Browsing the cookbook shelf at Sam's Club, I spied a book that instantly transported me back to my grandmother.
"Come to the Table: Food, Fellowship, and a Celebration of God's Bounty" is full of pictures of elaborate tables like my grandmother used to set. One two-page spread shows a neatly trimmed yard/garden with sculpted bushes, flowers and pretty garden tables set with pink-and-white lacy tablecloths and gold-rimmed plates.
That was my grandmother to a T. She hosted the only church picnics I ever heard of where people ate off fine china and white tablecloths.
Her name was Norma Beinlich, but everyone -- not just her grandkids -- called her "Nan." Even her son, my dad, finally gave up on calling her "Mom" and joined in. Somehow the name fit her just right. It was as if this dimpled, aproned, always-smiling woman was the world's grandma.
She was always hosting picnics, parties or overnight guests, but the pinnacle of her year was Thanksgiving.
Her farmhouse in Forward was the perfect setting for Thanksgiving, creating the "over the river and through the woods" effect. She served side dishes from black cast-iron pots that hung in the kitchen fireplace.
She worked for weeks ahead of time, spending a couple hundred dollars on the meal without a second thought. She did it out of love.
She pressed linen tablecloths and arranged centerpieces of flowering kale from her garden. The menu was the same every year: turkey and ham arranged on a huge silver platter, chestnut stuffing, giblet gravy, homemade cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes laced with butter and cream cheese, peas with pearl onions, corn pudding made with corn grown on the farm, butternut squash with orange juice, creamed onions that are still the family favorite, Jell-O mold with huge cherries (once, as a little kid, I opened my mouth to talk and a cherry rolled right out), homemade cole slaw topped with chopped peanuts, and the crowning glory -- Nan's homemade dinner rolls and sticky buns, for which there was no recipe. The oldest of seven children, Nan was her siblings' second mom and had been making those rolls since childhood. She tried to teach me once, but she used instructions such as "Knead it until it's as soft as a baby's bottom" (a teenager and not yet a mother, I had no idea what a baby's bottom felt like).
But even though the food was fabulous, the day was about so much more than the food.
Perhaps the people we came to think of as the "guests of honor" helped to define the special nature of the day. Nan and Baa (my grandfather -- really J.J. Beinlich, but he got "Baa" when his oldest grandchild called both his grandfather and his security blanket by the same name) had a pastor who came to the U.S. from South Africa. The Rev. Michael Wenning, who later performed President Reagan's California funeral service, and his family spent their first Thanksgiving at Nan's house. They had no Thanksgiving tradition in South Africa. They came every year thereafter while they lived in Pittsburgh. Even after they moved away, they always said Thanksgiving was never the same.
Pastor Wenning headed the dish-washing party, rolling up his sleeves and singing at the top of his lungs in his British accent. His exuberance captured the way I felt -- what a wonderful day of thankfulness to God.
Some guests were annual fixtures; others came and went as they needed a holiday home. Nan welcomed everybody. College students among the "fixtures" knew they had carte blanche to bring along roommates and foreign students. One family had members who traveled from Indiana, Ohio, Eastern Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., so they could all meet up at Nan's house.
Kids tried on Nan's old gowns, flowery hats and a collapsible top hat. We held fashion shows, prancing down the steps in the front hallway under a hanging red glass light fixture. Sometimes we held music recitals, playing our school band instruments while dressed up in the frippery.
As I grew older, I stopped dressing up but had every bit as much fun, meandering from table to table to catch snippets of everyone's conversations. I've never heard so much laughing. Nan reveled in everyone's pleasure.
The final Thanksgiving at Nan's house -- 1996 -- was hard for her. She had a bit of trouble remembering recipes she'd been making for 50 years. The next year, she moved out of the farmhouse and could no longer host Thanksgiving; a few more years and she wasn't even herself.
The woman who went sled riding with my brother and me at age 70 became a victim of dementia who rarely spoke by her late 80s. But even in that diminished state, she still was sweet.
Once when I visited her nursing home, she couldn't say anything, but she grinned from ear to ear and held out her arms to me. She could never stop being the loving hostess.
Nan died in 2005, although we had missed our "real Nan" for a few years before that. Ever since that final Thanksgiving in her house, I've felt like Pastor Wenning and his family felt after they moved away -- Thanksgiving has never been quite the same.
My mom has since taken up the mantel of hosting "Thanksgiving on the farm" in her own farmhouse just over the hill from where Nan lived. She has done an amazing job -- setting fancy tables, replicating the traditional menu, inviting a throng and juggling all the balls in the air. She and my dad have started some new traditions, such as a Thanksgiving Day hayride.
Mom has even done another thing that Nan did before her: she has invited my in-laws, just as Nan invited Mom's family when she and my dad were newlyweds. How special for my husband and me to celebrate Thanksgiving with our entire, combined family. The little cousins even run around playing dress-up as we did when I was a kid at Nan's (a couple years ago they dressed up my 4-year-old son in a ball gown and tiara).
But somehow it's just not the same without Nan there, hugging everybody and pushing third helpings on us.
At her funeral, someone recounted something that I had never realized -- her favorite hymn was "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder." So that's what she was singing on the lawn mower while she was getting the yard pristine for her lavish picnics. Looking back, I'm sure her faith, as well as her personality, drove her hospitality. She couldn't help but exude thankfulness to God and her family and friends, not only on Thanksgiving but also every time she treated a guest to a meal.
Rebecca Sodergren, a former Post-Gazette staffer, is a freelance writer in Centerville, Ohio. Her brother and his wife now live in Nan's farmhouse, and they and Ms. Sodergren's parents cooperatively operate Triple B Farms. Contact her at email@example.com . First Published November 24, 2008 5:00 AM