Let’s Talk with Lois Winston

So Not a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving
By Lois Winston

For much of my life I dreaded Thanksgiving. Inter-generational family gatherings were rare during my childhood. My father was barely tolerated, not only by my mother’s family, but also his own. My paternal grandfather was one of thirteen children. My father had dozens of cousins, most living within close proximity, but I never met any of them because no one wanted to be around my father—for good reason. I could give you a long list, but let’s just say it’s too bad we can’t choose our parents.

For some reason, maybe due to guilt, every Thanksgiving we’d be invited to either my maternal grandmother or aunt’s home. However, the visits were never enjoyable. Even as a very young child I noticed the tension. You could slice it with the turkey carving knife. I don’t know why my grandmother and aunt kept inviting us, but they were saints for doing so.

I escaped my dysfunctional family when I went off to college. After I married, I thought I was becoming part of a “normal” family. But maybe there’s really no such thing. My mother-in-law was not only an extremely difficult person to get along with but also an old-school communist. That’s a story for another day, though. (If you’re really curious, read my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries. Anastasia’s communist mother-in-law is based on my experiences with my own mother-in-law.)

But back to Thanksgiving…for the first ten or twelve years of my marriage, my husband’s maternal grandmother hosted Thanksgiving at her extremely large apartment in Manhattan. These were huge family gatherings, the number of attendees growing each year as additional cousins married and great-grandchildren began arriving.

When my husband’s grandmother passed away, much to everyone’s chagrin, his mother announced she was taking over Thanksgiving hosting duties. The annual gatherings quickly became much smaller affairs. My husband’s siblings, who had moved to other parts of the country, made excuses for not traveling during the holiday. His cousins decided to start their own family traditions. I suspect, though, that the real reason people dropped out in droves was because they’d all previously eaten my mother-in-law’s cooking.

My mother-in-law prided herself on her expert culinary skills, which she bragged surpassed those of Fannie Farmer. (Is there really a Fanny Farmer? Or is she fictitious like Betty Crocker? I have no idea.) Anyway, she refused to follow directions because as a self-proclaimed expert on everything, she always knew a better way.

Normally, I find it easy to ignore know-it-alls, but when it comes to eating food they’ve cooked, that can have severe repercussions. For instance, my mother-in-law roasted all forms of poultry by time only, never bothering to use a meat thermometer. Most people fight over the drumsticks, but the only reason none of us ever came down with food poisoning is because we knew only to take the outer slices of turkey. The drumsticks wouldn’t be safe until they were reheated as leftovers.

But as much as my mother-in-law undercooked her poultry, she overcooked her vegetables–in a pressure cooker, for at least half an hour, sometimes longer. No crispy, brightly colored veggies for that woman!

Then there were her pies. Her piecrusts, which she made with lard, were exceptional, according to her. The rest of us found the crusts under-baked and greasy. They’d land like lead weights in your stomach.

Truthfully, I don’t remember how I eventually managed to wrest Thanksgiving away from my mother-in-law, but I did, much to the relief of everyone else and before any of us wound up in the Emergency Room.

What about your family Thanksgivings? Were they Norman Rockwell events or more like a Nightmare on Elm Street?

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Comments

  1. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I’m sorry yours was marred by family conflict. I was born on Thanksgiving Day, so the holiday is special for me anyway. But my mother was a great cook and hostess, and I learned a lot from watching her in the kitchen (as noted in my upcoming cookbook). Our family likes the traditional foods and I enjoy decorating with autumn-themed decor. Roast turkey, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole, and cranberry sauce. Nix the stuffing for our kids, though. My mouth waters at the thought of Thanksgiving dinner. And now that our daughter is married, we have a new extended family with whom to share this favorite event.

    • Nancy, no stuffing? I love homemade stuffing, even if I don’t love shoving it up into the bird. But that’s the way it tastes best with all the drippings seeping into it as the turkey cooks.

  2. I truly regret that you had such a miserable upbringing, Lois. But if there is a bright side, your genes gave you lots of brains while the dysfunction gave you lots of material. I’ve, for the most part had wonderful family holidays — except for episode when I came down with a stomach bug before everyone arrived, had to be vanquished to my bedroom, and my sister in law had to take over and fix dinner! Very nice blog, Lois and Booklover’s blog.

  3. Lois, what an interesting Talk! When my husband and I first moved to Florida away from our families, it was lonely on the holidays, but for Thanksgiving, we always went to a local theme park for a day of rides and a buffet turkey dinner.

    Now that we have grown kids and grandkids, I am definitely in the Normal Rockwell camp and its a tradition we follow still. My husband and I have a small apartment, so the site has moved to my oldest son and his wife’s house, but we still have a host of family and friends all through the day. Florida lends itself to gatherings around the table and around the pool.

    • Cheryl, I can’t imagine what Thanksgiving would be like in weather warm enough to gather around the pool. The forecast for next week is a high of 24 degrees here in NJ.

  4. I had the Norman Rockwell Thanksgivings growing up. Either at my grandmother’s or mom’s–everyone brought something special. In later years, I often hosted Thanksgiving with tons of people. My aunt brought the candied sweet potatoes and green beans with mushrooms and bacon. Yum.
    Last year we drove to a grandson’s for a feast–his father-in-law is a master chef and that’s where we’re going this year too. Hooray! I don’t have to cook.

  5. maggietoussaint says

    Families are always a tough dynamic to understand and it hard to be objective about our own. I suspect that most operate on a continuum of normal-dysfunctional at any given time. Our Thanksgiving often including rare sightings of my mother’s family (we lived among my father’s family) and the rare treat of desserts. Any holiday that came with sweets earned my approval. I approached the actual meal like a SWAT maneuver, get in, get out, get as much dessert as I could get away with… So I agree that there is stress associated with holidays, and I certainly understand your trepidation at dealing with unruly relatives and undercooked food. Thank goodness you survived!

    • Thanks, Maggie! I’ve actually known a few people who had no dysfunctional family members–at least not that I could tell. My oldest friend was part of such a family. I spent as much time at her home as possible. I never once remember her parents fighting, and there was never any tension in the house. I don’t think it’s because they kept it hidden. I knew enough about family tension to have been able to pick up on it had there been any.

  6. We could trade stories about fathers,I am sure and the rest of the dysfunctional family (Mothers-in-law! Wow,There’s a lot I cou d go on about there, too). However, the one place my father behaved himself was with my mother’s family, (not his own). Our house was open to those who even dropping in from out of town, unannounced . If my father was miserly about everything else, food was not a problem and my mother put on quite a feast; I do, too.
    I became a professional cook and baker later in life.
    Yes, there was a Fanny Farmer; she started the Boston Cooking school wrote the first definitive how-to-cook-book using standardized measurements ( “2 Tablespoons” as opposed to “half the size of an egg”).

    • Thanks for stopping by, Tonette, and for the info on Fanny Farmer. Love that you became a professional cook and baker. One of my guilty pleasures is watching baking shows on TV.

  7. Oh, wow, that does sound like a nightmare, indeed. So sorry, Lois, that you missed out on what should have been a fun annual gathering with people you love. I hope once you took over Thanksgiving from your MIL that it was a happier holiday. Ours has always been a neutral holiday since we’ve all grown up. And once the hubster and I moved to FL, hours away from everyone, it’s just been the two of us for the past 15 years. I keep telling him we should just go to one of those uber-fancy buffets for Thanksgiving, but he insists on cooking. 🙂

    • Diane, things improved slightly after I took over Thanksgiving duties. Of course, there were constant complaints that I didn’t do things right (meaning my MIL’s way), but that was a constant complaint for as long as I knew her. Thanksgiving improved tremendously once she moved on to wherever old commies go when they die. 😉

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