Grandma Annie always made appetizers the night before Thanksgiving.
They were for the next day, of course, and were often a recipe she had run across on the back of a package or in a magazine. I recall a ball of liverwurst coated with cream cheese and onions and rolled in chopped walnuts. It was delicious but full of fat. But we were kids then and it didn’t matter.
Annie and my father died within two years of one another and with them — for a time — went the family’s passion for food.
At the same time, my mother and her sisters slipped out of middle age and entered the years of widowhood and early retirement. They gravitated to the family home on Christmas Eve and we kids, home from college, gathered with them after Mass.
We no longer sat in the living room, but settled round the kitchen table for drinks and finger food. It was simple fare in those days: Cheese and crackers and chips and dip and highballs — Grandma’s favorite mix of Seven-Up and Brandy — and of course, meat pie or tourtiere, the French Canadian specialty.
Christmas carols played from a tinny radio. It was a very humble Christmas Eve. Still, the music brought warmth and the feel of another presence — Annie’s perhaps. And the kitchen was unmistakably her domain.
I do believe she was with us then, a quiet spirit, watching.
After a few years, we kids married and brought others into the circle and the holidays became livelier. So did the food. Once vivacious Aunt Jane was widowed and moved back to her girlhood home, spicy shrimp dips and gooey cookies and candies were added to the after-Mass menu. Friends came and went and champagne flowed.
The house was alive again.
Sadly, after 120 years in the family, the old house in Frenchtown was sold a few years back. Only my mother and one aunt survive, and my husband’s parents are gone, too. New people have joined the family circles, people with new traditions. Now every holiday is different.
New customs are born.
On the nights before Thanksgiving and Christmas, my husband and I have our own custom of a few years' duration: A cold buffet of Mediterranean foods, like grilled eggplant, tomatoes, artichoke dip, olives, pasta salad, store-bought crackers and a simple wine. We watch a favorite DVD or listen to music and fall asleep early.
It is these simple times for which I am most profoundly thankful.