Monday, 22 December 2008

Other than my Aunt Cheryl (a Lutheran pastor) and my Dad’s folks, mine are not a particularly religious people. We don’t go to church or practice any religion – at least not formally. Yet we say grace at holiday gatherings, mainly Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

It’s as if begging alone will guarantee a good spot in the hereafter.

At Grandpa Armstrong’s it was usually up to either my brother or me to say grace. I was terrible at ad-libbing prayers since we didn’t get much practice at home, so I always stuck with an old, childhood favorite:

God is great, God is good Let us thank Him for this food, Amen.

One time I accidentally – ACCIDENTALLY – flipped the middle line “Let Him thank us for this food” and got away with it, but that was rare. Grandma Armstrong had a great sense of humor except when it came to The Almighty. Prayer was to be taken seriously. You played it straight and didn’t take chances if you knew what was good for you.

At Grandma Bertula’s it was a different matter entirely. Grandma herself was pretty dour, but the rest of us were a fun-loving bunch. Jocularity and good-natured ribbing were de rigeur and pretty much nothing was off limits.

That extended all the way to saying grace; a task normally reserved for “the kids.” My Mother and Brother were spared, which meant it was up to Uncle Ray, Aunt Mary, and me. Ray did the honors when he was in town, and I’d pick up the slack when he wasn’t.

We had two classics, I’m not sure where Ray came up with them, but they were like well-worn friends. The first beautiful in and almost artfully minimalist:


That was it. After that he’d dig right in and you’d miss the stuffing if you weren’t paying attention. The other, extravagant by comparison, was probably my favorite:

Rub a dub dub Thanks for the grub Yay God!

Every year Grandma Bertula acted annoyed, but I think it was all an act. Truthfully, I think she secretly enjoyed it. She’d smile, kind of sheepishly, and exclaim “Oh, Ray!”

My Uncle Ray and Aunt Cindy were visiting her family one year, so I was asked to do the honors. I didn’t dare look at Grandma because, she had this face she’d make. The disapproval face. In spite of our family’s long-running, if irreverent, tradition, she expected something more traditional. Somehow I just knew. So I just bowed my head, took a slight pause for dramatic effect, and said:

Clap your hands and stamp your feet Praise the Lord! Good God, let’s eat!

I remember getting a “Michael!” from someone, possibly Mom. I couldn’t tell if Grandma was more shocked or amused, although I did catch her stifling a smile. Either way I just beamed; I hadn’t chickened out and had pulled it off.

After all, if you can’t have fun with your family, you’re taking life far too seriously.

Saturday, 24 December 2005

It was tradition in our family. We had Thanksgiving dinner at our house and spent Christmas Eve at Grandma Bertula’s.

Both dinners were pretty much the same: turkey and all the trimmings. We had candied yams (sweet potatoes), mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls, asparagus (Grandma didn’t like broccoli), pie, and, and, and… And stuffing.

Now, Mom wasn’t known for taking shortcuts in her cooking. For Thanksgiving, she went all out, even making her own cranberry sauce. She’d start with bags upon bags of cranberries then boil them for hours down in water with a bunch of sugar. It’s primary purpose was to make yifta (it’s a real dish!), but one delicious benefit was that we never had to eat the stuff out of a can.

Mom would even make the stuffing from scratch, tearing the bread by hand; a task for which she got up early just to have time. The hard work certainly paid off, because the whole house smelled wonderful and dinner was amazing.

Yet year after year, one thing troubled my Mom – she never felt that her stuffing lived up to Grandma’s. She could never get it quite as moist or to taste just like her mother’s. Personally, I thought it was great, but Mom wasn’t satisfied.

Finally, as we sat down to Christmas Eve dinner, Mom took her first bite of Grandma’s stuffing. “I use your recipe every year and no matter what I do I can’t get my stuffing to come out like yours. I can’t figure out how you get it so perfect. How do you do it?”

With a wry smile on her face, Grandma said “The stuffing? I’ve been using Stove-Top for years.”

Thursday, 24 November 2005

I ended up not going down to Kansas City this year for Thanksgiving. I usually ride down with my Aunt Mary, but her car and mine both conspired to keep us in town. Talking with my mom a few days ago, I told her that if we had the “mashed potato conversation” again this year, I was so going to put it on my Web site. She said to do it anyway:

It happens every year. We’re gathered at the table, someone has said grace (a story for another time), and people are loading thier plates. When the mashed potatoes come around I quietly pass them along. That’s when it starts.

Mom: “Don’t you want any mashed potatoes?”

Me: “I don’t like mashed potatoes.”

“When did you stop liking mashed potatoes?”

“I’ve never actually liked them. It’s not about anyone’s in particular, I just don’t care for them.” My mom’s are quite good, by mashed potato standards, but that doesn’t really change anything as far as I’m concerned.

“You used to eat them. When did you stop?”

“When I was 8 or 9, I think. Old enough to load my own plate and therefore pass them along quietly, without further comment.”

Except, it seems, for the annual mashed potato conversation.