An Unlikely Choice
11/27/14 at 12:10 PM 0 Comments

A Thanksgiving Tradition

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I’m not sure who’s to blame for this disease of perfectionism, but I’m blaming the Donna Reed Show, Leave It To Beaver, and The Nelsons. Watching those 1960 weekly black and white shows at the tender age of nine created in me a mystical belief that everything had to be done in an orderly fashion. (I still suffer from this disease.)

I remember when I played house in the garage. I scrounged for an apron in my mother’s kitchen, or tried to get one from Grandmother so I could look as neat and tidy as June Cleaver. Once I got that prized possession in my little hands, I pulled it tight around my waist and tied it into a perfect bow. In mother’s room, I dug through her dresser drawer for jewelry, or I begged Grandmother for her old earrings, inevitably, picking the round ones to clamp on my ears. They had to be round, because, after all, that’s what June Cleaver wore.

Then I went through the painstaking task of transforming my mother’s garage into a replica of my idea of the Cleaver home located on 485 Grant Avenue in Mayfield (and none of us have a clue as to which state these flawless people lived in). I took all the empty milk cartons and vegetable cans I begged mother to save for me and arranged them neatly on a makeshift cabinet which consisted of planks of wood straddled across boxes.

I’d mimic June’s lines when my make-believe child would get out of line (like the notorious Beaver). But arguing with my make-believe Ward Cleaver was out of the question. It never happened on the set of Leave It To Beaver and I wasn’t about to break the rules. Arguments were few, but with my intuitive mind, I improvised, always settling into the role of the agreeing wife just as June Cleaver depicted on the television show. (That poor girl got lost somewhere and my husband is still trying to find her. Oh, well . . .)

I wasn’t the only one with this infectious disease. Mother had it, too. I have no idea where she got it. Her mother died when she was only seven. Regardless, I got it from mother and Grandmother (my dad’s mom).

So, you see, Leave It To Beaver and the other shows didn’t cause this ravenous desire in me to be perfect, but they certainly enhanced it to unbelievable proportions. And if these television programs weren’t enough to embed in me a “right way” of doing things, the 1970s produced magazines such as Vogue, Good Housekeeping, and Home and Gardens that also stressed this uncompromising excellence.

It’s amazing how much of what you see and hear stays with you over the years. As a newlywed in the mid-seventies, I traveled over seven hundred miles to my mother’s Corpus Christi home for Thanksgiving so I could enjoy the love, noise, and busyness of the holidays. Spoons clanking, alarms ringing, and pans sliding across burners on the stove was music to my ears. The aroma of cinnamon floated in the air. Burnt onion stock and buttered celery sent us rushing to the kitchen, each of us blaming the other for not paying closer attention to our instructions. Later, just as we propped our feet on the sofa to catch our breath timers sounded and warned us to remove something wonderful from the oven.

Mother was a nurse, working the eleven-to-seven shift. She’d call at precise intervals during the early morning hours to nudge us to our next task. She was a special human being, an exquisite specimen. Patient enough to sit for hours to crochet long-sleeved blouses, skirt sets, and full-size bedspreads, it’s no wonder she could sit curled up in her bed and actually draw her holiday meal on a paper plate. She used highlighters to arrange the replica of food in colorful arrays like a painter’s palate. (To this day, I’ve never seen anyone prepare for a Thanksgiving dinner in this manner.) This method helped her plan for the right amount of food. Too much, and all the food wouldn’t fit on the plate. Too little, and the plate would look skimpy and lack color.

Unlike some Americans, we ate at noon, not six o’clock in the evening. The beautifully set table had cream-colored plates, etched in gold. Ice-filled goblets had something red and cranberry-looking inside to remind us of the season, like we needed reminding. A sliced turkey sat at full attention in the center of the table. Yams drooling in butter sat close by with swirls of steam rising to the surface. Cornbread dressing, tiny green specks of celery dotted on top, sat snuggled next to the turkey. A cranberry mold, which our step-father always snacked on as dessert, sat adjacent to the cornbread dressing.

Aaah, those were the days. Mother’s gone now, but a form of her tradition lives in me.

I stopped traveling home for the holidays a long time ago. Something was tugging at me to create my own traditions. I wanted to hear those same holiday noises inside my home. I wanted to form a routine that suited us and reflected the meaning of our family.

At first, it was hard to transfer my picturesque Leave It To Beaver ideas into reality. I remember how difficult it was to get my holiday dinner on the table. In the early days, I didn’t allow enough time to cook the turkey so it would be ready by noon. And I had a terrible sense of timing when it came to which part of the dinner needed to be cooked first. In addition, I tried to cook too much food for a family of four, and I was doing it all by myself. There was something dysfunctional in my way of thinking that men, namely my husband and two young sons, couldn’t participate in the holiday preparations. I find this odd since I’m the eldest of four children. My three siblings are males, all of whom participated in preparing Thanksgiving dinner while mother worked her eleven-to-seven shift.

Like mother, my table looked exquisite. I had golden, yellow, and amber colored flowers in the center of the table . . . not too high, not too low, sparkling beige, gold-trimmed china with gold chargers. Goblets for water with nice beverage glasses to match, fine flatware, and shimmering silver.

After years of working hours of overtime to purchase all that I needed to reach my Leave It To Beaver status, I felt satisfied. But, unfortunately, I needed validation. After putting so much effort into my family traditions for over twenty years, I felt uncertain if I had truly attained what I wanted. At times, I asked myself why I went through so much trouble, especially when there was so much food left over.

Then on Mother’s Day in the spring of 2005 the answer came. In my eldest son’s Mother’s Day card to me, he said, among other heartfelt things: “Thank you, Mom for making our home a wonderful place to come to for the holidays. It has meant a lot to me.”

Wow! At that point, nothing else mattered. It’s confirmed. After all those years of struggling to get the dinner right, the table to sparkle, create an atmosphere so my family yearned to return each and every year, to hear doors slam, little feet stomp up and down the stairs, I had finally realized my dream . . . a warm home for the holidays and all the days in between.

Being a perfectionist wasn’t so bad after all.

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