Turkey, Gravy, and Grief

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Matthew 5:4

Mom and I stumbled around in the kitchen that Thanksgiving Eve, not quite sure where to start. It had been nine months since that cold day in February, but our hearts were still riddled with gaping holes, grief overflowing. Boycotting the holiday crossed our minds, but we had to go through with it, our first Thanksgiving without him. I had been dreading that day. I pretended it wasn’t happening, but the square on the calendar flashed like hazard lights all month long announcing its imminent arrival. A holiday once one of my favorites – now a stage to flaunt his absence.

Still, the turkey wasn’t going to roast itself. Dad always made a big production of prepping the turkey. It was an event, not a chore. He threw himself into preparing a meal like I dove into planning a party or beginning a new writing project. All in. With heavy hearts and stifled tears, we removed the thawed turkey from the packaging and wrestled the bag of extra parts from inside the turkey. Emotions ran cold through my body, frantic yet empty. I was sad, disgusted, and admittedly angry.

I missed my Dad. Raw turkey was gross. This wasn’t fair.

Dad should have been there. This was his job and I wasn’t qualified to do it. Dad put the turkey in the oven very early in the morning and slow-roasted it for hours. He carefully monitored, basted, and adjusted the temperature as needed. We opted to use an oven bag – an amateur move but one that would ensure a juicy bird without the maintenance. Neither of us had the energy to pour into a meal we were too heartbroken to eat.

After I did as the directions instructed and spooned in a tablespoon or two of flour, Mom nominated me to place the turkey in the bag. She refused to touch it. She carefully held the opened bag, arms outstretched, near the sink. I cringed as I picked up the turkey, my hands touching its cold slippery skin. Anxious to unload it, I dropped it into the bag.


In my haste to rid my hands of it, I dropped the turkey. It fell through the bag and onto the floor, flour exploding in a puff of white. After an initial gasp, followed by a moment of stunned silence, Mom and I stood in the kitchen, heads pointed down at the floor, a raw turkey sprawled between our feet – and we laughed.

Laughter that broke the silence of our grief.

And oh, the release, that sweet release.

We looked at each other, laughing, tears in our eyes. Happy, sad, grief-filled, joy-filled tears. God’s way of lightening the mood, I supposed. Slowly, I bent down and picked the turkey from the floor. I placed it in the sink, inspecting it for damage. Mom picked up the bag and swept the powdery mess from the floor. I imagined my Dad laughing too, shaking his head at the two of us trying to fill his shoes.

An impossible task.

For a moment, we just laughed. No one had seen what happened. We couldn’t buy another turkey. I turned on the sink and rinsed it. I didn’t care. It seemed about right, serving a turkey fresh off the floor on that terrible first Thanksgiving. I grabbed another oven bag and spooned in the flour. Mom put the bag in the roasting pan, holding open the top so I could safely add the turkey this time.

“No one will ever know,” Mom said. And then we laughed again.

As a child, the smell of turkey nudged me from a childhood slumber on Thanksgiving morning. Still in my pajamas, I curled up on the couch in the basement to watch the balloons and the bands at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Later, when I heard Dad fussing in the kitchen, I crept up the stairs and found him standing over the turkey.

“Want to taste it?” Dad asked, pot holder in one hand and a large carving knife in the other.

Before I had time to answer, Dad skillfully sliced several pieces of turkey from the middle of the breast and then replaced the top of the breast leaving it seemingly untouched.

“Our secret,” he said. He placed a small plate of turkey on the counter. He put the lid on the pan and closed the oven door, then sat down beside me. He added a touch of salt and handed me a piece. I popped it in my mouth. It was the best turkey I ever tasted, juicy and full of flavor, forever memories, and a father’s love.

“You have to test it, make sure it is good for the rest of the family,” he explained. “No one will ever know.”

I smiled from ear to ear. I felt so special. Our secret.

That same scenario played over year after year as a little girl. When I was in college and when I came home from Virginia for the holidays, it was our thing, our Thanksgiving tradition. Dad had a plate ready for me when I came downstairs, stashed at the back of the counter or hidden under a potholder or dish towel. It really wasn’t a secret. Neither my mom nor my brother enjoyed turkey so they didn’t mind that we sampled it long before dinner. We still played along. Sneaking turkey was as much a tradition as pumpkin pie.

I didn’t remember much about the first Thanksgiving without Dad. The house was filled with the same luscious smells of Thanksgivings past. Family favorites piled high across the table – mashed potatoes, gravy, homemade noodles, sweet potato casserole. The rolls were piping hot, just out of the oven. No matter the year, no matter the address, the table looked the same. The only difference was our empty hearts and the empty chair at the head of the table.

The only difference was everything.

We didn’t linger. We ate fast. We cleared the table and washed the plates, eager to put the day behind us. We have had 14 Thanksgiving dinners since that first one. This week, we would sit down to another one.

Without him.

Oh, how I missed him. I had been thinking about him so much lately – those grief holes still gaping. I expected in time they would close. They never did. I got used to them. Grief holes threatening like a volcano, hot grief spilling down my cheeks without warning.

Something good happened and I wanted to talk to Dad. Grief.

Something bad happened and I wanted to talk to Dad. Grief.

Something reminded me of my Dad. Grief.

Gaping, Cavernous Grief Holes.

And now it was Thanksgiving again. Another year to make the turkey alone. Another year to sit around a table without him. Another year to miss him terribly.

Gaping, Cavernous, Grief Holes.

This past weekend, we had a turkey catastrophe. The turkey thawed out quicker than expected in the extra refrigerator. When we brought the turkey home from the grocery store, Mom dropped the frozen turkey on the garage floor. We didn’t realize but there was a tiny hole in the packaging where it hit. The turkey thawed and spilled its juices all down the sides of the refrigerator. I spent an hour cleaning, scrubbing, and sanitizing. We couldn’t refreeze and Thanksgiving was days away. There was nothing else to do but bake the turkey.

So last Saturday, we had a pre-Thanksgiving feast. That morning, after the refrigerator was sparkling clean, I brought in the turkey and removed the packaging. I still used those oven bags. I added some flour, prepped the turkey, and placed it inside the bag. After all those years of practice, it came pretty naturally now. It made it into the oven with no issues. The turkey came out perfect.

I pulled it out of the oven. My daughter appeared from the hallways and walked into the kitchen.

“Is the turkey done?” she asked. “I am starving.”

I smiled to myself as the memories swirled around inside my heart.

“Want to taste test it?” I asked, grabbing a knife.

Before she could answer, I sliced a bit of turkey from under the turkey breast and put it on a plate, then carefully replaced the top of the turkey breast so no one could see it. My heart was beaming.

“No one will ever know,” I said. “Our secret.”

She smiled and laughed as I handed her a piece of turkey and she popped it in her mouth.

“Mmmm,” she said, “This is good!”

“Can I have some more?” she asked. “I know we are eating soon but I am starving!”

“Absolutely,” I said and then cut a few more pieces before returning the turkey to the oven.

I thought back to that first Thanksgiving after Dad died. I went through the motions. Mom and I awkwardly got the turkey in the oven after I dropped it on the floor. We made all of the side dishes methodically. We ate fast and forced conversation. We washed the dishes and put them away, along with that hard day. We made it through the emotional battle but we knew it wasn’t over. Christmas was coming soon.

All these years later, those pangs of sadness, disappointment, and even anger were still snuggled in close to those grief holes in my heart. I always felt like a stand-in for Dad as I prepped the turkey, but I knew how to do it now. I would never do it as well as Dad, but I saw it as an honor, not a chore. I could never make it the ‘event’ that Dad did. I didn’t even try, but I could do it with joy as he did.

This year, I looked forward to Thanksgiving. I missed Dad into the depths of the grief holes in my heart, however, my heart was also filled with wonderful memories, family traditions, and a love that would never fade. As I made the turkey, rolled out the noodles, and mashed the potatoes, I would pour my heart and those memories into each dish. We would gather around the table and enjoy each other’s company. No rush to clear the plates and wash the dishes. We would sit and talk and laugh and reminisce.

Later that night, when the leftovers were in the fridge and everyone had gone to bed, I would sit on the couch with a cup of tea, prop up my aching feet and enjoy the quiet. I would thank God for another Thanksgiving spent with my family and for all of the blessings in my life. I would remember those Thanksgiving mornings and the secret turkey tasting. I would remember the food on the table and the pies on the counter. I would remember the laughter and the stories you told. I would remember the smile on your face, the joy you radiated when we were all together, gathered around the table. I would remember the comfort and love that you wrapped so tightly around me while you were here on this earth.

Oh, how I miss you Dad.

No one will ever know.