The linking of cooking, holidays and my mother in memories that bring traumatic feelings of hunger, humiliation, homelessness and dread, remains the perhaps the most paramount reason for my offering of thanks today.
I did not expect to spend Thursday preparing a turkey for three. An ill cat threw a monkey wrench in my original plan to escape my apartment, kick up my feet and let some other willing soul do the cooking. Instead, Tuesday evening there I was cruising the aisles of the grocery store looking for rubbed sage, Gruyere cheese, a fresh turkey, cranberries, a fennel bulb, crystallized ginger and any other odd item written on my grocery list. While awaiting my turn with the cashier, I espied a little black girl in pigtails watching her mother pay for the groceries…with a food stamp card. That used to be me. Never again.
I handed her a bunch of coupons. 10$ off the turkey, $8 off if I spend $80 or more…
Afrocity was happy. Groceries bagged and ready to roll on out into a rainy night.
Don’t think about it Afrocity….Too late. The desire to forget has lost its battle
A food pantry was nice enough to deliver food to our apartment. Two bags of groceries filled with canned goods, a roast chicken and the kindness of strangers. There was even a jar of Tang instant breakfast drink mix. Young Afrocity was satisfied with the things brought by the food pantry. Mother was not.
“A roasting chicken?!?” she exclaimed, looking at the poor bird. “Who eats chicken on Thanksgiving? Just because we are getting free food does not mean they should just give us anything.To be perfect there has to be a turkey.”
I was silent. Food was in the house and not much else mattered to me. I ignored her complaining as I took the canned goods from the bag left by the nice man. Pumpkin pie filling, canned pears and peaches…
Mother’s disappointment in the food basket did not wan. “Let’s go to that pantry and get more better food…maybe a turkey even.”
I shook my head. Is she crazy? Not only was it 8PM on Thanksgiving Eve but it was cold and windy out. The food pantry was nearly 30 blocks away from our apartment in Oak park, IL.
“The man said only two bags per family,” I offered as an excuse, hoping she would give up the idea.
“How will they know? We can just go there and pretend we never got our delivery so they will give us more.”
I returned continually to the two bags per family rule. ” The man who delivered the groceries saw our faces and you signed a list he had. What if he is at the pantry now?”
Undaunted, mother grabbed her coat. “That is why we leave NOW. He had over 100 folks on that list he ain’t finished delivering yet.”
Before I could say cranberry sauce, I was trudging through a foot of snow with mother in hot pursuit of a food pantry that was thirty blocks away. My hands were freezing by block ten. My boots, already wet from coming home after school, were soaked and numbed my toes. We were both silent but the air was thick with regret. Mother’s trench coat was not equipped to deal with the wind, her tennis shoes disappeared in snow with every step.
“Are we almost there?” I asked shivering. Too much snow was blowing in my face to see the street signs. Walking with my small head down was the only solution. I was tired of walking and snow exacerbated the problem. Lifting each leg higher and higher as the food pantry drew closer and closer. I wanted to die. Several times mother stopped as if there were moments that she wanted to give up and go back home. But we had come too far to turn back.
“There it is,” Mother said through heavy breathing.
I cannot recall the name of the food pantry. Or the affiliation of those who operated it. It was simply a large Victorian style home. The wrap around porch cracked as we walked on the rock salt to ring the doorbell.
I kept my head towards the porch swing, now covered with snow. I did not want these people to see how stupid mother and I were for walking so far for a bag of groceries that we were lying about.
A young girl opened the door. Mother explained that we never received our basket. The girl went to a clipboard hanging in the mudroom. I sat on a bench in the parlor, legs numb and sticking straight out.
Another young girl appeared. “You guys must be freezing,” she said kneeling in front of me. “Do you want some hot cider?”
“No” mother said curtly but I nodded my head and the girl disappeared into the back of the house. Mother gave me a dirty look. The one she gave me whenever I went “rogue” and off-script. Cider meant we would have to wait till I drank it to leave. Mother wanted to get the food and get out.
“Your name is on the list…Oh, no I bet he tried to deliver as you were on your way here,” said the girl. ” You poor things walking all this way because you had no food. I do not have much left, our donations this year have been slow we did not receive any turkeys only chickens and capons…”
Perhaps the woman saw the look of despair on my face. 30 blocks for nothing.
Hesitantly, our hostess nodded , “Let me get you a 5lb bag of potatoes and some cans of chicken broth for you trouble. I will even through in a jug of cider for your daughter to make her own.”
Mother smiled. We had presented ourselves as broken people. Her mission was accomplished. My integrity and the nerve endings in my toes sold for a 5lb bag of potatoes and a jug of cider…That we now had to carry 30 blocks back home.
My cider was finished as I slowly thawed. Out went the broken mother and child caring charity food in brown paper bags. In came the delivery man. For a moment he stopped and starred at us. I know he knew that he had seen us. Mother put her head down as we passed him like three ships in the snowy night.
Thirty blocks later, I was home in bed, warm but feet still numb.
Mother stayed up late, she never came to bed that night. I could smell the chicken roasting, celery being chopped.
During the night I need to empty my small cider filled bladder. Quietly I walked, down the long railroad hallway until I passed the kitchen and saw a sight that would turn me into the most sympathetic narrator of my mother’s story. She was silently crying while looking at the roast chicken.”
She only wanted Thanksgiving Day to be perfect. That’s all. Sixty blocks for perfect Thanksgiving.
When I carve my turkey tonight, I will be especially thankful and I will remember my mother.
Happy Thanksgiving and Good Bless You All
Autographed Letter Signed,