Turkey makes me choke. Try as I might I cannot swallow the stuff. I have had this affliction since I was a child.
I come from a huge family. So huge that for us all to be together for Thanksgiving we rent a hall. The mere mention of missing the holiday is met with deep sighs and the guilt inducing “your not missing Thanksgiving are you? This could be the last time you ever see your Grandmother.” Like many families children are segregated to a separated area. Our family is so big we actually have a children’s room. All the men watch football until dinner is served and large amounts of alcohol are consumed.
You would think that “going to thanksgiving” would mean showing up shortly before the meal is served and leaving after the pie. Not in my family. Thanksgiving begins the evening before Thanksgiving with all the women getting together to prepare food. Old stories are embellished, olives stuffed and stuffing made according to the only true and correct family recipe. No variation in the meal plan is allowed. Yams mashed with a thick layer of marshmallow. The potatoes whipped with butter and cream. Green beans made with Campbell’s mushroom soup and fried onion bits. No off brand soup for us, only the finest condensed soup was allowed.
No pre-Thanksgiving evening was complete without the Turkey Dance. Every year, I AM NOT KIDDING, passed down from generation to generation was the special moment when all the children are called into the kitchen. “Kids! Kids! You don’t want to miss this! Come in here right now!” At the sink my mother stood. A huge, raw turkey swaying gently with my mother holding it up by the wings dancing the poor bird around singing the Big Fat Turkey song. Everyone would laugh like this was the funniest thing they had ever seen.
In my mind the Turkey Dance and the special ability our turkey had after Thanksgiving were connected. Our turkey spent the next week in our garage covered with a large white tea towel UNREFRIGERATED. My father took a knife and a saltshaker out to the garage for “snacks”. To my knowledge no one every got sick eating this bacteria filled turkey. Okay, maybe a little sick, but this was always written off as pre-Christmas excitement.
The turkey must be cooked for a minimum of 8 hours and the cooking of the bird has to begin before dawn. My mother had been up for hours by the time we all awoke. We started the day with the traditional Thanksgiving fast. “We’ll be eating a big dinner later, so don’t fill up”, my mom would say. With the only actual meal later in the day my brothers, sister and I began the traditional all day sneak eating. Before noon we would have consumed half the celery and pimento spread that had been made the night before and a large amount of Chex mix – not the kind you can get now but the real kind that is made on the stove with 3 boxes of Chex, a sack of pretzels and secret ingredients. This recipe, plus many others are passed to the next generation only after you “grew up”.
Breaking into the adult woman club and being invited to Thanksgiving eve happened when I got married. For the first 5 years after I entered quasi-cooking status my big job was to bring rolls.
Entering into the inner sanctum of turkey dancers did not protect me from the onslaught of opinions about every area of my life. As a child I longed to find out I was actually adopted, but I am truly a member of this family. I have with age turned from youthful rebel into eccentric aunt.
As required by family tradition the turkey was carved in the kitchen with an electric knife and served on a huge platter. Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans, marshmallow yams, cranberries (the jellied kind with no lumps), a fancy Jell-o salad and my rolls. I would sit, staring at the plate swirling around in front of me.
Leading up to this moment the following are some, but not all of the issues that would have been covered:
1. My weight.
2. The Roman Catholic church and my leaving it, and my mother’s reminder that “if you would only go to communion once a year you could still go to heaven”.
3. My disturbing pro-choice views.
4. That my artistic talent being wasted on “those lesbian paintings”.
5. The lack of a television in my house and “what exactly did we do with all that time?”
Slowly I placed a small piece of turkey in my mouth and began to chew. And chew. I added a sip of water to the growing mass in my mouth and tried to swallow. Even with water to flush it down the turkey would stick in my throat. I began to realize that if I simple took the food and moved it around on my plate no one noticed. I wrote HELP in the mashed potatoes and no one noticed.
To stem the onslaught of unsolicited opinions and chance being able to swallow turkey over the years I have tried a number of strategies. Strategy #1 Drink heavily. This actually worked for a few years but upped the choking potential. Strategy #2 - Bring a guest as deflection. A shaggy someone with more tattoos, bad table manners and BO was best. Someone my family could really focus on. Better them than me. This worked until they figure out who invited this person. Strategy #3 Pretend that I was visiting a foreign country and I was observing the local customs and rituals of this tribe. A successful technique, but do not under any circumstances mix this with Strategy #1. I realized this after I stood up to thank my hosts for the wonderful time in Japanese. Then I remembered I don’t speak Japanese. Oops.
I remember watching the movie named "Bucket List" with all the exotic locations and adventures that the dying men felt they needed to complete before they died. I would not say that I have things I wish to accomplish before I die, but I do have a list of how I choose to spend my time.
My "bucket list" is a long list of cool things our family can do together. Last week one of those wishes was filled by taking our family to the Great Wolf Lodge. I took my little electric cart to keep up with the kids on their quest through the hotel. Then I created a comfy camping spot in the lobby so I could watch the kids in the waterpark. To me that is the highest and best moment. My heart is so open! Life is good.
I am receiving physical therapy twice a week in a special neurological PT department at the hospital. It is an amazing place that has taken my breath away to walk into a room with people in rehab who are dealing with big, and I mean big, physical issues. Head injuries, Parkinson's, strokes, huge life changing situations. I feel many things when I walk in, knowing that those patients with bodies that no longer follow their commands could every well be where I am heading. I am just a bit earlier in the process, just a few bladder, balance and swallowing issues, if by a few I really mean a lot, and by early in the process I mean that I received a diagnosis after 4 or maybe even 5 years of symptoms when many people with Atypical Parkinson's are often misdiagnosed.
I realize that I can not really live well and deeply if I am freaking out about each symptom, and about the list of what happens next. Finding ways to normalize is immensely helpful. To this end I have begun a stealth campaign by doing two little things: I am placing books and magazines to the doctors offices and hospital lobbies. So far I have placed Love, Medicine and Healing, Getting into the Gap (with the CD inside) and a couple Deepak Chopra books. I have some old copies of Spirituality & Health magazine in my pack, ready for my next visit.
The other stealth project I have started is to talk to someone who is also waiting. I spend maybe 5 minutes being totally present with them. I listen deeply to what they want to tell me.
Both of these gestures are little things, a book and talk; but I am very aware that doing these things are part of my own healing process. My mother gave me a great piece of metaphysical advice when I was young. I asked her how it was that she received so many letters in the mail. She said, If you want letters, you have to write letters. I figure I want to find inspiring books and magazines in waiting rooms and connect with others who are also waiting because being really sick can be a very lonely place and that I know that every interaction I have is an opportunity to hear Spirit speak. If I want those things I need to create these things. Write a letter, get a letter.
Today I traced my grandchildren's hands and made "hand turkeys". I sang the "Big Fat Turkey" song that my mother sang to me. I got to see our daughter's new house, she and her husband wanted both sets of parents to give their blessings and of course we did. This evening Chuck and I shared a wonderful meal and many games of dominos with our circle of friends that has been getting together for 10 years. Sharing what is real, domino trash talking and laughing really hard. I take a deep breath and count my many blessings.
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