My parents, whom I love dearly, are hurtling into their respective dotages, and their house is getting weird right along with them. It’s not scary or sad or Hoarders-ey, so much as it’s something you may recognize from your own place, only with a few decades more stuff and a very adorable little dog in the mix. What’s at work here is a certain settling, I guess, that reflects an unspoken détente with all the piles of old paper and dusty shelved knicknackery. My parents’ non-aggression pact with those lifetimes of stuff makes for a tense border in nearly every room, and their coexistence with their things is not always peaceful — there are spasmodic organizing bouts from my mother, and the piles of dusty files periodically and unexpectedly yield to avalanche.
The collapse of one of those manila towers startled me awake when I was sleeping in the guest room a few months back. I was sleeping in the guest room because my room now belongs to bags of old clothes that my mother has been meaning to give away since Bill Clinton was president. Again, this is natural and totally reasonable, given that my parents are in their mid-sixties and have worked their asses off for their whole lives, but the sense I get when I come home now is that they’re just kind of leaving most of the place be, and that not a lot actually happens in the house these days. Thanksgiving has always been a big, busy day around the house, but it is now just about the only exception to the snowy, mostly happy restfulness that currently prevails.
It has always been like this, and I think the anticipation and days of preparatory work had much to do with why Thanksgiving always seemed so special and important to me as a kid, and why it has persisted as my favorite holiday. I vividly recall the way that the ingredients that jammed the refrigerator on Monday would half-miraculously evolve over the course of the week. Silver bricks of Philadelphia Cream Cheese shrank dazzlingly into my mother’s brilliant, dense cheesecake overnight — my mother’s cheesecake is the best I’ve ever had by a factor of a thousand, and that statement would also be true for you or anyone else, but I know better than to ask her to share that recipe. Disparate bags of vegetables reduced themselves to stuffing on Wednesday, then moved to the back of the fridge to make room for more ingredients before finally heading to the oven on Thursday. In the way that everything does when you’re a kid, it all seemed kind of mystifying and awesome. It still does, actually.
My parents have hosted every Thanksgiving that I can remember — there was probably a Thanksgiving or two at my unhappy grandmother’s unhappy Jersey City home, and I’ve definitely blocked it out — and take it very seriously, which means that there’s an elaborate choreography to the week’s work that is also taken very seriously. As I got older and was permitted to take a more active role in the cooking and serving, the magical transmogrification of, say, that bag of knobby, distended yams into a Pyrex dish of gooey sweet potatoes was demystified somewhat, but the whole thing never got any less sacred-seeming.
As with the rest of the house, the Thanksgiving routine remains untouched — as with the rest of the house, nothing is thrown out, everything is constant. My father tweaks his approach to those sweet potatoes (which will never match Aunt Harriet’s from when he was a kid, because how could they) and to the reliable horror that is giblet-chunk gravy, but that happens every year. The cheesecake, the cookies and other deserts, the stuffing and everything else emerge from their respective cookbooks every year. And those poor leprotic cookbooks’ are shedding pages in great chunks, the bindings are crumbling to dust, their covers bald and generally illegible. Still, they’ll be out this week as they’ve been out every week for 30-odd years. They’re not going anywhere, so why not.
Below is my thin contribution to all this house-clutter: a recipe I brought home from school when I was in second grade, and which my family has been making every year since. That we still have it is, as noted above, maybe not that notable given how many other things we have kept. To look at the recipe itself, though, you’d think it’s even older than it is — the blue mimeograph is hugely faded, the paper itself seemingly re-pulping into something as soft as an old dollar bill, a series of faint orange and brown stains now fully sunk into the sheet. I was pretty sure that Mrs. Irvine, the second grade teacher who gave the recipe to my class, was long passed. Second grade feels like a long time ago, after all, and seriously you have to see the paper this thing is printed on. Because I’m always and everywhere about the uplift, I’d originally thought of this as an opportunity to eulogize that second grade teacher — this mostly forgotten woman who had her second grade class doing square dances in the middle of the classroom, who handed out mimeo’d recipes and gave me a composition book and the instruction to use it as a special writing journal, because she sensed writing might be something I’d enjoy and because my spazzy energy needed an outlet that didn’t involve tear-assing around the classroom making fart noises with my hands.
But thinking about it now, I realize that there’s nothing to eulogize. For one thing, Mrs. Irvine is, as near as I can tell, alive and kicking — she even won an award from the National Women’s History Project in 2007, or someone who looks a lot like her did. And her recipe is still very good, and I’ll join my parents in making it sometime on Thursday morning. If we held onto the paper itself because we hold onto everything — out of inertia, out of habit, out of compulsion, out of something else — it bears mentioning that we keep making the cranberry orange relish because it’s really delicious. I’m constantly kind of amazed by how complicated my parents’ house has become — all the little nestled compromises and tenuousnesses and inexplicable deserts of left-aloneness, and that little, gleeful bathmat of a dog running around it all — but this recipe is simple, and so is understanding why we still make it. It works, and so it endures.
Miss Irvine’s Cranberry Orange Relish
(The wording below is my mother’s)
4 cups cranberries (1 pound)
2 navel oranges, quartered and unpeeled
1/2 cup sugar (Mrs. Irvine’s recipe uses more, but this is how we do it in the Roth family)
Wash cranberries and remove stems and other stuff.
Cut oranges and remove seeds, then put cranberries and seeded, quartered oranges in Cuisinart.
Mix well to desired crunchiness.
Mix again to blend all ingredients.
Chill in refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap.