The skin of the onion, the color of varnished oak, rustles softly beneath my fingers, cracks and falls away from the shiny white layers that hold each other tightly. I chop it into tiny squares of moist piquancy and then make room on the cutting board for the celery, a green that is its own color. I turn the long stalks into a stack of half-moons, satellites for a hundred miniature planets.
The seeds of the bell pepper stick to the knife, my fingers, whatever they touch. Their strange adhesive and the pepper’s uneven contours make it difficult to produce a uniform shape. The heap of hunter, kelly, emerald green grows slowly.
For a long time, longer than any self-respecting Southern woman should have, I got by without cooking. Lean Cuisine and anyplace with a drive-through window were my primary sources of nutrition. I was known to say that a good day was one in which three different fast food bags made their way into the foot of my car.
When friends or colleagues asked, “What are you taking to Thanksgiving?”, I replied, “The centerpiece and my sparkling personality.” Grannie was still alive then and she, Mama, and my flock of aunts did all the heavy lifting required to produce the holiday meal that always brought to mind the old English description of the dining table as a groaning board, heavy with more than enough food for the extended family that gathered at the little house on South College Street and, later when the number had grown to fifty or more, at the pond house at the farm.
That large and loud and, at times, overwhelming gathering eventually dispelled, leaving the children of my grandparents and their offspring to forge their own holiday observances. It is no longer enough for me to show up with a vase of wildflowers and a few funny stories. I have, in fact, assumed responsibility for Thanksgiving for my branch of the family tree and it is as a result of that assumption that I find myself in the kitchen on this night creating mounds of diced vegetables.
I am alone, but the sounds and smells, the sensations of warmth and intimacy from those other Thanksgivings surround me as I begin the preparations to feed those who will sit around the table at Sandhill this holiday. It is quiet and still except for the rhythmic shush of the knife coming down on vegetable flesh, but I can hear the aluminum foil peeling back from Aunt Doris’s congealed salad and the clang of the pot lid as Debbie peeks in at Mama’s creamed corn. I can see the row of desserts lined up across the top of the washer and dryer in the corner – sour cream pound cake with cream cheese icing, pecan pie, sweet potato pie, coconut cake.
It is all as real as the reflection of my face in my kitchen window, the face of the woman who was the girl who tasted the saltiness of the ham she pinched from the edge of the platter before the blessing was said. The girl who felt the sun in her eyes as she stood in the backyard watching her father and his brothers play pitch penny. The girl who smelled vanilla extract in the heat from the open oven door.
Beneath my hands the chopping is finished. Still left is the thawing and draining and boiling and baking. The melting and mixing and roasting and slicing. Still left is the setting of the table and the filling of the glasses. There is still so much left to do.
I stop. I look at myself, both the woman in the window and the girl in the backyard. I look at her, at us, and I realize something important. The girl who was moving through the rooms and among the aunts and uncles and cousins absorbing their voices, the girl who wasn’t learning to cook, was learning something else.
That girl was learning to celebrate. That girl was learning to remember. That girl was learning to hold on and let go simultaneously. That girl was learning to be thankful.