When I arrived at my mother’s with my cooler full of turkey stock, homemade cranberry relish, and cubed bread for stuffing, the food was not my worry. For a while now, my mother had not been able to remember plans, no matter how important. Her thrilled “Hello!” was now always mixed with a hint of “What are you doing here?”
I unpacked at her kitchen counter, asking myself the same question. Who was I visiting — and why? I wondered if my drive from New York to Chatham to do the right thing was more about my own well-being than hers. For she was lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s disease.
My mother had been a force — a woman who battled the world (and her doubts) with moxie. She had to be bold, raising three daughters alone. But she was also whip smart. She could be imperious, acting embarrassingly privileged. Often, she was outrageous.
Once, on a visit to New York, she went to the Guggenheim Museum to see an exhibition of works by Robert Delaney, one of her favorite artists. The museum was closed, but this inconvenience didn’t stop her. She pounded on the glass door until a guard came, and then, somehow, talked her way in for a private viewing.
She lived in Washington, D.C., but she had spent every summer on Cape Cod, and she lived her last years in her 1930s cottage here. Even when she could no longer track conversations, faces, books, newspapers, art, movies, or time, she was clear about one thing: “I love my home,” she would say. She passed the days on her celadon couch, looking at the water out the window or playing her own version of solitaire. We three daughters made a promise to help her stay in that house.
My mother, Carolyn Hinman, took an outsized pride in her Pilgrim lineage. One cold, damp, gray, late 1960s Thanksgiving — her favorite holiday — she dragged us girls to “the rock.” She wanted to show us a monument to “our people.” At 12, I rolled my eyes, already aware that this was decidedly uncool.
I would learn to love Thanksgiving as the one day each year when Americans celebrate a secular holiday with similar meals reflecting our diverse heritages. My husband Robert’s Lebanese family starts with kibbe, made with bulgur wheat and lamb, and served raw alongside a bowl of smokey baba ghanoush, before their turkey and trimmings.
My mother’s meal included a cook-till-the-plastic-pops Butterball turkey — invariably, overcooked. There was lumpy gravy, canned cranberry sauce, creamed onions.
When I first became a chef, I tried to counter that, turning Thanksgiving into a way to experiment and show off. I slipped fresh herb butter under the skin of heritage turkeys, squeezed traces of water out of roasted organic squashes to make sorghum pumpkin pies, and baked heirloom cornbread for the chestnut stuffing.
Then I landed at the Food Network, where Thanksgiving became my job. Every June while most folks were firing up their grills and eating strawberry shortcake, my team was in full Turkey Day mode. I have brined, fried, basted, spatchcocked, stuffed, rolled, trussed, grilled, boned, carved, and eaten well over 1,000 variations on the bird. Not to mention hundreds of traditional and trendy mashed, smashed, roasted, scalloped, and Hasselback potatoes. One year we made 50 renditions of the pie trifecta — apple, pumpkin, and pecan — before I went home to make a chocolate one for my kid who doesn’t like pie.
I have done Thanksgiving. But I had never done it like this. I cooked while a substitute caregiver popped my mother’s medications from the blister pack and dressed her with professional kindness.
My mother seemed to recognize me, but she was adept at saving face. “What have I done wrong?” she asked. “Am I supposed to be somewhere?” Anxiously poised on the couch, in her silver and black holiday sweater, she took calls from my sisters, who wished her happy Thanksgiving. She handed the phone back to me, asking, “Who were those voices?”
I retreated to the kitchen, went through the rituals of mashing potatoes, thickening pan drippings for gravy, and carving the bird. Then we three strangers came to the Thanksgiving table: my mother, me, and her caregiver, a young African immigrant. Thanksgiving was new to her, and she was delighted with the formal table I had set — the faded linens, family china, and tarnished silver.
My mother had always said grace. This time, I asked our guest to do the honors. She shared a blessing full of genuine thankfulness. Her prayer wrestled me out of my self-pity to see the grace in strangers sharing Thanksgiving.
We filled our plates. This was the most basic Thanksgiving meal I had ever cooked: turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, blanched green beans, homemade cranberry sauce, and roasted butternut squash — my mother’s favorite.
As we ate, my mother began to come back to earth, each bite drawing her back a little closer. I sat across from her and watched how she savored the familiar flavors. “Oh, this is so delicious!” she said. It was as if the food were breaking a dark spell. My mother came into focus. Here was Carolyn again, enjoying the company, the food, and herself.
At the end of the meal, when I brought out the store-bought boy-and-girl-Pilgrim cupcakes that I knew she would love, all three of us laughed. It was my best Thanksgiving ever. The picture of her, holding a plastic Pilgrim and smiling broadly, with a little icing on her cheek, is how I will always remember her.