Friday, November 18, 2005


It will probably come as no surprise to anyone that I'm a huge fan of Thanksgiving, and I have been for as long as I can remember. As you might expect, much of my longstanding fanaticism comes from the close association of Thanksgiving with an abundance of food. Food is, of course, an integral part of many holidays, and I'm sure that all of you can name specific foods that are associated with particular holidays, though the lists of both foods and holidays would vary somewhat from reader to reader. But, in America at least, Thanksgiving is the only real feast day that many of us have.

This post could run long, so I'm going to put the recipe towards the front. I reckon that over the past couple of months, I've punished those of you with short attention spans enough.

Cranberry Sauce

1.5 cups water
1.5 cups sugar
A 12-ounce package of fresh cranberries
Zest of two oranges, grated.

Put the water and sugar in a saucepan. Cover and place over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the water boils. Add the cranberries and simmer for five minutes. The cranberries should have all popped by then. Remove the saucepan from the burner and stir in the orange zest. Chill. Serve cold.

Ten or more years ago, I considered Thanksgiving a complete success if a) there were at least a dozen people at the table, and b) I had won the fight to be the host for the meal that year. The former was not much of a problem, but the latter was difficult because the person that I was most likely to be fighting with was my mother. Mothers do not fight fair in such matters, and I suppose they shouldn't have to. I always tried to be gracious in defeat (I would occasionally lose out to more distant relatives, but in those cases, a whole bunch of us usually ended up traveling to the Norfolk area to visit some of my mother's relatives, and since these Thanksgivings generally involved a whole roast pig [as well as a turkey, of course, and a ham, because what's a southern Thanksgiving without a ham?], you could hardly call it losing) and to make sure that under the terms of the armistice I got to supply the cranberry sauce and the pecan pie.

A lot can change in a decade. In 1995, I was married and had every reason to believe that I would always be married. My parents lived in the next county, my brother and his family lived less than ninety minutes away, and my sister had not yet begun to have children, so she and her husband would at least sometimes fly in for the holiday. Nowadays, my parents are in Florida, my brother's in Texas, my sister's in Washington (state), and I'm divorced. V. generally goes to visit his mother in New Jersey for major holidays, and while I occasionally have other guests, for the past five years there have usually been just three people at my Thanksgiving table. The girls always show up shortly after noon on Thanksgiving Day and stay through the end of the following day, and sometimes for the entire weekend.

Fall, of course, is the season of fruition, but it is also the time when things come apart. The harvest gives way to a riotous death, and then follows the long sleep of winter, the rebirth of spring, the increasing maturity of summer, and over and over again, yadda, yadda, yadda. It is a story so old that I can find no original way to speak of it: the triteness of the language about the seasons is a reflection of their comforting predictability. But while the cycle of nature looks regular on a grand scale, it is made up of innumerable individual births and deaths. While there will be another tomato next year that grows from the seeds of the plant that's dying now, that particular plant will long since have become compost. Annual plants make poor metaphors for a person's life: when your life falls apart, there is an expectation that you can and will pull it back together. But there remains always the cruel possibility that you might not.

During the fall of 1999, not seemed like the likeliest outcome to me. I could, if I wanted to go back and look through some of the tens of thousands of pieces of paper that my ex-wife's attorney filed during the divorce (sadly, I am not exaggerating), pinpoint the exact date that my then-wife said to me "We need to talk," far and away my four least favorite words in the English language. By the time the talking was over, I had explained to her that I had come to the conviction that I was gay. You will understand that I am understating the case when I say that it was a difficult conversation; there was, however, a great sense of relief associated with having made the revelation, and I was actually holding together pretty well for almost a whole day.

In those days, if I was going to sing a solo or duet at church, I'd rehearse a long while in advance. The music director and I had decided that for Advent, I would sing the baritone part of the two duets from my favorite Bach cantata, Wachet Auf. There were two very fine sopranos at our church at that time, and I was to sing one of the duets with each of them. Even though Advent was nearly three months away, I had begun to rehearse, and I had started my preparation by loading midi files of the duets some music software, programming an oboe simulation to play the soprano vocal line, and leaving the bass vocal line out (with all the accompaniment still in, of course).

So there I was, on the evening after the big revelation, standing next to the computer, with the cantata on the music stand, listening to the extremely beautiful introduction and then the first soprano line, and when I opened my mouth to sing "Ich komme, dein teil," my usually robust bass baritone had been replaced by a squeaky little boy's voice with no intonation and even less resonance. I thought that perhaps I was having some problems with allergies, so I started the piece at the beginning again, but the same thing happened. I don't know why I didn't just give up, but I tried again and again, and there was nothing like music coming out of me, and finally I started to sob. Not weep, not cry: sob. The way distraught children do when they completely lose control of themselves.

I like to sing maybe even more than I like to cook, and I like Bach more than any other composer, and I had wanted to sing those duets for a long time, so trying to sing them and failing in such a spectacular manner was excruciating. At the time I was only aware of despair, but it later became apparent to me that I'd distanced myself from the horribleness of the situation and the complete sense of loss that I was feeling and that Bach had reached in and forced me to experience consciously what I was feeling unconsciously.

One of the things I experienced most acutely during the period shortly after it was clear that my marriage was over was the loss of any sense of the future. I reckon that anyone who's experienced major life trauma has experienced the same phenomenon, but I had not received the memo. I had to devote so much effort to getting through that very minute and that very hour that I had tremendous difficulty looking even a day ahead, let alone a week or a month. Part of this temporal distortion was, no doubt, a desire not to think about what might lie ahead, but mostly it was the difficulty of finding what I needed to survive right now.

As days and weeks passed, the situation eased, and I was able to look farther down the road. One of the first somewhat distant things I had to deal with was that I wouldn't be able to sing Bach at Advent, and a few weeks after I lost my voice, I spoke to my music director at choir practice (fortunately, I could still sing almost anything that wasn't Bach and/or a solo), and, once I told her the whole story, she was very sympathetic and said that I could sing them another year. (I should add that while I worried tremendously about telling my parents, my children, my siblings, and my friends that I was gay, I never had to worry about the folks at church. The Unitarian Universalists are an extremely enlightened lot.)

I think it was actually three more years before I felt comfortable enough with the Wachet Auf duets to sing them at church. The resonance of Bach with my subconscious continued throughout that time. Perhaps a year into the divorce proceedings, I was sitting in the choir during a music program that I had thought was all Mozart (the choir was singing a Missa Brevis; I hadn't looked at the rest of the program), and a very fine cellist who was also a church member began to play, and I began to cry, and I thought to myself, "Oh shit. He's playing Bach." And Bach still does something ineffable to me, though since I'm happy these days, it isn't anything that I have to fear, and if I want to enjoy something indescribable but very peaceful and deep, I will shut myself away and put on the solo cello variations.

But back in 1999, autumn was tough. There were certainly times later in the divorce (when I first realized there was going to be a custody battle, for instance) where I felt more anger, and to an outside observer, those times would probably look a lot worse, but by then I had figured I'd get by, so I was much better equipped handle the viciousness. Back in October and November of 1999, survival seemed a good deal less than assured.

I was sitting in church one mid-November Sunday morning, and our interim minister, the Reverend Mark Edmiston-Lange, was in the pulpit talking about Thanksgiving. As I recall, he began by teaching all the kids to say "Schleiermacher." As with many things that happened that fall, details remain fuzzy, but I do remember (correctly, I hope) that the starting point for the sermon was Schleiermacher's contention that "all religion begins with gratitude." Mark went on to talk about the first Thanksgiving, but not in the usual way. He talked about the first, very cruel winter that the pilgrims faced when they got to America. He talked about how most of them did not live to see the second winter. And he talked about how, in the face of so much death and despair, the pilgrims were grateful.

I wish I had a copy of that sermon. Reverend Edmiston-Lange was a very good speaker and he had a great deal of insight, and I'm sure that he made explicitly, and in better terms than I can, the point that I apparently internalized that morning. I think it may have been that if you can look into the abyss and still be grateful, you can find something (faith, perhaps) to help lead you out of the abyss. In any case, his sermon was a watershed moment for me, and when it was over, I found that I was both grateful and hopeful. And that was enough to get me through the very hardest of the hard times. There were still a few years of really tough going to get through, but once you believe you can, then you can.

I found a great deal to be thankful for that Thanksgiving. As I have every Thanksgiving since (it's not really much of a challenge to find things to be thankful for these days, and I try not to take that for granted). If there's a silver lining to major life trauma (and, believe me, with all that pain, there'd better be), it's that you learn to concentrate on what's truly important to you, and you learn how not to worry about everything else. It's important to have the love of your family. It's not so important (though of course it's very, very nice if you can manage it) that they all be at the same table as you. I can call my parents and my sister next Thursday and talk to them and the nephews, and they can all talk to the girls, who will be at the table with me. V. will be visiting his own family in New Jersey that day, but he'll be back Friday night, so we can have leftovers together by candlelight. With a bottle of the Gewurztraminer we got in Northern California. Very romantic.

Whether or not there are other guests (and it's kind of up in the air at the moment) on Thursday, I will still prepare a feast, so if there's a freak snowstorm and five weary travelers show up at my door, there'll still be plenty of food. I will do most of the marketing this weekend, and I will likely begin brining the Turkey or making the pie dough for the pecan and pumpkin pies on Monday and end up with an all-morning cooking session on Thursday.

Partly because I cook for my own pleasure (and partly because if anyone should be free from the shackles of tradition, it's a guy who didn't come out until he was 38), my Thanksgiving dinner changes a lot from year to year. Crucial stuffing decisions will not be made until the last minute. The green vegetable(s) is(are) anyone's guess(es).

But tradition also needs to be represented at Thanksgiving, and not only because the girls will mutiny if there are no mashed potatoes (they don't know about the garlic). One thing I never mess with is my cranberry sauce. I am a big fan of other sorts of cranberry sauces, relishes, molds, and chutneys, but not on Thanksgiving. You cannot improve on my orange-flavored, thick but liquid, ruby red cranberry sauce, as delicious poured over the post-Thanksgiving turkey burgers as it is on the Thursday bird and stuffing.

For the sake of completeness, I will mention, even though you will be wrong, wrong, wrong if you try it, that you can turn my cranberry sauce into a moldable cranberry sauce by simmering the cranberries for a lot longer. Solid cranberry sauce, no matter how nice the mold, inevitably reminds me of the people who slide their sauce right out of the can and onto the serving dish. Ridges and all. That's just wrong. Unless, of course, that's the way your mom did it when you were a child. Then it's a tradition, and you shouldn't change it for anybody.

You could, of course, also make my cranberry sauce and serve it along with your red, ridged cylinder of whatever the hell it is that they put in that can. Then when people want to eat mine, you can wrap the blob in plastic wrap and put it in the deep freezer until next year, when you can bring it to the table as if you'd just opened the can yourself. I promise not to tell your mom.


Blogger Sangroncito said...

A lovely, thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing some of your life story with us, as well as your recipes.
I will remember your post on Thanksgiving and think of all the things I am grateful for...there are so many.
Happy Thanksgiving Week! Hugs, Sangroncito

10:50 PM  
Anonymous lindy said...

Sometimes I wonder if it weren't for major life trauma (in my case the illness and death of my husband at 39), if I would ever have learned to concentrate on what is really important to me. I have to hope there are other ways of learning these things!

At the moment I am not even terribly upset that I will not be hosting Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday), or any of the major holidays in the forseeable future, because we have determined that my steps have become too dangerous for the aged parent. I am however, a little bit hinky about the fact that the dessert I will be bringing to my brother's place (and he's a fine cook) will not be pie, because several of my family members don't like pie! How is it that we are related in any way?

But, hey, the redfox and company will be here for XMas, and we will do a Boxing Day festivity, and despite a really filthy cold, I'm actually experiencing a fair portion of gratitude myself.

Happy Thanksgiving.

1:18 AM  
Anonymous leslie said...

You write so beautifully about finding peace after living through pain. Thanks for sharing with us!

Our thanksgiving will be strange this year - the first one since my mother died in the spring. We're hosting but because of my broken ankle I'll be supervising instead of cooking. Fortunately my husband is a good cook!

I do believe that cranberry sauce is a matter of religion. In my family the tradition is a ground orange and cranberry relish - combine a bag of cranberries and two big oranges in a food processor. Process until coarsely ground. Add sugar to taste - it should be tart but not sour. This is a very refreshing sauce. Dad and I will probably be the only ones who eat it though.

happy thanksgiving!

2:53 PM  

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