Here comes another blog hop! This time my chicas and I were inspired by our friend Alexandra from Good Day, Regular People, who recently wrote about the subject of fiascoes. We’ve all got a fiasco story to tell. Here’s mine…

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When I was growing up our family insisted on serving the exact same meal for every major feasting holiday. In fact, the tradition was nearly as important as having enough chairs around the table. Nobody ever expected to sit on the floor and nobody ever expected anything but our menu of beige delights with a sprinkling of green and orange.

The fact that it had been decades since anyone touched the sweet-and-sour green beans did not deter our dedicated tradition police. The beans were a given. As were the mashed potatoes, the spiced peaches, the brown-and-serve rolls, the turkey, and the stuffing that, by God, better come out of a box or the men in the house would come undone.

So we liked our traditions. Some might say we clung to them with an enthusiastic death grip. In retrospect it makes perfect sense to me that we held on so tightly to these rituals because during the same time, most of our basic family dynamics were in constant upheaval.

My mom had been sick most of my life. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was 10 and confined to a wheelchair a year later. Over the course of her 30-year-long disease, she would lose her ability to walk, to use her arms, to feed herself, to leave her bed, and for the last 10 years of her life, to breathe without the support of a ventilator. This summary sounds very tidy and compact when written in one sentence, but those 30 years were messy, uncertain ones and included a long series of unraveling dreams for our family. Many holidays were spent in a hospital, or leaving a hospital, or worrying that we would be in a hospital. Many holidays at home, despite our bravest faces and sunniest outlooks, were heartbreaking and tense simply because when a loved one hurts, everyone else hurts as well.

The traditions seemed to help, though. Or at least they gave us something to banter about during meals.

It was with this familiar baggage that one year, I proposed a new menu item. I was fresh out of college and perhaps feeling worldy because I had recently left Texas and headed west, in search of a not-too-lame job and weekends in the mountains. I ran it by my mom and opted for a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with everyone else.

Let’s mix things up, Mom! OK! How about another vegetable? OK! Let’s go crazy and make it green! OK! Even crazier, let’s not soak it in butter beforehand! Wait, what?

We decided on steamed broccoli served with a side of cheese sauce. I was no master chef, mind you. I was 22 and genuinely believed that the good china would make even Velveeta look classy.

The broccoli, I predicted, would be bright and glorious, and the cheese (cheese product) pure ooey-gooey goodness. Serving a new dish seemed like an optimistic and bold endeavor in the face of our family’s long-standing security blanket. Like perhaps things were almost normal and it was no big deal to try something new because it’s not like the weight of “making every holiday count” was important or anything. Just another family gathering, not a metaphor for all our hopes and dreams, right?

Thanksgiving afternoon, the dining table was set with my parents’ all-white wedding china and linens. My mother sat in her wheelchair at the table with her parents, who visited us once or twice a year on big holidays. My father, two brothers and I ferried food from the kitchen to table like seasoned caterers.

As all the usual suspects found their spots on the table, I went to retrieve our newest dish. I cradled the broccoli bowl and my younger brother, a towering but gentle giant who moves deliberately through the world, ushered in the cheese in its gleaming white gravy boat.

Before a single person could mutter “Broccoli??” I heard china crash to the floor and saw a spray of orange liquid make a spectacularly acrobatic hurl toward the far reaches of the room. The white walls, the white carpet, the white tablecloths…all splattered like the first draft of a Jackson Pollock. My brother stood speechless, his shoes surrounded by a pool of cheese sauce, still holding between his fingers the curved handle of the china gravy boat.

My mother shrieked. My father exploded. My brother stammered something like, “It just…it just broke.” My grandmother helpfully pointed out that “Wow, look how it reached all the way over yonder.”

What followed was a chaotic and noisy mix of blaming, shouting, stomping and heavy sighing. We spent much of the holiday cleaning up the mess, taking turns sponging carpet cleaner into the hundreds of orange spots all over the room. After every scrubbing, we wondered aloud how a gallon of cheese could have fit in a 3-cup container. Months later we would still find flecks of hardened cheese clinging to some distant surface. It would take years before we could laugh about The Cheese Incident and even then it was less of a laugh and more of an uncomfortable, knowing chuckle.

This week, nearly 20 years after that day, is our second Thanksgiving without my mom. The traditions have shifted over time. The food is still very much the same traditional fare. There is sometimes fine china, sometimes a new vegetable, but there is never ever broccoli.

There is, however, always gratitude. I realize how far we’ve come from the family we were then. We’ve added in-laws and kids and gained enough joy to balance out the losses. We know we aren’t immune to future stress or sadness, but the old specter of uncertainty has passed.

This year, I will count my many blessings and be thankful that the cheese can spill and it won’t be a metaphor for anything. It will just be a mess. And we will clean it up without fanfare and move on.

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Read more fiasco stories from my talented friends…

Ann’s Rants
The Flying Chalupa
Midlife Mixtape
Smacksy

And if you can’t get enough of us, check out our past blog hops about
The Worst Meal I Ever Served & 10 Reasons You Should Be Glad I Didn’t Blog in my 20s.

Comments

  1. Liz, I loved the broccoli blog. When we were in our 30’s I learned the holidays weren’t the time for altering the menu. I proposed a crown pork roast with stuffing in the middle. It was absolutely beautiful in the magazine, however the true cooking time wasn’t as written. As I recall at 8pm the family gave up on my dish & ate the regular fare much to my husbands dismay. He thought everyone had shunned my great efforts & thought it rude. As the years have rolled by we try to eat healthier but it seems that the holidays are an excuse to eat comfort food from our past even if we are miserable afterward. So tomorrow we will add a new dessert & bought from a restaurant at -Horrors! The best dark chocolate malt cake we’ve ever eaten–oh well more sugar & carbs, we’ll try & do better Friday. We will miss you guys & we’ll save you some cake! Love, Denna Sent from my iPad9

  2. Tears. Anyone who has carried the pain/uncertainty/fear over the years of a loved ones illness will relate so amazingly well with this essay. In a way I don’t even understand, I kind of miss those days. Thank you for sharing your story. You have done it again….it is beautiful and messy and real.

  3. Just stumbled upon this blog, and I love it! As this time of family and reflection approaches, we can all use a little laugh to get us through. Feel free to drop by my blog and say hello! Wishing you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving.

  4. Blame the gravy boat. I’m sure gravy boats have been behind numerous holiday disasters. Maybe not quite as spectacular as the orange cheese in the entirely white room, but I am convinced future civilizations will find more broken gravy boat shards than other types of pottery.

  5. “This summary sounds very tidy and compact when written in one sentence, but those 30 years were messy, uncertain ones and included a long series of unraveling dreams.” What a wallop of a sentence and WHAT a prize of a story you have. The Moth teaches us that “time far enough away from tragedy unifies the audience in love for you.” You have me here. Thanks for doing this, it makes me smile at this very tough, not far enough away from present, holidays for me this year. xo

  6. This is so lovely, Liz – you always lure us in with a laugh and leave us with a lesson. I’m very thankful for you. And that I’ve never had to pick American Processed Food Cheese Product out of my white carpet. xxoxoxox

  7. Liz, this was such a beautiful essay. Wow. The last paragraph is so powerful. The holidays are hard, no matter who you are. A reminder of the past, wish-fulfillment for the future, a representation of so much.

    Have a happy, happy Thanksgiving my friend.
    Love, T

    ps – brothers, man, klutzes all of ’em…

  8. Well written, Liz. You have such beauty in your heart, both inside and out! I laughed out loud about the cheese spattering everywhere (and sticking there forever) and felt wistful and sad, too. I hope your turkey day is great.

  9. Uncertainty over someones presence at the holiday table.. yes I know how that feels. I’m thanking my lucky stars this year : for the 2nd year in a row my father is cancer free and I will never ever forget how happy I was when he was released from hospital the day before Christmas.
    Beautifull post.

  10. Traditions do change. This year you and your two brothers didn’t have your annual discussion regarding which two get to carve on the ends of the jellied cranberry sauce.

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