Ahhh … Thanksgiving. A time when family gets together in gratitude to celebrate and methodically destroy the best laid plans of the hostess. As the mom in the now-oldest generation in our family, I had visions of the kind of old-fashioned, warm holiday that my own mom used to create.

Not so many years ago, we decided to do up Thanksgiving at our farmhouse in rural, romantic Maine. I painstakingly planned the big meal — several times — on lists that evaporated within seconds of writing them. But that didn’t stop me from being Completely-In-Charge-and-In-Control. Delegating, I decided, was key. Delegating and careful planning.

I called a local specialty shop to order an organically raised turkey, hereafter referred to as next month’s mortgage payment. I picked it up three days before Thanksgiving. The problem was fitting it into the refrigerator. It was the biggest damn bird I’d ever seen. I may have been overly caffeinated the day I ordered it. In retrospect, I believe it was actually an elk.

I realize you have never seen my refrigerator. Picture inserting a 1968 Buick into a sippy cup. It took hours to rearrange and discard precious food items left over from the Vietnam War years, kept in case of famine. How long does ready-to-drink Tang last, anyway? Do capers improve with age? Is a hard reddish-black crust inside a refrigerated jar of salad dressing a bad thing?

The Eliscu family at the finish of a restaurant meal — the way life should be. From left: Cassie, Sally, Ted, Kathy and Will Photo courtesy of Kathy Eliscu

Ever the cheery, gotta-have-positive-energy hostess, I set about preparing duplicate food items of almost everything because my daughter Sally, coming up from New York, had become a vegan and wouldn’t eat anything that even sounded like it came from an animal. Or any state in which animals live. She emailed 23 pages of recipes calling for ingredients that I was able to find in six different stores in our area, totaling 74 miles of driving, to be exact. She sweetly offered to help with cooking preparations. There was just one small glitch. She wouldn’t be arriving until nearly midnight on Wednesday evening.

“Thanksgiving’s on Thursday, honey,” I said to my daughter, a teacher with a master’s degree. “Some of these things need to set a day or two.”

She replied with insight and understanding: “Thursday? Thanksgiving’s on a Thursday?”

Not to worry. Completely In Charg– oh, hell. I’d have plenty of help.

I’d need some minimal help from my son William, home from college, who asked to be awakened mid-morning to get ready to go to the traditional Thanksgiving Day football game between the two local high schools. I figured I could get him to bring down our seldom-used good dishes stacked at ceiling level on top of the hutch and take out the trash before the game.

That morning, I went in to wake him, full of that warm holiday feeling one has just prior to tripping over and slipping on $300 college text books, old pizza crusts and dirty laundry, the result of an effort to “really clean up, just like you asked, Mom!” One does not necessarily see such piles in the dim light, after sleeping for only four hours because one has woken up very, very early to prepare a turkey. One, that is, who is In Compl– ugh, for God’s sake, where was that old prescription medicine when I really needed it?

There William lay, cozy and managing to emit a “Need to slee…zzzzzzzz.” I knew his heart was in helping me and in cheering on his beloved alma mater. From his bed. He did wake up in plenty of time for the mid-afternoon feast. I climbed up on a ladder to get the dishes down, one at a time, because really, it’s just such a great way to get extra exercise. I read that somewhere in some health sadist’s tips on weight loss. Note to self: sturdy paper plates next year and make an appointment with internist regarding possible mild fracture, which can certainly happen to even the most careful of people using ladders in the home.

And it was OK – really, it was – that, in the middle of mashing the potatoes, I realized that it was time for me to go pick up my Dad at the nearby assisted living place to bring him over, as my husband, Ted, was still vacuuming the house for company who’d be arriving any minute. You see, vacuuming is a weeklong project that, done properly, must culminate and be completed in the kitchen while the cook is traipsing back and forth across the room carrying bottles of soda, glasses, chips and dips. And let me brag that, as I get older, I seem to be better and better at cleaning up those pesky spills.

I didn’t even mind that all day I felt like I could barely catch up with the preparation, cooking, serving and hostessing. Regardless of what we’ve been told about the origins of Thanksgiving, I think somewhere long ago some very nasty persons thought up this whole Thanksgiving plan. Thanksgiving: a day of obligatory Mrs. America smiles, occasional moments of tears cleverly disguised as possible joy whilst in the momentary glorious and solitary confines of one’s bathroom, and the sincere, gut-wrenching recall of holidays long past in which one was a mere child and carefree. And they say childhood is overrated …

Yes, the original plan in which the meal is nearly impossible to cook and coordinate in the average American kitchen so that it’s ready – and hot – at once, without a total meltdown of half the food and the chef, must have gone something like this:

Bob: “Hey, Dave, I know! Let’s put mashed potatoes and several hot vegetables on the list. And cranberry sauce. Two kinds. Salads. Rolls. Sweet pota–”

Dave: “Yes, yes. And then … wait a minute, wait a minute! How about a piece of meat that takes up the entire oven space? Turkey. That’s it. A big turkey.”

Bob: “Wait a sec. Hold on here. (now gleeful) Stuff it. And add gravy!”

OK, here’s the thing. You can’t make gravy until the turkey’s all done and out of the pan, and then it requires extra pots and pans and a glass of cold water combined with flour to thicken the gravy. And that glass only comes clean, later, with a metal snow scraper.

But I love the holidays. Really.

So it didn’t matter that the one item – salad – on our five-star restaurant menu that I assigned to my brother Steve was brought in, along with his teenagers, just ten minutes before the scheduled ETA (Estimated Time of Attack – the food, not each other. That part comes later when reminiscing about past holiday gatherings.)

Steve’s salad ingredients still needed to be washed and put together. This, in a kitchen where virtually every dish and bowl was in use. As I rinsed and chopped, his teenagers looked disgustedly at the appetizers and asked, “When do we eat?”

“Oh,” I cheerfully answered, through slightly clenched teeth, “as soon as I get this salad put together.”

I actually got plenty of help that day. That was the problem. I mean, although I was totally in control of things, the turkey I ordered in my mad pre-holiday frenzy weighed over 24 pounds. Once cooked, it was glued to the oval porcelain pan. Cooked to almost falling apart. OK. Completely falling apart. That was when my beloved husband decided he should take over, that he knew how to get the turkey out and still leave it intact. He thought I should simply “move aside.” Those words – “move aside” – were accompanied by a subtle expansion of his left elbow into my visual field, not really close but just detectable enough to tempt me to search for the lovely Wusthof meat cleaver we received as a gift years earlier, when we’d chuckled over why we’d ever, ever need one.

There were, I’m sorry to report, a few words spoken between us that may not have been appropriate Thanksgiving etiquette. I believe “stuff it” was uttered, which may or may not have referred to a side dish.

I finally walked away from the bird, Ted hovering above it, knives in hand, ready to try out his idea, which I knew would be a disaster after all my hours of hard work. I knew I had the right way to get that sucker out of there, which, I admit, could cause severe burns. More annoying was that I left it for him to do while I went into the living room to indulge myself in a moment of relaxation and a very, very stiff whiskey sour, while I thought up different ways to say “I told you so.”

I heard my name called. I should have recognized his tone as that familiar combination of love and smug.

And then, there it was. A beautiful presentation. Like a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He’d lifted the main part of the turkey onto a serving dish and arranged the wings and drumsticks around it. Without any real planning, he was right.

And for that … and for him and our loved ones … I was thankful.

Kathy Eliscu is a freelance columnist and author of “Not Even Dark Chocolate Can Fix This Mess.” She lives in Scarborough, Maine, and is considering take-out for Christmas.


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