I’m experiencing my “year of firsts” after the death my mother. Mom passed away on December 25, 2020. That’s right: Christmas Day. I could write a whole article on the Curse of the See-Sawing Meaning of Christmas Day in my family. I won’t. You might be able to figure it out if I tell you that this year, my 27 year-old nephew Danny (who was born on Christmas Day) and his girlfriend are expecting a daughter, due on Christmas Day, the first anniversary of Mom’s death.
But back to my year of firsts. Thanksgiving. I was dreading this Thanksgiving. Preparing a 20 pound turkey for a large group was sure to bring back many memories, some painful. As it turned out, Phil and I participated in a Thanksgiving Eve COVID-friendly food exchange with Phil’s son and daughter-in-law, her mother, and her aunt. We exchanged our favorite side-dishes. Each attendee received a few cups of Mom’s stuffing. I baked theirs as a casserole. I baked our stuffing portion Thanksgiving day, under a five pound turkey breast. Phil and I ate alone, with the cats. Our solitude eased the pain. As did the stuffing. Making only the stuffing, I found myself engaged in a ritual that honored the time I spent with my mother on Thanksgiving. Today, I realize how grateful I am for stuffing.
I was the eldest child living at home on August 10, 1978 when my father suffered a near-fatal heart attack in our living room. Mom resuscitated him with CPR. He never recuperated. Dad died December 29 of that year. He was 51. Mom was 50. She and I were always close, but those years, we grew closer. A student at Cleveland State University with two jobs, I did my best to help her negotiate her own grief and the grief of my three younger siblings. (We had another elder sibling who was grieving alone at another university.) While many resorted to excessive drink, I did not. I became anorexic, but that’s another story. Mom leaned very heavily on me during those years; I helped with housework, cooking. If she had no income or fell short, I paid bills for her.
I’m not sure any of us were fully mended in 1985, when I left for Syracuse University’s Creative Writing Program. Mom was remarried to a patient man named Bill, which added six more daughters to her clan. Mom escorted me to Syracuse twice: first to help me find a room in the house of a young, female lawyer. Second: to help me move. Her oldest and best friend, my Aunt Jean, came along. Jean presented me with a soup pot as my going-away gift. “You’ll always be fine if you have a pot to make soup in,” Jean declared. She was right. I still have it. After I was secured in my new home, we all went down to my mother’s father’s family farm in Stowell, Pennsylvania. We stayed with mom’s aunt and uncle for a few days before Mom and Jean headed for Cleveland, and I returned to Syracuse. My mother cried. Probably because I did not. I was eager and ready to go.
I never moved back to Cleveland. Except for the four years during which I lived in Ankara, I spent every Thanksgiving that I could with my mother. The Thanksgiving routine became part of me: unless I-90 was snowbound – and if it was, Mom insisted I stay in Syracuse, or Buffalo, or where ever I might live at the time – I would drive on Wednesday. The years passed and my Cleveland-based siblings’ lives became more demanding, so I was often the only person with Mom the night before Thanksgiving. I always brought a bottle of wine. I am grateful to both of my husbands, first Bill and now Phil, for agreeably joining me on these visits. Both enjoyed Mom – Katie, to them. She was very good company. On Thanksgiving Eve, she and I sipped wine together while we broke the dried stuffing bread into the roaster. (How much? Oh, about two loaves’ worth.) Also the night before, we sauteed an onion with a few sticks of celery and some garlic, cleaned out the bird, boiled the giblets. Retained the broth for the stuffing, strained the giblets, and cut them up for the cat. We laughed a lot. Those were sweet evenings. The following mornings were pleasant too, when we rose together, made bacon and eggs for whomever was there to eat them, then readied the bird for the oven.
As she aged, Mom could not stand for long because she had spinal stenosis. So, she sat at the kitchen table with a loaf of good bread, fruit preserves, a slab of butter, and a cup of coffee. Each year, she spent more time sitting at the table. She monitored my actions. By the time her dementia was noticeable, I knew the basics, but I always had to check with her for the finer details. No matter if she was hallucinating a man pushing a lawnmower across the neighbor’s roof, or a knight chasing a giant golden chicken around the backyard, she could always tell me how to make stuffing.
As I gathered the materials for my stuffing this year, I felt blank. I found myself googling how to make sausage stuffing. I found a recipe that looked a bit like Mom’s and suddenly realized. I didn’t need a recipe. My Mom’s recipe was my inheritance.
Phil brought ciabatta bread from the co-op. As I sliced it and lay it flat on cookie sheets, I knew my Mom was with me, and she was a little aggravated that I was going to make the stuffing and not put at least some of it into a bird. It’s going to be very bland. You’ll have to work hard for the flavor. I had chicken broth I’d made from the remains of a whole chicken a few nights before. That will help. Still, it’s not enough.
Mom was disappointed too, to see the sausage from the co-op was precooked. We sipped some wine, stripped off the sausage’s thin casing, cut it into pieces, and sauteed it enough in a little olive oil to make a juice. Removed the sausages, then sauteed a large sweet onion in its drippings with some garlic and celery. Always olive oil. A little butter would help! I couldn’t argue.
The next day, continuing the ritual, those memories of mom continued whispering in my ear: Wash your hands, and keep washing them as you work. You always make a mess of things! I washed. Between each stage, I washed again, rinsed well.
With my hands, I mixed the bread crumbs with the sauteed onion, garlic and celery. Added the cooked sausage. Cracked one egg into it. Only one! (She always reprimanded me, when I reached for the second.) My fingers worked it into the mix.
Then I poured a cup of the warmed giblet water into it. You never know how much you’ll need, so have at least two cups more ready. It doesn’t matter if some of it is cold. I added the rest slowly, until I had no more crunchy pieces of bread. I smooshed, started to mush. Don’t let it get too mushy! she scolded.
In those latter years, when Mom needed a walker, then a wheelchair, I always realized, too late, that I had forgotten to set my seasonings out. She’d be sitting at the table, coffee in hand, unable to help. My gooey hands left bready goo all over the cupboard door, the poultry seasoning container, and the salt and pepper shaker when I went to get them. Mom would shake her head and mutter, Mary Lou! This year I had my poultry seasoning, salt and pepper ready before I did anything else. Once the stuffing was ready for the seasoning, I started adding, first a tablespoon of each. Then a bit more poultry season. How much? So much relies on taste! Mixed it in with my hands, then we both tasted it. Mom knew the adjustment every time. More poultry season and salt! Taste again. Mom had the final word. Our last few years making stuffing together, I had to bring the roaster full of stuffing over to her for her approval. Her quivering, arthritic fingers would pick some out, raise it to her lips. She’d nibble. “That’s good Babe,” she’d say. “I think you got it.” Then she giggled that silly laugh of hers, and urged me to sit down and drink coffee with her.
I reminded her we still had to stuff the bird and get it in the oven. 375 degrees, I believe. She let me handle the bird. She really didn’t like touching raw poultry. She didn’t like the taste of turkey, either. So it was my job to make sure our bird was clean and buttered inside and out, before I started stuffing. I stuffed both ends and bound them carefully. Secured the openings. I always used a cooking bag. Mom held it open while I slid the stuffed bird in. That was a feat, believe me: we rarely had a bird less than twenty pounds.
It was usually around that stage that we always realized we needed the roaster – which still had plenty of extra stuffing in it – to cook the bird. The extra stuffing went into casserole dishes, dotted with butter. One of us cleaned the roaster. The turkey went in. The extra stuffing joined it, for the last 45 minutes.
Around then my siblings would begin to appear, Mike with his pies, Chris with salads, rolls and home-made blue cheese dressing, Nancy with the potatoes. Vegetarian for Dan. Even after Mom’s second husband died, his daughters brought their families. Partners, spouses, children. Dogs. Grandchildren. A busy house. That was when my mother was happiest.
My stuffing this year was extra special, even though none of it saw the insides of a turkey. As I was preparing my materials, I realized I had no poultry seasoning. None. Mom scowled in my head. “Don’t you dare go to the store,” she said. “You can make it.” I had never made poultry seasoning before. I googled it. The recipe I found had nutmeg in it. Sounded interesting. I used the proportions of rosemary, thyme, pepper, celery and onion powder, and salt that it called for. And sage.
It didn’t seem like enough sage. It isn’t, Mom whispered. Use more. I’ll tell you when to stop.
I listened. She told me.
It was perfect.
2 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Reflection #1: Mom’s Stuffing – a recipe.”
Hello Mary Lou,
I have been thinking of you recently and your mother and your second book. Today I decided to “google” you and located your Baba Yaga musings. I am so sorry to read that your mother passed. My mother passed in 1995 and I still hear her in my head so I enjoyed reading your musings on Thanksgiving Stuffing. It brought to my mind my mother telling me how to cook something. Again, so sorry for your loss and wish you well. Stay safe. Hugs, Your (maybe) Gorzynski cousin, Joanne
How nice to hear from you, Joanne! Yes, it’s been a rough couple years. Hope you are well.