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A Thanksgiving memory

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Hmmm. What came first, my mother's lack of culinary talent or her cunning?

Msgr. Peter V.
Conley

There is something Norman Rockwell-esque about Thanksgiving Day.

Practically everyone can identify with his now famous illustration of a family gathered around the table while mother proudly presents a platter groaning under the weight of a turkey she has just pulled out of an unseen oven.

The father, beaming with equal pride, stands suited (of course) holding a carving knife and serving fork.

The children, gathered around the festive table of plenty, wear faces which capture the spirit of the day. The illustration is an America masterpiece of mood.

Yet, I can recall that my mother cooked only one turkey in her almost 84 years -- and that was on the Thanksgiving after my father died.

Sundays and holidays found my dad in the kitchen, bright and early, dressing a leg of lamb, binding a pork roast, broiling chicken or roasting a six-pound top-of the round, which was his favorite.

Ed Conley was a much better cook than Grace, unafraid to use garlic, sage, thyme and other exotic condiments. Mother's most daring spice was paprika -- sprinkled sparingly on mashed potatoes only for a gala occasion.

In fact, Ed was much more at home in the kitchen than my mother. She who never hesitated to remind us that "domestic virtues are over-rated."

She was a decent cook, but her priorities lay elsewhere -- parenting, teaching school, treasuring friends and the ever-present "swell book."

Grace was often distracted in the kitchen by warm memories, old songs and more lofty thoughts than the mundane task in front of her.

Dad once cut into a dessert cake only to hear metal scraping on metal. He peered into it, looked up and announced, "Grace, you left the d-- spoon in the baking pan!" Nonplussed, she replied, "Of course, Eddie, it's a spoon cake."

He didn't laugh.

When we were older she once confessed with a sly grin that she often had no idea what she would cook for supper.

Knowing that my father would come through the door at any moment, she would begin to fry onions -- my father's favorite kitchen aroma. It always produced the desire effect -- a quiet smile and dad's conviction that his wife had been laboring at the stove since four o'clock.

In my teenage years I once asked her why dad cooked the important meals of the week and the year. Not many fathers did so then. She offered no direct explanation, stating simply that "he began it five or six weeks after we got married."

Years later, when I asked my father the same question, he put it baldly, "I wouldn't trust your mother with a good roast."

Hmmm. What came first, my mother's lack of culinary talent or her cunning? What came second, my father's devotion to a tasty meal or his gullibility?

Back to that one turkey she cooked.

Her four children, with spouses and grandchildren, gathered at the ol' manse in 1970 for the first Thanksgiving since dad's death on the 4th of July. As mater familias, she had insisted that she would cook the entire meal.

We arrived in fits and starts as families do; then enjoyed an "attitudinal adjustment hour" during which we were totally aware of the identical ache in each other's heart. Since Thanksgiving Day is no time for tears, any reference to dad was brief and oblique.

Experts would tell us that the family had ignored a healthy opportunity to share our common grief. We chose, instead, to rely on the ethnic wisdom in which we had been so thoroughly trained -- we knew that some silences can be heard and fully appreciated.

Soon it was time for the feast.

When the expected golden fowl was pulled from the oven, my older brother, Ned, lugged it into the pantry to carve. He peeled back the aluminum wrapping and stared at the cadaver of a turkey that was as white as ivory keys on the piano.

It seems Grace had forgotten to periodically remove the aluminum and baste the bird. She had steamed it instead! When gently reproached, she dismissed the whole affair with "Oh, it will be all right! It'll taste the same."

That Thanksgiving dinner proved to be the most memorable and the least edible meal in Conley history.

In the following 19 years of her life, each of us took turns cooking the Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys, as well as the Easter feast. Grace never rejected these offers of kitchen help, always accepting them with lavish praise and genuine gratitude.

Looking back, however, the four of us have often wondered whether Grace -- after kissing us all goodbye on that Thanksgiving of 1970 -- didn't retreat to a comfortable chair with her "swell book" and whisper to herself, "I've fooled another generation."

Msgr. Conley is former editor of The Pilot and serves on the faculty of Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston.

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