A dripping, cooked turkey was lifted out of the trunk of my sister-in-law Susan’s Lexus instead of a hot oven on Thanksgiving 2014. I helped Susan carry trays of food into my mother-in-law’s Manhasset, Long Island kitchen trying to figure out why the turkey looked unappetizingly flat-chested.
“What is wrong with that turkey? Is that bird upside down?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I cooked it that way,” Susan replied.
“Did you do it on purpose?” I asked.
It was the first of the upside-down holidays that followed for the next two years. My father-in-law, Stanley, had been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor several years earlier. The radiation he endured had begun causing seizures and confusion. He also had Crohn’s disease, gallbladder disease and a multitude of other ailments.
That year, Thanksgiving was supposed to be at Susan’s house in the Westchester County, New York, suburb of Chappaqua, when we got the call that he wouldn’t be able to make the car trip. Our two families packed the food and cousins into two cars onto the Long Island Expressway and headed to Manhasset. Stanley was uncharacteristically quiet and my mother-in-law seemed stressed-out and short-tempered. The meal was reheated, rushed and served on paper plates instead of the fancy china.
The following spring we planned Mother’s Day in Westchester and once again Stanley was unable to make the trip. We celebrated without my in-laws. For Rosh Hashanah, dinner was takeout served in a hospital room on disposable bed protectors. We had our rituals but there was little joy as confusion and sepsis took over. A week later, 11 of us gathered in a nursing home family room with sad, gold floral wallpaper and furniture that would be rejected by Goodwill. We ate bagels, tuna, whitefish and lox on plastic plates, celebrating Yom Kippur Break Fast. My father-in-law mistook a white paper napkin for his white sneakers. He was a proud man who would not want to be seen like this. It was heartbreaking.
In October of 2015, Stanley turned 80, and dinner was not in a fancy restaurant, but rather in another hospital room. He opened cards and a few small gifts in his bed in his sterile-looking room. He smiled weakly, but spoke few words. I doubt he knew that it was his birthday. Selfishly, I wanted my two sons to have memories of beautiful holidays, remembering my perfectly set table and delicious food. I felt resentful and disappointed that these messed up holidays were not the Martha Stewart productions I envisioned.
Six weeks later, Thanksgiving was at my home. I had since discovered that while you can cook a turkey breast-side down, I still wanted this holiday right side up. We arranged for a driver, and my sons carried their grandfather in his wheelchair up the steps into our dining room. We were finally all together.
The food was perfect: A steaming browned turkey was lifted hot and fragrant from the oven. And there was cranberry-orange sauce, balsamic roasted vegetables and two types of stuffing. I had set a beautiful table with flowers and the good dishes. Stanley was quiet and ate little. We forced smiles for a family picture knowing it was probably our last holiday together. It was. He died a few months later.
I’d spent so much time worrying about making the holidays Instagram-worthy, but now I see that they were perfect in their imperfection. The grandchildren learned love and patience seeing how their grandmother tended to her ailing husband. They were kind and nurturing to him as he retreated and regressed.
At the seder following his death, the family was expanded with a niece’s new boyfriend and another’s fiancé, but Stanley’s seat at the head of the table was full of his absence. I think of those topsy-turvy holidays and appreciate the gift of the days that land right side up.