property. One of my sons retreats to his bedroom, telling me I’ll look like an idiot. He’s right, but I don’t care. I drive two Y-shaped tree limbs on each side of the pit, not too close to the oak embers. After skewering the turkey onto another tree limb, I settle its ends into the forks. With some difficulty, I turn the stick, and the 21-pound turkey rolls smoothly over. Quite pleased, I go inside to finish the meal, returning to the pit at 15-minute intervals to turn the turkey. After about three trips, though, the fat begins dripping onto the coals, igniting flames that terrify me.

I shovel dirt onto the fire, and I try to turn the turkey. Only the pole rolls. I run inside for my oven mitts, returning to more fire. I shovel more dirt. Wearing the mitts, I roll the turkey over, but I must hold it in place. As soon as I let go, it slides breast-down again. Over the next hour, my back muscles begin to cramp. I have to stand up straight. The turkey rolls over.

Spits of snow fall on my nose. I shift my hands. My arms are roasting at the same time my ears are hardening into frozen stones. Then a car honks. I wave, the turkey slides back around. I think about my mortified son.…I…doing? Defeated, I wrangle the turkey off its pole and carry it inside. Its breast, black. Its legs still in rigor; juices blood red. Maybe, though, under the blackened skin, some meat will be done. Indeed, it is, but leathery.

Only cowboys can chew this.

Today, these are the Thanksgivings my children remember, not the dinners when Mom got everything ready to eat—every dish that was someone’s favorite-cannot-do-without—all at the same time and before the Cowboys played. Not the times that the white meat was moist and succulent. That did happen. On occasion. But my children do not remember those, the “perfect” Thanksgivings. You cannot predict what will be imprinted on a child’s mind, what memories he will or will not take with him into adulthood, so maybe creating a perfect holiday is just chasing an illusion.

My children seem only to remember the disasters, which gives me some solace, I suppose, for serving dry-enough-to-mop-the-floor turkey.