Navigating the Sandwich
Dreams from Her Mother
Her Thanksgiving table is a riot of the damaged and discarded. Will her mom’s elegant orderly china change that?
Thanksgiving dinner never goes according to plan. Something burns. Someone makes a scene. Dinner rolls are bought but always forgotten.
That’s why I love it.
For the past eight years, I’ve been the one to host, roast, toast, mash, thicken, bake, serve, and pore over the Thanksgiving game plan. It has replaced Christmas as my favorite holiday. No gifts are given or received. No pressure to turn the house into a Disneyesque version of Charles Dickens’ London. All that’s involved is good food served hot, family, football, and a lot of wine.
I usually set the table with mismatched stoneware collected from rummage sales, flea markets, and thrift stores — pieces that have been assimilated into the fold, like so many boyfriends, girlfriends, and roommates.
Topics of conversation change faster than a tire at the Indy 500. It gets loud. Things get spilled. Dishes are dropped during debunking discussions of family lore. Gravy is dispensed from a beaker found at American Science & Surplus. Dessert is served on plates already cracked and chipped.
Everything goes into the dishwasher. Six loads last year. The final one at three in the morning, after the last Uber driver had been summoned.
But this year I’ve inherited my mother’s china. The cream-colored plates edged in a light blue and silver band with raised coral dots is not “me.” I’m not a “good dishes” kind of person, nor am I a silver tea service kind of person (also in my possession, because my sister wanted it, not for any sentimental value, but for the silver content).
My mother had lamented that she hadn’t received any place settings when she and my father were wed, back in 1950. It was almost as if she had felt they weren’t officially married because she lacked dainty cups and saucers, appetizer and dessert plates, butter plates, soup bowls, platters, sugar bowls and creamers, and salt and pepper shakers, all in a matching pattern.
After 45 years of marriage, when my father presented her with a shopping trip to Marshall Field’s to pick out her five-piece service for eight, she cried. I think it was the reason she insisted on having their kitchen redone, so her china could have its own special cabinet, the only one with beveled glass in the door.
She used it once a year, on Thanksgiving.
I detected a slight flinch on her part as knives were scraped across plates, a droop in her shoulders when no one wanted coffee from the little cups, but from heftier mugs, or when my father poured the gravy not into its designated boat but into a red plastic bowl.
Her china refused to be thrown into the dishwasher with the rest of the unwashed masses. It insisted on a sponge bath in tepid water, the stiff remains of Thanksgiving gently removed with a pliable rubber spatula. It had to be dried by hand with a special dishcloth, not one of the towels she had in the drawer she had used to wipe up muddy dog footprints from the floor. My mother would not rest until each cup was suspended on a hook, each plate safely inside the cabinet with a buffer of flannel in between.
And now that I have it, I feel an obligation to use it. I will make it work. For me. During dress rehearsal, I broke the bad news to the coffee cups, the sugar bowl, and creamer, that they won’t be appearing. I told them it wasn’t their fault, it was just that platters and serving bowls take precedent. The gravy boat already knew it would have a strong showing in a supporting role.
This might be the year when everyone will arrive (at the same time), see the tablescape, and be on their best behavior. Plates will not be used for gesturing. Bowls will stay on tablecloth terra firma. Dessert plates will not be deserted. Chips will be snacked on, not made. Cracks will appear only on the pumpkin pie, not in the family dynamic. Nothing will be shattered, burnt, undercooked or overbaked.
One can only hope.
There’s always next year.
This is the fourth installment in a series Mel Miskimen is writing for TheCovey about the drafty empty nest she shares with her husband, who is on the fast track to sainthood. Miskimen is a writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and author of Sit Stay Heal. Her previous articles for Covey include installment No Guns for Old Men, Call Me. Maybe, and Divide and Conquer?