If I close my eyes especially tight, I can still see my grandmother, housecoat covering a Sunday dress, leaning into the refrigerator’s light to pull out my favorite holiday dish, 5 Cup Salad. A simple concoction of mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks, maraschino cherries, and marshmallows, held together by a sweet mixture of sour cream and sugar, my mouth salivates at the sight. Sliding over the linoleum, she deposits the Corning Ware Cornflower baking dish in the middle of the holiday fare all boiled, baked and broiled with a master’s hand. I can still hear her drawl, a South Mississippi native, apologetically lamenting that the turkey was unbearably dry this year. I never ate more delicious unbearably dry turkey. Standing close by with plate in hand, I only have one goal: to extract all of the maraschino cherries from my favorite dish before my brother gets through the line. He loves maraschino cherries, but I love them more. I heap a generous helping on half my plate with only a small surface area left for something more healthy, turn to my brother to gloat over my sweet, red spoils, take my seat at the children’s table in the breakfast area, and cheerfully dig in while the warmth of that small, cozy home on Ruffwood fills me faster than my food; softening the edges on those memories so connected to the sights, smells and tastes of the holidays.
Life is not as sweet as 5 Cup Salad. Distance and time make those memories wane in the chill of winter. My grandmother’s perfectly coiled blue hair, done weekly, at a local beauty parlor set off her sparkly eyes and her sense of wit. If you were lucky, after dinner and dishes, she would sit at the piano and practice her hymns. With the bulletin from St. Luke’s Methodist in front of her, she would rehearse the selections for the weekend with a sweeping musicality. My love for music, in part, was born in those hours I would sit beside her on the piano bench watching her hands cross over as she extended the melody line beyond her five fingers. She was a masterful accompanist. Her hands would soften on the chorus of In the Garden, as her once beautiful voice, hardened by years and use, would softly sing along. After rehearsal ended, all subtlety was gone as she attacked the accelerating waltz, Blue Danube, using the whole keyboard in grand synchronicity. My childish wiggles would cease as I sat there motionless, entranced by her ability, listening for the harmonies and wishing my small fingers could move that way.
This afternoon, I took out the ingredients for 5 cup salad and placed them on my counter. I gently emptied and drained each fruit for an hour (the secret to a good salad), and I carefully combined the sour cream and the sugar, generously pouring the marshmallows in my Corning Ware dish . . . more than my grandmother would have approved of, I’m sure. Sitting in my refrigerator now, the temperature will bring each ingredient to the height of its flavor when it’s time for our Thanksgiving feast tomorrow. On that day, families will gather around all across this country gorging on their holiday favorites. The sweetness and the warmth of the holiday table warding off the pain and the grief that we often wear like a winter coat. Whatever worries and anxieties we carry pale in the bright light of those precious times. Through the dysfunction and the inevitable disagreements that emerge in these settings, we are taught loyalty and the power of forgiveness. We learn when to speak and when to stay silent. We learn that we are not always right, and we practice how to say, “I’m sorry.” We cut our teeth on adversity and take the best courses in conflict resolution. Most importantly, we learn the sweet refrain of redemption, and if we are fortunate, it fills our soul. Family teaches us strength. Family teaches us how to survive. Family endures. No, life is not as sweet as 5 Cup Salad. But memories are. Make some with those you love this Thanksgiving.