*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on November 29, 2020. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
Grandma DeLone died last month, and in a moment of weakness, I thought about store-bought stuffing for Thanksgiving. Now I feel a little ashamed, because I — even momentarily — considered cheating her memory. Keeping Grandma’s Thanksgiving-famous sage stuffing on the table keeps her alive, in some small way, to me. And this time and this year, smell’s a powerful glue that can bind our lives a bit back together when all else tries to tear us apart.
Grandma set the aromatic ambiance at every Thanksgiving table I’ve ever enjoyed. Even if she wasn’t there, the smell of her stuffing was. I remember the sage and just knowing it was Thanksgiving. That smell filled our home’s every pore — a smell that wrapped everyone in the warmest welcome.
Grandma DeLone was always cheerful. Family was her life-energy. She was thankful to have had her four children in the same city, and, at one point years ago, four of her sisters lived within a 1-mile radius. She gushed over her kids, six grandkids, three great-grandkids, and said family gatherings were her “whole entertainment” in her later years.
She was a lipsticked smile, and her personality’s gravity is probably what pulled me to call her so much for Thanksgiving advice. Her voice was chocked full of organic holiday cheer, but the Thanksgiving smells she could conjure up made Grandma my guru.
I was on my own for the first time in my early 20s in San Francisco. I’d call Grandma because I’d ask what to do with the onion — Cook the onion or not? Before you stuff it into the bird? (Answer: Yes, chop finely, then cook it with celery first.) Should I really put butter under the turkey, because it keeps getting clumpy and sticking to my hands? (Answer: Make sure both turkey and butter are near room temperature.)
Knife in one hand, phone in the other, I’d listen as Grandma would map out the next step on my Thanksgiving food-venture. I called every November.
Grandma’s coaching got me to 2009, the year I felt like I really pulled off my first really great Thanksgiving with the help of my cousin. In recent years, I’ve felt more in control, and the calls were less emergency-related and more just gabbing with Grandma.
Occasionally, she’d lapse into advice. She told me, “the only thing about getting older is you don’t want to outlive your money or your teeth.” Her secret to a long-lasting marriage, as her own mother used to say, “Angry words are like nails pounded in a post; you can pull them out, but the mark stays.”
I know I called in 2019 because when I looked this past week I pulled two recipe cards from the box. Last year I panicked and couldn’t find the original recipe card and called Grandma, who recited it from memory, which I then jotted down. When the original resurfaced this year, the second card was a 3” by 5” reminder of how handy Grandma really was this time of year.
Opening the box and seeing those two cards, having lost her just weeks ago, for a split-second I thought about not doing it. It’d remind me too much of her voice on the other end of the phone. That I’ve lost my Thanksgiving angel.
It passed. I steadied. I know better. That’s how traditions die. We take the easy way out. And along with the recipes, pretty soon we start to lose the smells of their food, the sound of their voices, and, ultimately, the sight of their faces. If little else, I want my daughters to know the smells of their Great Grandma’s sage stuffing.
So I bought two loaves of the whitest, cheapest bread I could find (for Grandma, it was likely Wonder Bread), 2 onions, 6 celery stalks, 1 stick of butter, a cup of broth, and 3 fistfuls of sage. I broke the bread into quarter-dollar-size pieces on Tuesday and let them dry on a sheet pan. On Wednesday, I chopped the onion, celery; simmered them in butter until slightly soft, then added the sage and some salt. Then, pour this sage-butter-celery-onion mix over the dried bread cubes. Gather it all up and put everything right back in the bag the bread came from the store in. Let sit overnight, soaking up the juices. On Thanksgiving morning, stuff the stuffing into the turkey until it’s stuffed.
I’ve got it now. I’ve got my notes. (Two sets.) I’ve got your dishes, your green great wine glasses and matching table cloth. But most importantly, I’ve got how to make the smells, without that boxed stuffing. I’ve got it, Grandma. I don’t need to call anymore.
But I sure wish I could.
Rachel V. Murdock is now a full-time tutor to her two daughters, a kindergartner and third grader, in Manitou Springs, and is grateful for the help in writing this from her husband, ML Cavanaugh.