Wednesday, November 26, 2008

And thus a feminist was born of Thanksgiving

When I was growing up, I lived with my family in a smallish apartment on Santa Rosalia in Los Angeles. Bouganvilla climbed the white stucco walls of the apartment building, there were hardwood floors in most rooms and linoleum in the tiny white kitchen, and when the windows were open we could either hear the constant zhoosh of Los Angeles traffic or the drunk single mother across the courtyard yelling at her sons.

Mrs. C-, a tiny, shrunken apple of a woman, lived across the hall from us. She was proudly southern, kept an apartment that was full of old lady smells and hard candy and looked harder at the tiny Oriental woman living with the Negro man across the hall from her. Family lore has it that one day she knocked on our apartment door and told my mother that my father was leaving the house every morning looking too thin and if she wanted to keep her black husband happy, she'd better learn how to cook soul food.

So Mrs. C- would put on her apron, come on over and watch soap operas with my mother while teaching her how to cook greens, black eyed peas, corn bread, southern fried chicken, and whatever else you'd find on a Baptist church dinner buffet. (The only thing my mother refused to cook was chit'lins. She knew we could barely stand her balut. There was no way in hell we'd eat chit'lins.) Mrs. C- (and her extended family) became a fast friend of our family and when she passed my mother cried the hardest, mourning her like a daughter.

All of this is to say that most of my holiday memories are of my 4'11" mother waking up at the ass crack of dawn to soak greens and prepare for a dinner Mrs. C- would have been proud of. Like her mother and stepmother before her, and maybe like all the Filipina village-raised mothers ever, she'd quietly begin the labor intensive process of feeding her family and their friends. (At the ass crack of dawn.) And like other Filipina mothers, she'd wake her oldest daughter to help her. (At the ass crack of dawn!)

I hated it. I hated the Sisyphean task of cleaning greens. I hated pulling the bag of giblets out of a thawed, cold white turkey corpse. I hated having to stand on a chair to lift a turkey that was half my size to put it into the sink and clean it. I hated deciphering pie recipes (my mother assigned me baking) and measuring and flouring and rolling out dough and I especially hated that my little sister was still in bed and I was getting turkey junk all over my pajamas and I smelled like raw turkey innards.

But as I grew older and realized that my mother was the only one cooking in the house during these holidays, I swallowed my anti-domestic hatred and helped her. (I still hated the fact that she'd wake me first and let my sister sleep an extra 2 hours.) Eventually, I grew to enjoy this part of the holidays - spending time with my mother in the dark morning hours, listening to her chide me over my inattention to the size of my chopping, how I forgot to put the fatback in the greens or left some grit on a leaf or 'forgot' to boil and cube the giblets. (I really think giblets are disgusting though they made all the difference in my mother's dressing.) She'd tell me stories of how good I had it; if I lived in the Philippines, I'd have to cook like this every day. I'd have to raise and kill my own chickens and pigs - and I'd have had to learn this at the age of seven.

I'd say to her, "And that's why I live in an American city, mom. So I will never have to learn that." And she'd slap my arm and we'd keep cooking.

But then her mood would change, especially as the morning stretched into afternoon and we were still in the kitchen (all three of us by now, my sister having joined us) smelling like butter or whatever we were cooking at the time - pies, rolls, green beans with bacon, black eyed peas (which takes frakking forever), corn casserole, ham, yams and sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, or the base for the punch later on.

And her mood would worsen as the sounds of dad and his friends watching football would increase.

By the time dinner was ready and the dining table was set with the good china and crystal, my mother was a tiny red ball of Asian fury and her target was often the men in the house who did nothing very labor intensive at all that day. My sister and I would instantly go into 'buffer' mode: running interference between mom and dad and hoping that post-turkey food coma would come so rapidly, the anger of laboring alone would be forgotten.

Sure enough, later in the evening my dad would put on his headset and sing loudly to contemporary Christian pop (don't ask) and wash all the dishes that had piled in the sink while my mother would finally rest, her earlier anger perhaps not forgotten but certainly repressed and swallowed. And I would go to my bedroom, write all of it down and vow NEVER to spend my holidays sweating over two ovens and a stove while my husband sits on his butt watching football.

These days, my sister has assumed the mantle of the Domestic Angry Goddess, though her husband is a little bit more tuned in than my father ever was (bless his clueless heart.) My brother-in-law wrangles the kids, clears the kitchen and preps the dining room, cleans the house and runs errands for my sister while she and I stand in her very small retro kitchen that reminds me of the apartment on Santa Rosalia and fight over counter space. And, true to form, my father saunters in 45 minutes before dinner is served and wonders when it'll be time to eat.

My sister's dinners are reminiscent of our mother's but with more Mexican dishes added to them and I wonder 'How the hell does Leslie do this without going frakking insane?' and I send up a little prayer of thanks that my kitchen back home in Chicago remains virginal and pristine.

My non-guilt at not cooking prompts me sometimes to tell my sister that the next day, on the biggest shopping day of the year, she can leave the kids with her husband while we make a day of manicures and pedicures at some spa, a movie and maybe some cocktails in the middle of the bright afternoon in a hotel. This is my Single Anti-Domestic Sister gift to her and I only wish that our mom was still here to join us. If anyone needed a day of complete self-indulgence and alcohol, it was my little mother.

So to all you Domestic Divas/Gentlemen out there, trapped in the Whole Foods or Vons or Dominick's or Byerly's of the nation, gritting your teeth over your turkey or your tofurkey or gnashing your teeth over head count and wondering why it's your turn to host again this year, have a wonderful holiday.

And book your spa appointment now.


JustMe said...

What a lovely post, churchgal!

ding said...

thank you!
the holidays, especially thanksgiving, make me nostalgic.

hope your holiday was a good one!