Before my parents split we’d always spent Thanksgivings and holidays with my cousins at their house in the new part of town. Grandma would come with the turkey and dressing, while Mama and Aunt Terry made mashed potatoes and gravy, jello salad, green beans, sweet potatoes with miniature marshmallows browned and bubbled on top, and pies. We didn’t have just pumpkin; we had pecan and mincemeat too. Grandma made the mincemeat pie with real meat, not just fruit and nuts. Uncle Teddy and Daddy could polish off a whole mincemeat pie after eating three rounds of the Thanksgiving feast.
The Noble House Restaurant where Grandma worked as a cook was closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’d never been around Grandma when she was cooking and the morning of Thanksgiving I got up early to find her wrapped in an apron with a cigarette burning in the ashtray next to a steaming cup of coffee. She turned to greet me with a kiss and then asked if I wanted a crusted crispy and some coffee.
“Eww, coffee?” I felt my face scrunch into yuckiness.
“My grandma gave me coffee. I couldn’t have been much older than you.”
“But Aunt Terry says it will put hair on my chest.”
Grandma unbuttoned the top two buttons of her housedress and pulled it open. “Do you see any hair on my chest?”
I saw the big white straps and cups of her brassiere, but no hair. I shook my head.
“Well then, how about a cup?
“If you say so.”
Grandma reached to the back of a cabinet and pulled out a tiny china cup with a matching saucer. I felt my eyes grow wide with the beauty of that little cup. It was nearly transparent, white, with pink rosebuds entwined around a pale blue ribbon. The rim was streaked with gold.
“Here’s the cup my grandma gave me. It’s a demitasse she brought with her from Ireland. I know you’ll be very careful with it.” Grandma rinsed it out, dried it and filled it half full with coffee. Then she added two spoons of sugar, stirred it with a tiny spoon dug from the back of the silverware drawer, and then topped it with cream. Grandma used real cream that the milkman left by our door every Monday.
I sat down at her red Formica table and stirred my coffee with the little spoon. My legs dangled from the chair in unison to the rhythm of my stirring. Grandma turned back to the sink, but I could tell she was watching me from the corner of her eye.
My fingers fit through the tiny handle with ease and I lifted the cup to my face. I looked into the circle of creamy brown and saw myself looking back. I smiled at myself and tipped the cup to my lips. The coffee tasted divine, almost as good as the ears of a chocolate Easter bunny. Grandma invested me in the family ritual that morning, the coffee ritual I would see enacted around the red Formica table for twenty years in real life and forever in my memory.
After my third cup of coffee, Grandma suggested I consider some orange juice because it being Thanksgiving and all, I’d need plenty of vitamin C to get me through the day. She slapped down a jelly glass with orange juice and disappeared out to the pantry room and returned with a huge white parcel.
“What’s that?” I pointed to the package.
“It’s the bird.”
I screwed up my face in a question mark. “Huh?”
Grandma unwrapped the huge white thing, then held it up by the wings and made it jiggle. “Ever seen a turkey dance?”
I laughed and giggled while Grandma returned the turkey to the sink.
“Want to give it a name?” Grandma said.
“Okay. But is it a boy or a girl?”
Grandma looked over the bird with a grin. “It’s not either one, if you ask me. So you choose.”
Then how about Matilda?”
Matilda she is. Watch this.” Grandma’s reached into Matilda’s rump, her arm disappeared nearly to her elbow and then pulled out a sack of bloody looking stuff.
“Yuck!” I jumped back as if the bloody stuff were alive.
“What do you mean, ‘yuck.’ This is the best part. It’s the giblets. The liver, heart, and gizzard.
I wrinkled my nose. “Double yuck.”
“Then I suppose you don’t want to do the neck?”
“There’s no neck on that bird.”
“It’s tucked away. Wanna dig for it?”
Grandma pointed to the caved-in area where the neck should’ve been and then pulled up a flap of pimply skin. “Just reach in here.”
I had to stand on my tip-toes to get to the bird. I ran my hand around the rim of the neck-hole to make sure it was safe, as if the bird’s gaping hollow had teeth. Easing my hand into the cold, slimy hollow, my hand caught on something soft and hard. Sliding my hand up and down the object, I encircled my fingers around the thing and pulled. The thing came free and I dropped it into the sink like it was a poisonous snake.
“There, that wasn’t so yucky was it?
“No, it was icky and yucky.” I stuck out my tongue and gagged. “So what’re you going to do with this stuff?”
Grandma pulled out a saucepan, tossed in the giblets and neck, filled it with water and set it burning on the stove. “I boil them down for the broth and then cut up the giblets and pull the meat from the neck bones for the dressing.”
“Sounds so icky, but it tastes so good.”
Grandma moved back to the bird lying naked in the sink. You want to pop some feather buds?
“Huh? Is that all you can answer when you don’t know something? I sure would like it if you said, ‘What, Grandma?’”
My friend Jenny back in Santa Ana had to say “sir” and “mam” to grown-ups because her daddy was a Marine and had been in Viet Nam. I guessed that I’d been corrected kind of like Jenny was, but Grandma’s voice was a lot nicer about it than Jenny’s dad had been.
“That’s better. That’s how a girl drinking from a china cup would answer.”
More than anything at that moment I wanted to be that girl. I wanted to say, ‘Yes, Grandma, I’d like some coffee this morning,’ every day of my life.
Grandma pulled me up a stool and together we popped the feather buds. This was the funnest part of turkey making. The turkey skin was slick, not slimy, with pock holes where feathers had been. The feather buds were easy to find because they were swollen up kind of like a pimple and had a hard, white thing in them. Some of the feather buds actually had the tiniest spray of white blooming from the end of the shaft. Grandma showed me how to use my thumbs to pop out the feather buds, saying I’d probably use the same technique to pop blackheads on my face in a couple of years.
We finished popping the feather buds while my mind imagined huge swellings on my face with black buds sticking out, rather than the white ones on the turkey.
Grandma washed off the bird and patted it dry, then lifted it from the sink and set in inside an enormous blue and white speckled roasting pan.
“Now we have to season old Matilda. This is what turns a plain, old turkey into a well dressed bird.” Grandma chopped up a handful of garlic cloves and cooked them in a square of butter. Then she poured the garlic butter over Matilda and rubbed it all over her wings and legs and chest. Next she sprinkled salt straight from the pour spout of the carton, her wrist moving so fast the salt flung high into the air and settled on the bird. Next she grabbed her long wooden pepper grinder and dusted the bird with black speckles. She pulled bottles of spices from the cabinet and lined them on the counter and then took one at a time and sprinkled them in succession, saying their names as she went.
“Sage. A good sprinkling of sage; it’s the number one poultry seasoning. Now for some thyme.”
“How long do we cook it?”
"Not t-i-m-e, as with a clock, but t-h-y-m-e, an herb.”
“Ah ha. T-H-Y-M-E.” Delighted at the lesson, spelling was one of my academic achievements.
“Then you’re going to toss on some marjoram, some finely ground rosemary—not the leafy kind—if you can’t find the powdered kind, you’ll have to grind it up in one of these. Grandma pulled out a small jar with a stick in it. “This is my mortar and pestle. I look kind of like a witch using this, don’t I?”
Really she did. Her long gray-streaked hair that was usually wound in a sleeping snake on her head now crawled down her back in a huge braid. Her apron had crept above the hump of her big tummy and hung loose in the back. I’d seldom seen her without make-up and her wrinkly skin was dotted with brown spots. That she was fixing up a huge bird the size of a small child did little to wipe away the image.
“Finally, add a light dusting of nutmeg. Not a lot; just enough for a bit of sweetness to the skin.”
Grandma stood back and swept her arm across the bird. “Sheila, meet Matilda; our Thanksgiving feast.” Grandma put a cover over Matilda and shoved her in the oven.
“Let’s take a bit of a break, shall we?” Grandma poured herself a fresh cup of coffee and looked at me with narrowed eyes. “Do you feel like jumping out of your skin?”
My eyes flew open. “Huh? I mean, what, Grandma?”
“How about one more cup of coffee, Sheila?” Grandma made me a fresh cup of coffee, plopped herself into a chair and lit a cigarette.
My eyes followed the cigarette to her mouth.
“No cigarettes, Sheila. Coffee’s okay. It’s good. But don’t ever do this to yourself.”
“Then how come you do?”
“Honey, if I could stop, I would. These things have me by the throat. Don’t ever let anything—or anyone—own you like these cigarettes own me.
A gray spiral of smoke climbed through the air as Grandma drew the cigarette to her lips. She drew in a huge puff, waited a moment and then exhaled the gray plume above her head.
“How about a quick game of Yahtzee before everyone wakes up? We’ll use my quiet cup.”
Seemed Grandma had a cup for everything.