From Chicken Soup for the Romantic Soul

The One-Sweet-Potato Thanksgiving

One can endure sorrow alone, but it takes two to be glad.

Elbert Hubbard

The first call came at the end of October. Our middle son had decided he wouldn’t try to come home for Thanksgiving from college—too many papers due and California was too far away. However, he’d already been asked to join a friend’s family for dinner, so we shouldn’t worry; he wouldn’t be lonely.

In early November our oldest son called; his wife’s brother, whom she hadn’t seen since their August wedding, was going to be in New York for Thanksgiving. So would it be all right if they spent the holiday with him instead of coming to Texas to spend it with us? Of course, we said, knowing how homesick she had been for her French family.

Later that month when our youngest son decided it wasn’t worth two days of travel from his Vermont college to spend two days with us for Thanksgiving, we weren’t too disappointed. After all, we still expected my parents and sister for the holiday. And then my mother called: “Honey, I’m sorry, but the doctor just told your dad absolutely no travel for the next few months. Could you come to Oklahoma?” After briefly considering the twenty-hour round-trip for a four-day holiday, I reluctantly said we couldn’t.

So, in the chilly afternoon light that Thanksgiving Eve, my husband and I loaded up our car and our old dog and left Houston for New Braunfels and our first Thanksgiving alone as a couple—ever. What would that feel like for us? When his parents were alive, Thanksgiving had always been their holiday with us, usually at our condo in New Braunfels. After their deaths, we had continued the ritual of spending Thanksgiving there, but always with some of our family around. Accustomed to the traditional feast and family visiting, would we be desolate?

With none of the usual holiday preparation to do the night before, we went to bed early and cuddled. I slept ten hours. Thanksgiving dawned bright and cold; we spent the morning side by side on a loveseat. A fire blazed, and we took pleasure in self-indulgence; I read months of accumulated magazines while my husband watched the Oilers.

Early in the afternoon, just an hour or so before we intended to eat, I went into the kitchen to start dinner. I remembered other years when I had arisen at dawn to make stuffing, prepare the turkey for roasting, roll out pie dough and set the table, sitting down for the first time in many hours when dinner was ready and then finding myself too tired to really taste the food. So I wasn’t really sorry to be making dinner for two instead of eight—or eighteen.

Feeling hungry, my husband wandered into the kitchen and saw a single yam sitting on the counter. With a look of mingled surprise and regret, he asked wistfully, “Only one sweet potato?” I knew he was recalling other Thanksgivings—hot, steamy kitchens fragrant with cloves and butter and roasting turkey, every horizontal surface covered with delicious dishes. As I put my arms around him for consolation, I too remembered the ritual of Thanksgiving in my childhood.

At my grandparents’ Kansas farm there were always enough aunts, uncles and cousins in attendance to set at least two tables, starched embroidered cloths centered with autumn leaves and pinecone-and-paper-bag turkeys. Grandmother Mary would serve an enormous turkey oozing juice from its golden, cracking skin; pans of giblet dressing baked crispy on the top, moist and steamy inside; candied sweet potatoes topped with melting marshmallows; pork roast and a platter of chicken for those who didn’t like turkey; yeast rolls; cinnamon-flecked applesauce; pickled peaches studded with cloves; creamed corn; green beans cooked with bacon; white potatoes whipped into peaks gilded with butter; and a cut-crystal bowl of ambrosia. Later there would be pie— mince and pumpkin, of course, but also cherry and peach—a coconut-topped layer cake, plates of black-walnut cookies and a box of my grandfather’s favorite chocolate-covered cherries. And lots of storytelling and reminiscing as we sat pushed back from the table, somnolent and stuffed.

Now I leaned back and looked at my husband still in my embrace and said, “It’s a Texas-sized potato—and besides, neither one of us really likes sweet potatoes that much.” He agreed, we kissed, and then returned to the fire for a glass of champagne and paté with crackers. I set the table with a folk-art pilgrim couple, a small bouquet of flowers and some turkey paper napkins. We sat down, blessed our food and our absent families, and talked about how grateful we were for what we had accomplished as parents. We congratulated ourselves that this new ritual of spending a holiday alone was proof that we had given our children permission to lead their own independent lives.

We ate the simple meal—a small honey-glazed turkey breast, wild rice, broccoli, green beans and that solitary baked sweet potato—and shared a nice bottle of chardonnay. Dessert was a pumpkin cheesecake from our favorite bakery. Cleaning up the kitchen took ten minutes, and then we both had a long nap. No, I didn’t miss the hours the women spent restoring order in Grandmother’s kitchen after the holiday meal.

We spent the rest of the weekend doing as we pleased. We talked about retirement and the children and our jobs. We shopped, we saw a movie, my husband played golf, I read and wrote. One sunny afternoon we walked through Landa Park, numbing our fingers in Comal Springs. At the end of three days we returned to Houston, refreshed, restored and mellowed by intimacy unencumbered with the usual holiday chores and responsibilities.

We’ve had two more one-sweet-potato Thanksgivings since that first one; the menu changes from year to year, but one sweet potato remains a staple, the symbol for a holiday alone as a couple. Perhaps one day we will again have a houseful of people for Thanksgiving, and I will happily polish silver, iron linens, plan menus and cook for days. Or perhaps not. Spending holidays as a family of two, we’ve learned not to mourn what cannot be but instead to relish what we have—solitude and time together.

SuzAnne C. Cole

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