What traditions make the holiday for you? – A Thanksgiving story

By Carol / November 24, 2016 /

Thanksgiving is a time laden with tradition as family and friends gather to share food, fellowship, and fond memories. As I texted my nieces this year, sharing our plans for turkey and all the fixings, I couldn’t help but remember one particular Thanksgiving. I share this story written a decade ago and published in The Iowan magazine as my Thanksgiving gift to you.

A Holiday Story

I have always believed that Thanksgiving dinner is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult meal to make. Easiest because there is no wondering what will be on the menu. At least at our house, the meal is always exactly the same, from homemade pumpkin and mincemeat pies to cranberry sauce cooked up and cooled in an aluminum mold used only for that purpose to the dinner rolls my aunt bakes on Thanksgiving morning. A turkey with sage dressing is the centerpiece.

A new, young cook takes to the kitchen, continuing old traditions and creating new.

A new, young cook takes to the kitchen, continuing old traditions and creating new.

At the same time, the meal is difficult because of the high level of expectation attached to all holiday family gatherings. For me, sage dressing is the food I desire most. I can pass on potatoes and gravy, forgo cranberries, even skip the turkey. Fill my plate with the sage dressing that I wait all year to taste.

So it was with more than casual interest that I listened to the phone conversation my mom was having with her granddaughter in Pennsylvania about Thanksgiving dressing.

“Say, Clorinda,” Mom said. “Your mom says you do a great job making dressing. If you want to make it when you’re here for Thanksgiving, I’ll get everything around so it’s ready when you are.”

Mom cradled the telephone between her shoulder and ear as she reached for a pencil and paper. “Okay, I’m ready,” she said, pencil poised to write. I knew she anticipated a list beginning with dried bread and progressing through sage seasoning.

Watching from across the table, I could see the list as Mom wrote down the ingredients Clorinda detailed: Stove … Top … Stuffing. Mom hesitated as she took in the words and glanced up at me. I couldn’t stifle a laugh.

For nearly 60 years, my mother had put three square meals a day on the table, all made from scratch, mostly using produce grown in her own garden. The very idea of making a Thanksgiving dish so basic and so traditional as dressing out of a box nearly made her go into shock.

But she’s quick on her feet, my mother. “How many boxes do you think we need?” she asked Clorinda.

Though Mom takes justifiable pride in the meals she prepares, she has her priorities in order. If her granddaughter wants to help make the meal, and that help comes out of a box, she won’t bat an eye. But don’t underestimate what a mental shift that took.

From the time my sisters and I were 10 years old. Mom taught us not only to grow the food we’d eat but also to cook it. She guided us through the basics of growing and canning peas and beans, tomatoes and corn. From there we explored the complexities of meal planning and cooking. Mom made cooking easy, measuring out ingredients before we knew what we needed, cleaning up every drip and spill as we made it. We knew no failures in her kitchen.

When 15-year-old Clorinda arrived in Iowa that November, Mom swept her granddaughter off into the kitchen as her newest apprentice. Some lessons were a snap. To make eggs over easy without flipping them, for instance, Mom shared the trick of putting a lid on the frying pan, drizzling a few drops of water at the edge, and letting steam cook the egg top. Some lessons were more challenging. Gravy without lumps took two tries. These cooking experiences continued throughout the week up until Thanksgiving Day.

By 5 a.m. the kitchen was a hive of activity directed by Mom and guaranteed to deliver the traditional Thanksgiving meal we all knew and loved. As noon approached, I watched in amusement as Clorinda opened the Stove Top stuffing mix and under Mom’s watchful eye completed a cooking task in five minutes that done in the traditional way would have taken a good two hours.

When the turkey came out of the oven at precisely 11:30 a.m. and a parade of heaping dishes made it to the dining room table at exactly noon, among them was a large bowl of Stove Top Stuffing. We all ate it. And it was good. Grandma agreed.

Would stuffing from a box ever replace homemade sage dressing and become the new tradition at our holiday table? Probably not. But Mom keeps Stove Top stuffing mix on her pantry shelf, ready for the day her granddaughter comes for another holiday visit.

Much has changed since this story was written, but much stays the same. Our tables will be surrounded with love, and I wish the same for you.

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  1. Denise Downey on November 24, 2016 at 7:35 am

    Carol, thank you for sharing this story! I so enjoyed reading about your mother Ruby and can just imagine your mom’s reaction to the idea of stove top stuffing. It makes me smile to think about it. Ruby was such a kind and gracious person and loving grandmother. I’m sure that Clorinda came away from that holiday feeling like she had made the best sage dressing ever!!! I am thankful that I knew your mother , I always enjoyed an opportunity to be around her.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 24, 2016 at 4:53 pm

      Our moms were good models of loving, Denise. Our kids are lucky to have had them in their lives, and I try to model that with my grandkids – as I know you do yours.

  2. Jean Scheckel Kilburg on November 24, 2016 at 8:59 am

    Carol, this is a wonderful article. I could easily envision this as reading through it. A great memory, being preserved here for future generations!!! Thank you for sharing this with all of us, and have a very Happy Thanksgiving! 🙂

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 24, 2016 at 4:51 pm

      Thanks, Jean. I’m glad we have so many stories to ensure we remember all the good times. Best to you and yours, too.

  3. Merril Smith on November 24, 2016 at 11:21 am

    A sweet memory, Carol. Thanks for sharing!
    Stuffing is my favorite, too–not Stove Top. 🙂
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 24, 2016 at 4:50 pm

      Knowing you, Merril, I can imagine you have a great stuffing recipe. I trust we’ll be seeing posts from you sharing some of those details.

      • Merril Smith on November 26, 2016 at 5:32 am

        Recipe? 😉

        • Carol Bodensteiner on November 26, 2016 at 10:10 am

          I get it. That’s why it’s so hard for me to duplicate my mom’s dressing.

  4. Mike Koch on November 24, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    I can just see your mom’s face when she got this information. She was such a sweetheart.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 24, 2016 at 4:48 pm

      She was, Mike. She was a good model for me in so many ways. Still wish I’d inherited some of her meal planning skills.

  5. Nan Johnson on November 25, 2016 at 8:08 am

    I confess I identify with Clorinda in your beautiful story – not much of a cook, but surrounded by love. I have been on the other end of the phone when my kind and generous mother-in-law asked how many boxes I would need, without letting doubt or judgment creep into her voice. It meant everything to me. Bravo to your mom and the rest of your family.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 25, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      You had a terrific mother-in-law, Nan. I’m joining the Stove Top camp this year. I admit I go back and forth. Whatever I feel up to. Best to you and yours.

  6. Marian Beaman on November 25, 2016 at 9:49 am

    One of my memories of reading your memoir was your mother’s devotion to 3 squares a day – just like Mom who didn’t take shortcuts either. I’ve used Stove Top Stuffing, but not my daughter who yesterday had her laptop open to recipes from Food Network’s Pioneer Woman.

    The most memorable aspect of our day was who became family around our table: an amiable unattached young man hovering between adolescence and adulthood, and a couple with wobbly family connections. The wife complimented us for our “subtle hospitality,” which we took as a compliment.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 25, 2016 at 2:43 pm

      I agree that “subtle hospitality” is a complement, Marian. You made them comfortable, which is always the goal.

      We’re having Stove Top with our turkey tomorrow. I’m the one who’s most interested in dressing, so in spite of my passion for sage dressing, I compromise when I also have to do the cooking. 😉

  7. Sharon Lippincott on November 25, 2016 at 11:17 am

    An inspiring story Carol, of your mom’s loving way of encouraging youngsters. Our family had traditions too. Then the children married and faced the challenge of merging two lines of tradition together with innovative new ideas like deep fried turkey. Yes, deep fried turkey. I have yet to try it, but young son swears by it. Yesterday’s groaning board had lots of new flavors, all yummy.

    Beyond that feast though, I especially appreciate your tag-end comment that much has changed since the story was written. Isn’t that really the key to lifestory/memoir? To anchor moments and preserve them? Hooray for that! Thanks for sharing.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 25, 2016 at 2:41 pm

      My nieces both engaged their teenage children in cooking this year, so the passing down of traditions continues. I’ve heard of deep fried turkey, Sharon. Like your son, some around here swear by the approach. The only problem, they say, is there is no gravy. Hmmm.

      You’re right. Capturing the stories is key. My mother passed down most of our stories orally, but once she caught on to my interest in writing, she was my biggest encouragement to write memoir. That’s how “Growing Up Country” came to be. I’ll always be grateful to her for that.

  8. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on November 25, 2016 at 11:45 pm

    Your story reminded me of something in our family. When we went to Africa I bought several boxes of a cheesecake mix to take along, since the ingredients for cheesecake might be difficult to obtain there. To this day, that mix is a favourite with my girls, topping any home made cheese cake anyone offers them!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 26, 2016 at 10:12 am

      That’s what makes a tradition, isn’t it? The tastes we grow up with. The people and circumstances that surround us. The fact that it’s easy to make is a bonus.

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