The first Thanksgiving my husband and I ever hosted, we crammed 21 people into our one-bedroom apartment. We lacked both a dining room and a dishwasher, but I refused to use disposable dinnerware. We moved furniture, borrowed folding tables, and arranged place settings for a full-fledged, seated meal for friends and family.
My parents came to visit early in the week, and my mom helped me host, because, well, I had no idea what I was doing. I was determined to make things the way she did and called her up to ask for her stuffing recipe in advance. As with most of her dishes, I was given vague instructions that barely resembled a recipe because often, she would improvise in the kitchen. I even have one recipe card from her that actually lists the ingredients and then says, “And from there, I kind of just wing it.” (Not the most helpful instructions when you're trying to impress your new husband, in-laws, and other friends and family with a giant feast on a major holiday.)
Although our apartment was crowded and I lacked well-written recipes, that first hosting experience was a success. My mom and I stood side-by-side, whipping potatoes and roasting squash. I learned how to make my first-ever turkey, she coached me as I seasoned the stuffing, and we talked through the timing of oven space. And 21 of us sat down together, eating off mismatched plates and taking turns drying the endless amount of dishes that piled up after the meal.
Now, several years later, I’d do a lot of things differently. I’d simplify the menu, use disposable dishes, and avoid staying up late to make handmade decorations. (Apparently pre-kids, I had much more time on my hands!) Despite my overzealous attempts at entertaining, I look back on that Thanksgiving with joy. But it’s a joy mixed with grief.
That Thanksgiving was the last holiday I’d enjoy with my mom while she was still healthy.
A month later, on Christmas Eve, she’d be admitted to the hospital and undergo surgery on Christmas Day for what would turn out to be pancreatic cancer. I was fortunate to have more holidays with her after that one, but she was different. Cancer had wreaked havoc on her body, and while her attitude and spirit remained strong, her body was frail, marked by sunken cheeks and tired eyes.
There’s pain in being reminded there’s an empty chair at the table, that a member of the family is missing. But I’m grateful I’ve been able to experience the beauty of family. My heart aches when I realize my mom will never make her recipes for my kids, yet I smile when I think of the year she taught me how to make them – and I look forward to passing those recipes along. There’s grief in the losses, the changes, the hardships that come over the years. And still there’s also joy when I see my children around the table and the blessings of new life, new traditions, and new celebrations.
Holidays can be a messy, complicated mix of emotion. I pray that if you’re mourning the loss of loved ones, your tears will be followed by laughter as you share stories of their lives. I pray the hardships of parenting will be softened by your children’s smiles, and your weariness will be lifted as you enjoy the abundance before you. I pray that even if you are filled with grief as you sit down at the table, you will also be filled with inexplicable joy.
Apple + Sage Cocktail
Yields 1 drink*
2 ounces apple juice
2 ounces vodka
1 ounce triple sec
2-3 fresh sage leaves, torn (plus one whole leaf for garnish)
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake for about 15 seconds, and then strain into a glass. Add 1-2 fresh ice cubes to the glass. Garnish with a sage leaf. Enjoy!
*Note: If you’d like to make this recipe for a crowd, add a few torn sage leaves to a pitcher and muddle using a cocktail muddler or wooden spoon. Add the rest of the ingredients, following the same proportions above (2 parts apple juice, 2 parts vodka, 1 part triple sec). Add a handful of ice, and give everything a good stir. Serve with additional sage leaves if desired.