I moved to the Pittsburgh area with my husband and two sons in the fall of 2004, and that November we made our first -- and last -- drive back to Connecticut for Thanksgiving at my mother's house.
Nightmarish traffic in New England turned our nine-hour trip into 12 hours and made us dread the trip back for Christmas. As much as I hated to admit it, I knew that going forward we would have to create our own Thanksgiving traditions in Pennsylvania.
But as Thanksgiving of 2005 approached, I became distraught at the thought of just the four of us around the table. Coming from a big family, I was used to lots of people and noise on holidays, and Thanksgiving at my mom's was steeped in Yankee traditions.
Taking pity on me, my little sister convinced her husband to drive their family to our house for a Pennsylvania Thanksgiving. I was so excited to have company that I went all out to create a memorable holiday; according to my darling children, however, I totally freaked.
Aiming for traditional New England charm, I created a tablescape that would have put the Pilgrims to shame, with vases full of nuts, berries and birch branches. I gathered pretty fall leaves, which I dipped in wax and tied together with gauze ribbon to create leaf bouquets, on which I wrote names for place markers. (Eat your heart out, Martha Stewart!)
I bought new amber-colored wine glasses and rustic, earth-toned tableware. I found an enormous turkey-shaped platter on a clearance rack, then hunted down turkey salt and pepper shakers, a turkey teapot (unanimously decreed "hideous" by my family) and a turkey gravy boat that was completely nonfunctional -- but looked great!
I made ice cubes with cranberries in them and cut artisanal cheeses with acorn-shaped cookie cutters. I set out baskets of nuts and nutcrackers, ignoring smug comments from my teenagers. They refused to appreciate the fun in cracking the shells and excavating the nuts, considering we had several cans of nuts in the cupboard.
My house was aglow in flickering candles, and every surface was adorned with garlands of leaves and heaping piles of gourds. I even replaced all the bottles of bathroom hand soap with fall-colored soaps, at which point my husband declared me officially insane.
By the time my sister and her family arrived, my kids had gone into hiding. But I had created an atmosphere that drew oohs and ahs from my sister and my darling niece -- which to me meant complete success.
Our husbands and sons took one look around, then ran outside to play football and cornhole until dinner. My sister and niece continued to humor me in the kitchen, rolling dates in sugar, whipping cream for the pies and peeling potatoes. We talked, drank wine and munched on so much cheese that we were full -- and slightly tipsy -- long before dinner.
When the turkey was finally ready, I insisted on bringing the whole bird to the table to be carved, ignoring several polite protests from my husband. It was a glorious, golden-crusted masterpiece surrounded by oranges, pomegranates and fresh herbs. I'm not sure why I thought I needed a 23-pound bird for just eight of us, but the applause was worth the effort!
Unfortunately, my husband was right about the carving process. A perfectionist who carves slowly and methodically, it took 25 minutes before he had the neatly sliced meat back on the platter. By then, the gravy had begun to solidify, the mashed potatoes were cold and the restless kids had eaten all of the foil-wrapped chocolate leaves scattered around the table for decoration. Nonetheless, the scent of turkey prevailed and we managed to eat like gluttons.
After weeks of planning, days of preparing and hours of cooking, we were done eating in exactly 15 minutes. No one had room for seconds, never mind for the four homemade pies sitting on the hutch.
I looked around at the sweaty, grass-stained boys, the groggy adults and the mountains of leftover food, and I smiled contentedly. A warm glow filled the room, and I realized that despite all my fussing and fretting, the real blessing of the holiday was the sight of us all gathered together at the table.
The pies made for a wonderful breakfast the next morning, and the leftovers were devoured for dinner Friday night, somehow tasting even better served on paper plates.
Patty Langer of Pine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org