96: A Turkey of a Thanksgiving

96: A Turkey of a Thanksgiving

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

A Turkey of a Thanksgiving

Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.

~Robert Brault, www.robertbrault.com

I grew up with the crazy notion that cancer is 100 percent survivable. My mother’s first bout with cancer came only a few weeks before my fifth birthday. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the surgery meant my mother missed my first day of kindergarten. My cousin Charlotte was the one who put me on the bus that morning. I don’t really remember the day. My cousin’s picture of me standing in my blue dress in front of the house is the only proof I have that my mother wasn’t present. And the scar along the crease in my mother’s neck is the only proof she’d had a tumor.

Mom survived the thyroid cancer, but as the years passed, the doctors kept finding skin cancer on her face and back. She’d have minor surgery to remove the malignant moles, and life would go on. Cancer didn’t seem like such a dirty word to me. Just a nuisance that left my mother with another scar.

And then came my freshman year of college. I was home one weekend when my mother sat on the edge of my bed to tell me she had breast cancer. In hindsight, I should have been terrified, but my fear was tampered by Mom’s track record for kicking cancer to the curb. Mom had survived thyroid cancer once and skin cancer more times than I could count. Surely, breast cancer would be just another bump in the road.

The impact of my mom’s diagnosis didn’t hit me until my dad called my four brothers and me together to discuss Thanksgiving. “Your mother’s surgery is just a few days before Thanksgiving. She won’t be able to lift anything heavy for a while.”

I scratched my head. Why was he telling us this? And why would a mastectomy make it hard for her to lift things? Oh, yes, I was that blissfully ignorant. It wasn’t until years later when a tumor was removed from my own breast that I understood how much even a small incision could impact arm movement.

“So…” Dad continued, “there won’t be a Thanksgiving dinner this year.”

“Wait. What?” My jaw hit the floor. Mom had cancer — again — and Thanksgiving was cancelled?

“What are we going to do instead?” my oldest brother asked.

Dad shrugged. “We’ll go out to eat.”

I had visions of the family in A Christmas Story eating Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. My family would be doing the same for Thanksgiving? Inconceivable!

Apparently, my four brothers felt the same way. I don’t remember which of them came up with the idea first, but one of them said, “We’ll do it. The five of us kids will make Thanksgiving dinner.”

Did I mention I was the only girl in this family with four boys? And none of us had any real cooking experience at this point?

It didn’t matter. We quickly jumped on the bandwagon.

“Yeah. We’ll each make a part of the meal.”

“Mom can just sit in a corner of the kitchen and direct us.”

“And tell us where she keeps things. Anyone know where the big roasting pan is?”

“Mom won’t have to lift a thing.”

“We’ll do it all.”

I saw the concern in my father’s eyes. Could four young men and an eighteen-year-old girl make Thanksgiving dinner on their own? My two oldest brothers were just starting their careers in computer-related fields. My third oldest brother was in his first year of medical school, and my younger brother was a sophomore in high school. Although I’d done a bit of baking, none of us really knew anything about cooking, much less a Thanksgiving feast for seven.

But we were determined we’d have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings. Being techy nerds, my oldest brothers decided to make a Gantt chart for the meal. For the less nerdy, a Gantt chart is a type of bar graph that illustrates the development of a project. The project is broken into smaller elements, and the start and end times of each element are displayed on the chart.

Thus, the Thanksgiving feast was broken into parts and tasks were divvied up. I would make the pumpkin pie. Mike would make the apple pie. Dave was in charge of cranberry sauce and bread. Steve would make twice-baked potatoes. The youngest, Tom, would make the stuffing, and with Dad’s help, get it and the bird into the oven.

Then each of the cooks was assigned a time to work in the kitchen. It was absolutely imperative that each cook finish his or her task on time, so the next cook could step in. Mom was deemed Executive Chef, but her tasks were purely supervisory.

Working backwards, with an expected dinnertime of 5:00 p.m., my brothers filled in the Gantt chart.

On Thanksgiving morning, I made two piecrusts. I filled one of these with pumpkin pie filling and got it in the oven. The other I left for my brother’s apple pie. He began work on his as soon as I’d finished the piecrusts. After clearing off my end of the kitchen table, Tom stepped in to prepare the stuffing.

By the time my pumpkin pie came out of the oven, Mike’s apple pie was ready to go in. By the time his pie came out, the turkey was ready to go in. And so the day continued, each of us taking our turn in the kitchen.

At four o’clock, we set the dining room table with Mom’s good china, wine glasses, water goblets, and silverware. At 4:30, the turkey came out of the oven. It was the most beautiful golden brown bird I’ve ever seen. At five o’clock on the dot, exactly the time prescribed on the Gantt chart, all the food was displayed on the table, and the candles were lit. It could have been a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting. We took pictures so we’d never forget.

We sat down to that Thanksgiving table thankful for so many things. Mom’s surgery had gone well. She’d still have chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but she’d survive. Yes, we were also thankful that we’d saved Thanksgiving dinner, but that was part of Mom’s doing, too. She had taught us not to fear trying new things. She had instilled in us the importance of family. She had raised us to work together to solve our problems.

Over twenty years have passed since that Thanksgiving. Mom has battled breast cancer two more times. She’s had numerous more incidents of skin cancer. She is the very definition of a cancer survivor.

And to honor our mother, my brothers and I still aid in the making of Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes Mom makes the green bean casserole and helps with the turkey if her health is good. My brothers and I stick with our traditional roles. What had once seemed like it would be a turkey of a holiday has become our standard for the perfect Thanksgiving dinner.

~A.J. Cattapan

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