Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stray Dogs

Except for one errant wine glass that I overlooked, all the Thanksgiving dishes are washed and replaced, the leftovers safely stored in the fridge.  The annual feast is something of a production because---I love to cook.  I was blessed to have a brilliant “barnyard cook” for a mother.  She never measured anything, cooked by touch and taste and feel.  Her repertoire was limited by finances and by her own somewhat particular tastes, but she was a genius with a roasting pan and would give any Top Chef contestant a run for his money in a quick-fire challenge involving making a great meal out of the leftovers in the icebox.  
Some of my earliest memories are of making the Thanksgiving feast.  Even as a very little girl, I had a role in the kitchen: tearing bread for the stuffing balls, rubbing salt and pepper into the pork roast (turkey was a secondary meat, if we had it at all--Mom was German and pork was our  feasting dish), or making leftover pie dough into sugar and cinnamon sprinkled pinwheels, or stirring the gravy in the big roasting pan on top of the stove as it thickened and bubbled.  
Thanksgiving was the time the whole family came together.  My brothers were already married by the time I entered grade school, so it was a treat to see them over holiday dinners.  Mom’s cooking was so good that a certain family competition for the dishes emerged.  We’d each steal a dressing ball and wrap it in foil, stowing it some where special in the fridge before dinner even began; open the door and you’d find little sliver orbs tucked here and there among the condiments.  There was always a battle for the last of the cucumbers and sour cream.  Go for that last piece of tender port on Grandmother Harty’s wedding platter, and you might find a fork in the back of your hand--accidentally or on purpose.  But our family dinner was always a place of good food and great joy, taken at a heavy, carved oak table groaning with food.
i realized, as I was drying the last of the dishes, that my mother’s gift of cooking has the additional gift of hospitality appended to it.  Thanksgiving in our house isn’t Thanksgiving if there isn’t  a stray dog or two--someone bereft of family, devoid of Thanksgiving invitation, or otherwise unattached and in need of a place that is warm and welcoming to rest feet under a family table and eat in the comfort of friends, old or new.  
So established is this as a tradition that our daughter was relieved when I told her on her arrival that we had three extra guests at table.  She was beginning to worry it would be only us--something I don’t think has ever happened in the course of her 25 years. We spent a pleasant few minutes recounting some of the more remarkable folks who have found their way to our table, including the couple we unexpectedly found camped in our driveway one Thanksgiving morning when we emerged to get the morning paper.
Inviting random people into the house isn’t something my parents did, but there was always an honorary aunt or uncle with us, and holiday time was a time that we turned our gaze very much outward.  I remember packing up toys, food, blankets and clothes to take to a family whose house had burned on one blustery Thanksgiving day, and not a holiday season went by that we did not cart food (the Southern woman’s response to any crisis or season) to some needy soul.  Food particularly provided a bridge across the awkward gap of unfamiliarity that separates strangers and makes us think we are not yet friends.
When I am in the process of preparing a meal, talk comes effortlessly.  I lose myself in the chopping and the measuring and the mixing and the cooking, and when I forget myself, I can engage with someone else without a thought, without shyness.  St. Martha and Saint Paschal Baylon look over my shoulder to remind me me that it’s the moments of liberty in someone else--not so much the cooking--that is the gift of the kitchen.  And dessert is usually followed by guests who continue deep in fellowship as they help with the tidying over my strenuous objections  I even love the time of clean-up, quiet with my saints and my counters.
I relish this time when the house and my heart are open as much without reservation as I can make them to those I encounter in my daily life.  I look forward to the preparation, the decorating, the meals, the surprises,  and the laughter.  Purple though Advent is, it is not the somber and agonizing time that Lent is.  It is a time to make my heart open and expectant so that, come Christmas Day, amid the smells of our traditional breakfast, and later, our Christmas goose, I can welcome Christ Himself  joyfully into my hearth and home, to reside in my heart for another year.
Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.  May our home by Thee be blest.

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