Since 2000, my family has said goodbye to many of those we have loved dearly and when the holidays are here, I feel the twinge of pain in my heart from their absence. I miss seeing my mom with a large glass of wine in her hand, laughing with one of my sisters as she put the final touches on the onion pie, Brussels sprouts, stuffing or sweet potatoes. The smells of the kitchen...the collage of all those wonderful comfort foods mixed together in one room and throughout the lower level of our house...adding to the anticipation of the meal to come. A whiff of wood smoke from the fireplace crackling in the living room and sitting on a warm hearth while the flames heat your back. The bad jokes, the running and crawling children, the smiles and the love.
Of course, there was one thing that had to happen if it was tradition in our household...Always, always the rolls would somehow get burned. Maybe it was because mom had had a few too many glasses of wine by the time they were put in oven to heat for a few minutes...maybe it was because they should have been put on the top rack instead of the bottom rack...but it became a holiday tradition in our house to burn the rolls. When it happened, we would all laugh as we cut away the charred, black areas and coated them with butter and preserves to hide the overcooked flavor.
I find myself trying hard with all my might to remember those details of the past now. Remembering the voices of my siblings that are gone and how it felt for us to be all together as one family again.
And now, with two older siblings at battle with cancer, we thought it very prudent to fly home for a short trip.
At 30,000 feet, as I looked out my plane window to the clouds far below, it was mostly a dark sky and all I could see was my reflection against the window...but sometimes the cloud cover below would highlight the cities and towns underneath them. The light from football fields, churches and neighborhoods creating what looked like a glowing ember below. I could almost smell the wood smoke from my parent's fireplace. I could almost hear the laughter and smell the food.
I'm not a northerner anymore. Well, by birth I am for sure, but I've lived down south for most of my adult life and dammit, it is cold up there! As my sister and I lugged our bags across the street to the parking garage where we'd get our rental car, the wind whipped our faces and hands...at times it almost felt like millions of tiny pins pricking the open skin as we dodged the slush puddles and hurriedly ran for cover in the lower 30 degree temperature.
My older sister, Sue had planned a pre Thanksgiving get together at her home in northern Wisconsin on the Saturday before the official holiday. So, that morning Laurel and I picked up my older brother Eric and his wife Susie and we headed north from Milwaukee. The trip was very enjoyable...we laughed much, talked about the past and did what I like to do most to those held captive in a car with me for long trips...play name that tune. Of course, I've got a pretty steep advantage since the music is from my library, but it helps make the drive go by as we listen to a mix of Beatles, Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
As we sang along to the old songs of our past our turn went by and miles along with it. Soon, my brother said "I think we turn here...no, wait, this doesn't look familiar." We were lost...only temporarily and with the help of the GPS within my phone we were back on track. But, this non-direct route took us a way we normally would not have traveled. This time we went down Highway 0 and eventually by the Triple 0 restaurant and bar. A flood of memories came by as I looked up at the worn Old Style beer sign marking the entrance to the restaurant. I remembered coming here with my dad when I was a mere 15 years old and my first year deer hunting. Sometimes we'd be in the north country for Thanksgiving because the season only ran a week and it overlapped the holiday. Our hunting cabin was not far away and on this particular day, we had been busy scouting out our hunting stands for the early hunt the following morning. And honestly, I didn't care if I shot a buck...not really. All I wanted was to be with my dad and the adult men telling stories about the monster buck that got away.
Being that it was Friday, we had been told the Triple 0 was a great place for fish fry...so we made the short drive down curvy country roads lined by snow fences and harvested corn fields. I can remember following my dad and others from our hunting party into the restaurant so clearly in my mind today; the door swung open and there was a room full of hunters. Some sitting, some standing, there were red and black checkered jackets, orange jackets and hats hung en mass on an overburdened coat stand to my right. So fully covered that it resembled a mutant bear of hunting colors than anything you would wear. Men were talking in high volume, there was loud breaks of laughter, pipe and cigar smoke hung low in the room, right about eye level and waitresses were running from table to table with trays of freshly fried fish.
Within a minute the memory ended and I resumed the drive, concentrating on the road signs and listening to my simulated human voice navigator. Within a few minutes we made it to my sister's farm.
Once I knew that the trip to Wisconsin was for sure, the plans for this early Thanksgiving were on. My nephew Bill and his wife Becky are phenomenal cooks and they along with Sue had planned a meal that would be incredible. They'd have many of the dishes my mom used to make and they even planned to make rolls! But, the rolls would not be burnt...not this time!
As we sat down to eat, said grace and toasted our family, I looked down the table at all the wonderful people lining both sides and the feast that lay in front of us. Onion pie-just like mom would make, oyster casserole, green bean casserole, stuffing, candid yams, squash, mashed potatoes, smoked turkey and yes rolls. As I picked one up I couldn't help but notice...it was burned on the bottom. With a smile I could hear my mother and sister Gail laughing...they were with us if not here physically, in spirit for sure.
To me, this was a pleasant reminder that my mom and sister Gail were with us. Just a subtle notice of our past and a gift of memory.