Posted by: Amanda | November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving at Mama Lillie’s

When I was a kid, Thanksgiving was the last big barrier to cross before Christmas. There was a lot of hustle and bustle. We (the kids and Daddy) watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade while Momma finished any cooking she was doing. Of all the women who brought food to the big family gathering, Momma was the best cook. She made the dressing, usually some desserts, and probably other dishes that I don’t remember.

What I do remember is the insane amount of food that spread across my great grandmother’s dining table. We always went to Mama Lillie’s house for Thanksgiving and Christmas; she was my Momma’s maternal grandmother. The group that gathered there consisted mostly of her four grandchildren and all their children (my first cousins) and any significant others (as all of us cousins got older). Her four grandchildren (my mother Paula and her four brothers Dean, John, and Dudley) and their spouses trickled in, bringing dish after dish of food and pack after pack of kids (there was usually about 10 of us first cousins). A few people smoked, which filled the house with a haze. The men who drank alcohol did so on the sly out in the driveway behind the piles of cars because Mama Lillie did not approve.

In northwestern Alabama, the weather on Thanksgiving could go just about any direction. It could be cold (which means lower than 48 degrees), or it could be pleasant (around 76). It could be raining. But there was never snow–at least not that I know of. But, usually, it was a crisp enough autumn day to wear a sweater, which of course became almost unbearable in Mama Lillie’s house where both gas furnaces would be blaring, the oven and every stovetop burner going at full blast, and the cigarette smoke swirling in the air.

What I remember most is that by the time we got to Mama Lillie’s house I was starving, but I knew that when we got there it would be a while before we could get the buffet train rolling. I’d walk into the dining room several times, just looking at the progress. You’d think that after years years of doing the same thing on Thanksgiving, I would have learned to eat more breakfast. My brother and sister and I might sneak a bowl of cereal while we watched the parade before leaving for Mama Lillie’s, but we knew it was best to stay clear of the kitchen while Momma finished the dressing. As everyone arrived, I’d get hugged and kissed over and over again. “Hey, Manda Bug,” everyone would say. As the cousins close to my age arrived, Randall and Jana, we’d head to one of the back rooms to plot the day.

There were a few strange dishes that always appeared at Thanksgiving. Most of these no one (or least very few people) ate because they were so hideous looking. They probably have an official name, but one of these recipes (I call them Mayo Pears) consisted of pear halves filled with a scoop of mayo sprinkled with shredded cheddar cheese and topped with a cherry. These pears struck fear into my very core. The same thing happened when I saw a big plastic Tupperware bowl full of something I think they called Waldorf Salad. All I know is that it appeared to be another fruit/mayo combo.  I later learned that these dishes were made by Mama Lillie–not because anyone really liked them but because her husband (who passed away when I was 2) had loved them when he was alive. Those pears which scared the hell out of me were a tribute to the love of her life.

The womenfolk always turned the utility room into the dessert bar, lining up pies and cookies and bars and 9×13 pans of joy also called Mississippi Mud on the deep freeze and the dryer and the washing machine. Every year I looked forward to my Aunt Becky (married to my uncle Dean) bringing a cheesecake. It was sometimes cherry, sometimes strawberry, other times both. I didn’t like the cherries, so I just raked the topping off. But, my, how I loved some cheesecake. It may have been one of those Jello Cheesecakes, but whatever it was it was heavenly.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The adults usually sent the kids through the buffet line first and sent us off to the formal living room where Mama Lillie kept her owl collection, at least 100 glass owls arranged on shelves and in glass cases around her tiny living room. The kids would spread around the coffee table. Sometimes the adults would separate the older kids from the younger kids. I can’t remember if this happened as we got older or if it was an arbitrary decision.

I started thinking about our crazy Thanksgiving celebrations yesterday and even more this morning as I was looking through the current issue of Southern Living. There was a special section on centerpieces/holiday table settings/stuff like that. There was no room for a centerpiece at Mama Lillie’s house because there was too much food. I mean who wants a big crystal bowl full of gold spray painted pine cones when you can have another casserole there instead? Things got a little crazy with the cooking and more and more pans of food just kept showing up. For instance, my mom might be signed up to make dressing and green beans and one dessert. But, she would get to going in the kitchen and decide to bring mac and cheese and another dessert or two. Then, she’d remember that maybe no one was bringing rolls and she’d send Daddy (Chuck) out to the Piggly Wiggly to pick up some of those brown-and-serve rolls that my sister preferred to eat uncooked but still smeared with butter. And, of course, everyone had their ideas about what makes dressing good. Momma’s dressing is simple–cornbread, onions, sage, and some chicken. Other people want to put celery, hard-boiled eggs and such in theirs, so suddenly the table would have three pans of dressing on it. And table settings? I’m not sure, but I think one year we finally convinced Mama Lillie to let us use styrofoam, those divided plates that look a little like school lunch trays. We didn’t have placecards, but why do you need placecards if everyone already knows everyone? As the cousins got older, we started bringing boyfriends and girlfriends, but all it took was a quick introduction and there were assimilated into the herd.

I think the same thing was probably going on at my uncle’s homes that was going on at ours. Kids plopped on the couch, dressed and waiting on time to go. It seemed that John’s wife (at least at the time) Wanda would bring the Mississippi Mud (If you’ve never had this dessert, don’t let the name scare you. It’s a mish mash of things surrounded in gooey chocolate. And it’s awesome if I remember correctly) every year. I can imagine her yelling at her kids (Adam, Mathew, and Samantha) to stay out of the kitchen while she finished making the mud, maybe handing them a honey bun for breakfast, then remembering that maybe no one had signed up for rolls and sending John out to the Foodland to grab a pack or two of those brown-and-serve rolls. Or, if as Aunt Becky prepared the cheesecake she suddenly remembered I didn’t like the cherry topping and sent Dean or her son Randall after he could drive to the Piggly Wiggly to get a can of strawberry topping instead and mentioned that while he was there he might just pick up some canned sweet potatoes and marshmallows. After all, did anyone sign up to bring the sweet potato cassserole?

Sometimes after eating, a bunch of us would go out into the field behind Mama Lillie’s backyard and play football or freeze tag or something. My Uncle Dudley might climb a tree just for fun, which would make Uncle John climb a tree just for fun. My grandmother Ma would sit in a lawn chair, smoking and watching with Dudley’s wife (at least at the time) Andrea. The women would work to combine leftovers into pans and putting them in the oven (which is where leftovers were always stored), washing up dirty dishes, cleaning up the utility room dessert bar, and sweeping the floor. One of my favorite parts of the day happened after everyone had gone home. It would be dark and seem later than it actually was, but we’d all pack into the car again (probably our Pontiac Bonneville) and drive the few miles back to Mama Lillie’s house for leftovers. It always seemed so quiet there on Thanksgiving night after the 20 or so people had left, taking their empty pans home, and we’d get to visit with her, laughing about things I can’t remember now.

My last Thanksgiving at Mama Lillie’s was the year I turned 19. She died the following January. I’m 32 now. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 13 years since we all gathered at that little house, crammed into every room, eating piles of food, laughing and playing games, trying to breathe in the heat and the smoke and avoiding the mayo pears. At least I avoided the mayo pears. I’m not sure who ate the 2 or 3 that were missing off the plate. I wonder if after everyone left, and Mama Lillie was alone again, in the quiet of Thanksgiving night if she cried as she packed up the untouched Waldorf salad, remembering a different time.

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