An Extra Chair

An Extra Chair

From Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul

An Extra Chair

Faced with a crisis, the man of character falls back on himself.

Charles de Gaulle

Everyone in the military knows about missing family at holiday times. It’s just too far to travel, we explain to the folks back home. With no time for a pass or too little leave time left, we find ourselves celebrating surrounded by neighbors instead of cousins. In fact, I’ve been away from family during holidays in my married life more than I’ve been with them.

The first time it happened, it left me feeling quite sad. But it wasn’t long before my sadness was replaced with . . . panic. “Wait a minute,” I cried. “If we’re not going home, then who is going to cook the turkey dinner?”

“You can do it,” my dear husband replied. “You’ll do a great job. And, by the way, I invited that nice lieutenant with the wife and baby to join us.”

At this point, I got on the phone and begged my mom and grandmother for as much advice as they could give. “Plan on a half-pound of meat per person,” they said. “Don’t forget the hard-boiled eggs in the gravy. Never, ever used canned sweet potatoes. And make sure you have a lovely centerpiece.”

Twenty-four hours and three cookbooks later, I had Thanksgiving dinner on the table. There was a small disaster involving a mixing bowl dropped in the middle of an uncooked pumpkin pie. (Friendly advice: Remove pumpkin from the ceiling before it dries.) But Grandmother’s candied yams made the house smell just like home, and my first turkey wasn’t too bad. It seemed like I had just gotten the kitchen clean, though, when it was time to do it all over again for Christmas.

The next several holidays found us far from home, and the crowd around our table continued to grow. We quickly discovered the only thing worse than being a married couple far from home is being a single soldier. So we invested in some more folding chairs and invited as many as we could.

Once I figured out how long it actually takes to thaw a turkey and how to get the cranberry sauce out of the can, I began to enjoy preparing big meals for crowds. Soon, we began to invite the new members of the unit over for a welcome meal when they arrived. Though I forsook the turkey dinner for something easier, like chicken enchiladas, it became a sort of family tradition for us.

Over the years, we have fed old friends, brand-new acquaintances, foreign visitors and surprise guests. I’ve learned the wisdom of having a big bag of frozen pasta always available, just in case a crowd gathers. And I have not ended a single one of those dinner parties with regret.

Recently, we’ve been stationed much closer to home, and I haven’t cooked a turkey in a couple of years. I am delighted to step down and let the experts do the preparing, and thrilled to be sitting next to my cousins again. But I wonder about those left behind at the post. I hope someone there has thawed an extra-big turkey, and remembered to get more folding chairs.

Susanna H. Bartee

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