It took me until Black Friday dinner, a full day after Thanksgiving, to figure out why I was feeling so – to use a word I’ll forever associate, thanks to Charles Dickens, with another holiday of the season – melancholy.
It wasn’t because my wife was sick, and sounded like an alien had taken over her body. (Although the coughing, sneezing and look of malaise on her face could have wiped the grin from Mona Lisa.)
And it wasn’t because our intimate Thanksgiving feast for four had been reduced to a party of three because a Boston-based guest was kept away by work, weather, and believe it or not, a lack of all-season tires.
No, it was, I now realize, because for the first time in 30 years, neither of our daughters were here to share the family feast.
Everything else was as it should be, and as it has been for most of the past three decades, with center stage occupied by the moist, fall-off-the-bone turkey I make according to chef/author James Haller’s instructions in “The Blue Strawbery Cookbook” (it requires little time, high heat, lots of red wine and butter, and an overnight stay in a turned-off oven to produce a bird that’s to die for).
We also had baked sweet potatoes with fresh thyme, stuffing, string beans almondine, cranberry-orange relish, arugula-and-tomato salad, and pumpkin pie. The only family-tradition culinary component missing was my ratatouille, replaced this year by pan-roasted Brussels sprouts.
But the girls were missing, too.
If you mark the time since our younger daughter graduated from high school, we’ve been empty-nesters for almost a decade. Two years ago we sold the home where both girls grew up. But this is the first holiday season I’ve felt like something was truly missing.
We’ve had large Thanksgiving meals, and small ones. Houses full of people, and small dinners with close friends. I’ve cooked the Blue Strawbery turkey at home, and transported it to someone else’s house. We’ve had Thanksgivings where friends or relatives of our guests have showed up after dinner was over – people we didn’t know until they arrived at our door – and we’ve fed them in a second sitting.
But the girls – at least one of them – were a constant component, just like my Blue Strawbery turkey.
And this year, they were absent.
One now lives in California; the other has gone back to school in Virginia. Neither could take the time, or spend the money, on a quick, compressed trip home to Maine.
So I cooked without having to work around them as they prepared desserts or side dishes or salads. I watched the non-competitive NFL games that followed the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the National Dog Show without having to plead for relief from endless episodes of “Flip This House” and “Say Yes to the Dress.” And I could nap on the couch because it wasn’t continuously occupied by a daughter, her laptop computer, smart phone, books, magazines, pillow, comforter, etc.
And all that space and freedom left me feeling as empty as my stomach at 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
But it also left me grateful for all the years we’ve had, for the socially responsible, caring lives the girls are making for themselves, and for the new traditions we’ll be creating as they plant roots in new places.
Like I said, that Blue Strawbery turkey can travel.