My sisters and I used to love going to the grocery store with our mother. We would follow like little disciples, contributing our wish list of meal choices for the family dinner. This nightly ritual around the table kept us together — the one thing that protected us from the brewing storm.
Growing up in Cleveland wasn’t easy. When I was 10, my father, who owned an Italian restaurant, came home from a long night at work, went out for cigarettes and was never seen again. The one thing he did well before vanishing was to teach my mother to cook — a final gift for our family. No matter our struggles, there was always something delicious and comforting waiting for us at the end of the day.
My mother was a natural artist who could pick up a pencil and sketch a portrait. But as with many of her generation, her aspirations were deemed unrealistic and unattainable. There were children to raise and a home to make.
When my parents first met, she couldn’t even boil pasta. But the artist in her was reborn when she picked up that wooden spoon for the very first time. Maybe it was the utensil’s similarities with the pencil or the colorful palette of ingredients on her cutting board. Whatever the spark, food became her masterpiece. Served in our humble kitchen, it brought us together.
At school, I ate lunch by myself. The other children were often cruel. They teased me and told me I looked different. While I never understood what that meant, I knew they didn’t like me.
When I came home, my mother could always get me to smile again. She would be standing over a large bowl, peeling potatoes for my favorite meal: roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy, broccoli and biscuits with butter. My lack of belonging was replaced by something that stuck to my ribs.
On Sundays, she made overflowing pots of spaghetti and meatballs. While we didn’t have much, the weekly abundance was to be shared with anyone who graced our doorstep. Our friends were always welcome, and kindness to others always came first.
As the years went by, I never took a liking to cooking. That was my mother’s arena. I was always off taking dance classes and doing my own thing. After I married, my husband and I survived on takeout. We were too busy and couldn’t be bothered with cooking. Until we moved to Connecticut, we’d always lived close enough to get a home-cooking fix when we needed it.
But James, who had accepted a job at ESPN, had to work that first Thanksgiving away. He encouraged me to return home to be with my mom, but I couldn’t leave him alone, not when we had so much to be thankful for together. So I decided to cook my first Thanksgiving dinner to be ready when he walked in from work that evening.
I called my mother. She always made it look so easy and simple. I, on the other hand, was a wreck. I’d never cooked a turkey before. Adding all the fixin’s was like asking a gobbler to soar like an eagle.
“First, you’ll need to remove the neck,” my mother told me over the phone. Excuse me? A vegetarian for a decade, here I was pulling a neck from a body cavity. I took a deep breath, conquered the cleaning and put the bird into the oven.
As I moved to the mashed potatoes, I called my mom. Stuffing. Another call. Basting. “Hi, Mom?” Green beans. With every new challenge, I needed her advice.
My sister called to check in on me. My mother-in-law too.
Except for some burned sweet potato casserole, everything turned out OK. Finally, I’d reached the last step: Remove the turkey, check that it was done and make the gravy. Only then did my mother-in-law ask, on one final call, “Did you remove the other bag from the turkey?”
Nope, I’d cooked the bird with the giblets in tow. I removed the scorched bag. The turkey was no worse for wear, but I couldn’t say the same for me.
When my husband walked through the door at 7 p.m., the table looked lovely. I was a disheveled mess. He didn’t care about my unruly hair. He didn’t comment on my sweatpants. He just wanted to eat dinner with me.
Far from our families, it was just our cat, Stormy, and the two of us. As James lifted a forkful of my labors toward his mouth, I sat nervously wondering if I had pulled it off.
“This tastes like Cleveland, Ohio,” he proclaimed. I smiled wide, took my first bite and giddily agreed.
In the years since that first Thanksgiving away from home, I have moved to New York, Los Angeles and Houston. Along the way, my mother guided me through most of her beloved recipes, until she passed away earlier this year. While those great distances separated us, we were closer in heart because of the connection we formed over cooking, sharing and the blessings of life.
I never did quite master my mother’s famous spaghetti and meatballs. So for my next Sunday dinner, maybe I’ll make roast beef with all the trimmings. And I’ll be sure to make more than enough to share in case someone shows up hungry on my welcome doorstep.