Picked to the Bone

Several years ago I had unofficially assumed the role of host for our family Thanksgiving gatherings. I must have enjoyed the challenge of cooking the banquet size meal for my

family and in-laws because I can’t think of any good reason today why I would volunteer my services for such a thankless job. I would start baking all sorts of breads, weeks in

advance. Mostly they were breads like pumpkin and cranberry that I didn’t even like.

I found new ways to cook and stuff squash, a vegetable that would never normally grace my table and surely never pass my lips. I was never happy to simply mash potatoes. I had to whip, twice bake, brown and serve them myself. I never ate anything that I made. The mere smell of the food was enough to make me sick by the time I was done cooking the meal.

My family always offered to bring something but in those days I was a martyr. I had to do it all myself, even as it killed me. Then as my family gathered at the buffet line like cattle, their empty Chinet plates waiting to be filled, I would secretly think to myself, “The nerve of them, they didn’t do a thing to help and there they stand with their greedy tongues wagging while I slave away on food I don’t even like to eat.” I

hate them all, why did I even invite them.”

Finally I had stuffed my last squash and declared during my last buffet line that in fact I was no longer cooking Thanksgiving dinner. My mother, so excited at the opportunity to play hostess to me her eldest daughter, begged us to come to her house for the holiday next year.

Those Thanksgiving dinners were truly for the thankless. My mother’s ideas about having guests come for any meal were as follows. ”If they don’t like what I made, they

don’t have to eat” What was left unspoken was the part about her food being inedible or the fact that we were all eating it under such duress that no one was likely to enjoy the food anyway.

My mother was of the belief that people had stopped eating fatty foods and had thus eliminated them from her diet when at all possible. She also believed that short of a small but insane group of people, namely myself, wife and children, everyone else had given up unhealthy eating in place of a simple yet rewarding healthy diet that was free from butter, sugar, salt, oil, and flavor.

The day would start with my mother screaming at my stepfather. In fact, often shrieking at him till he locked himself in their guest room. Not that we minded. In fact we were

happy to have him out of the way. He was a constant source of irritation to my mother, so having him gone was a mixed blessing. I say mixed because with him held up in the

guest room, he now occupied the only available room for us to retreat to when my mother’s shrieking reached its pitch. My mother would force us to all sit in the living room on her beautiful white sofa covered with sheets because as she kept reminding us, she never should have bought a white couch with a family like this. I always assumed she meant that we were dirty but she never made it clear. We would then wait patiently while she ran back and forth between the living room and the kitchen as she ranted on about how she wasn’t sure if anyone else was even coming or if they did they were crazy anyway and she hoped they didn’t. All the while we sat there trying to look comfortable and not stain her white couch while my stepfather was held up in the guest room pouting.

After a while she would bring out a plate with some crackers and fat free cheese but warned us not to fill up on them because she had made so much food. Finally, some guests would arrive and my mother would get all worked up again and start screaming at whomever was there. We all made room on the white couch for the new guests and together tried to comfort one another for what was to be a long afternoon.

My mother never cared if the last guests had arrived when she started serving. It wasn’t like she said to them we are eating at 3pm please come around then. People seemed to come whenever they wanted and if they wanted depending on the individual. My mother had developed this idea of serving people in shifts so the fact that people weren’t there yet worked well into her plan. You simply waited for her to call your name and then you went to the table to eat. You never dared pause or wait to eat with your spouse who might be assigned a different shift. You just got up and ate. If you didn’t she started screaming at you that you were crazy. When you got to the table, you had to slide all the way over to make room for the next person, which also meant you couldn’t leave until the person was done eating. Of course, that too was decided by mom. Sometimes guests would arrive in the middle of a shift, and not knowing the rules about the shifts would assume they were walking in the middle of the meal. My mother would quickly send them to the white couch where they were to wait for their shift to be called.

My mother only served food that she would like so her Thanksgiving meal rarely threatened the waist band as it does in most homes. If there was something you wanted and it wasn’t on the table, it was better to do without. One year my aunt asked for gravy for the turkey and my mother started screaming about how no one eats gravy anymore.

While it is true that my mother spent many days preparing the meal, she essentially microwaved the entire meal one bowl at a time. Some things were scalding hot while others were freezing cold. Comments made about cold turkey were met by angry responses like, “Not everyone has to have things a special way like you”

What I always find most compelling was that no one ever asked where my stepfather was. It was as if they too were relieved by his absence and didn’t want to remind my mother that he was gone because she might try to get him to come down stairs. I always thought we should have left a bowl of food outside the door for him. Like they do for prisoners of

war in those old WWII movies. Ironically he was the only one who ever liked my mother’s cooking.

After all the shifts were done eating, our belly’s still longing to be filled. My mother would start to clean up and make room for dessert. Dessert was by far the ultimate disappointment for my mother’s holiday guests. When my brother naively asked one year what was for dessert, my mother screamed at him. “Who eats desert anymore. No one eats dessert anymore.” Then as if to say, “look I can be flexible after all it is Thanksgiving”, she pulled out a sugar free, fat free, frozen yogurt cake in the shape of a turkey, followed by two sugar free apple pies made with artificial sweetener My brother moaned something about why we can’t have normal desserts to which my mother replied, “Your kids don’t eat anything.”

My stepfather then decided to finally come down stairs and planted himself at the table but refused to speak to anyone. Instead he just sat there with his head in his hands.

My grandfather didn’t realize that the cake was yogurt or sugar free, or fat free. He just thought that it was bad ice cream. My brother said if you eat it fast you couldn’t really

taste it.

No one liked the artificially sweetened pies except my stepfather who proceeded to eat the remains of one right out of the tin. That’s fine with me. I assumed he was unaware that

excessive consumption of artificially sweetener had a laxative effect.

After a reasonable amount of time has passed, we graciously thanked our hostess and took our care package of dry turkey and microwave potatoes home. On the way home we stopped at a 7-11 and all got nachos with tons of chili and cheese. It is there that we bumped into the other guests getting a hotdog and a slurpee.

After that I decided that I would stay at home for Thanksgiving and just have a small dinner with my kids.

This past year I decided that I would go visit my brother and his girlfriend with my kids for a couple of days after Thanksgiving. My mother would be there so it would be a nice opportunity to see the family without the stress of the holiday. We arrived early Friday afternoon and spent most of the remainder of the day visiting and playing with the kids. My mother kept insisting that we should all eat the leftovers as

there was so much food from the day before, so we all had a second helping of turkey with all the trimmings for lunch. That evening we all went out to a local auction and my

brother suggested that we grab dinner at a diner in town. You would have thought he had suggested we skin a cat and eat it live the way my mother reacted. She insisted that we go home and eat leftovers, again, despite our many protests. Even as we marched into the diner and grabbed our menus, it was clear that my mother simply could not partake in any activity involving food when there was still turkey at home. She refused to order anything and had to be restrained when my brother ordered of all things, a turkey Reuben.

The following day we went out to do holiday shopping and for practical reasons it was not feasible that we come all the way home for lunch. Again my mother started to stammer and carry on that she would not eat out when there was good turkey at home.

“Surely you must be sick of it by now” I said.

“There’s nothing left but the bone” said my brother.

“That’s the best part,” my mother protested.

So while my brother treated me and my kids to lunch at a very nice deli in town, my mother sat alone at a table muttering

under her breath that we were all crazy for eating out when there was so much good food at home. Even the people whose home it was didn’t think there was anything good at home. My brother and his girlfriend stepped outside for a few minutes before the rest of us were done and I asked my mother if she could please restrain herself. After all, my brother was treating us to such a nice place.

My mother started to cry. Then I knew the battle had been lost. My mother had this idea that until the turkey had been picked clean to the bone, it wasn’t right for anybody to eat anything else and no one could tell her differently. I think she was still picking at the frame when we left two days later. She kept asking if the dog would like the bones after she was done with them but even the dog had had enough turkey and besides, the bones were picked so clean, there wasn’t any meat

left on them for the dog anyway. I remember as a kid, throwing the frame away was always hard for my mom. You never knew if there was one last piece that you missed.

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