My junior year of college, I went running and locked myself out of my apartment. Normally a hassle, it became a crisis because it happened to be the night before an early morning flight to Seattle; we were headed north in about ten hours, for Thanksgiving with my mom’s family. My roommate was already gone, my landlord nowhere to be found, and I didn’t even have a jacket with me, much less my car keys. I used a neighbor’s phone to call my mom. She arrived in her ancient Volvo, the one you could hear from three blocks away. “Hannah,” she began, but then she just shook her head. “Let’s go.”
She bought me jeans and boots, underwear and socks, and a perfect red shirt. I don’t remember any feelings of frustration, hers or mine, though surely there must have been. Instead what I remember is that all weekend, we cooked and laughed and ate at my mom’s cousin’s big farm house. Did I wear that new outfit the entire time, five long days?
That red shirt was my favorite for many years.
It was six weeks before Thanksgiving when my mom called a meeting. She insisted on having it at our apartment, so that we could stay home with our brand new baby. Once everyone was there, she said calmly what she wanted to tell us: the cancer that had been slowly wasting her had made a last, vicious grab into her bones. We had known for months it was coming but hadn’t really believed it would happen; just three days before that meeting she had been right by my side, staying 24 hours in the hospital for my labor, talking to Jacob as he gave his first cry. Three days after that meeting, days in which I learned to breastfeed and slept only in fits and starts, days in which we ate the fruit tart my mother had brought over to celebrate her first grandchild – after those three days, I lay on her bed next to her, or maybe we were sitting. Memory plays tricks, all I can see clearly are her eyes.
“How long, do you think?” I could ask these things when I was with her. When I was away from her, at home, I could only weep.
She waited a moment before answering, I remember that. “I see a path,” she finally said, and then she paused again. “I see a path to Thanksgiving.” And here is where I remember her eyes, remember her looking at me and I could see something – maybe the set of her mouth, or maybe the furrow of her brow, or maybe just some strange distillation of grief and resignation that had settled over her. Something that told me this was not so much a thought as a decision. She would make it to Thanksgiving, just as she had made it to Jacob’s birth. And then she would let go.
When we gathered in the living room those weeks later, with our Andronico’s Thanksgiving Dinner and our paper plates, my mom was in the big recliner. We all sat in a circle with the two new babies, and I tried not to look at the bones jutting around my mom’s ankles. We passed those babies, arms to arms to arms, and when it was my mom’s turn to hold them we propped big pillows under her elbows and babbled about how heavy her grandkids were, almost up to eight pounds already, and we tucked the pillows and fussed, and she beamed down at them. Beamed, I mean that word: her face was lit with joy. And it was terrifying.
Jacob and Lucas have been racing ahead through Muir Woods, but they slow and take my hands as we enter Cathedral Grove. It seems they understood me when I said we need to be quiet here, that we can’t talk loudly until we get through to the other side. “It’s a whispering journey,” I tell them, and they nod in an exaggerated way, their vocal exuberance channeled into movement. “I say yes with my head!” Lucas whisper-yells, and I nod back at him, and smile. It is empty under these towering trees, just us and the quiet of a foggy weekday morning.
They are each holding a map from the visitor’s center. Jacob’s is folded neatly, oriented to his own direction. He looks at it each time we come to a bridge. “Crossing bridge three,” he informed us seriously, just before we entered the grove. Lucas’s is clutched, wrinkled and sticky, forgotten as he watches water droplets fall like fairies from branches high, high overhead.
We exit Cathedral Grove, and I buss their heads. “Thank you for being so peaceful,” I say, still whispering. “Which way should we go now?” When he sees Jacob studying his map, Lucas holds his up too. Jacob looks at his map, and Lucas looks at Jacob.
“We have to go through there again to get back,” Jacob finally says. He points at the dotted line. “Right there, Lucas. I see a path.”
“I see one too!” Lucas says, pointing to the trail ahead of us. “I see a path!”
It can be a hard thing, the days around Thanksgiving. Hard in the ways that family holidays are always hard, and now, these last five years, hard in other ways, too. I discern what paths I can, and I try to take them where they lead.
Always so far what I find is joy, falling through the sadness like fairies, leading the way through the trees.
Brussels Sprouts for a Friday Night, and also perhaps for Thanksgiving
We love brussells sprouts here – you, too? Usually, we pan fry them, sometimes with a little bacon and maple syrup, or sometimes with butter and salt. Occasionally we roast them, perhaps in the pan with a chicken if we have one. On the radio this morning I heard two minutes of a program where someone mentioned sprouts with browned butter and grainy mustard and sherry vinegar. Let’s repeat, to be clear: browned butter. Grainy mustard. Sherry vinegar. Are you seeing it, too? Yes. This is like some sort of holy grail of a recipe.
We had brussels sprouts in our CSA box yesterday, and I decided the holy grail couldn’t wait until next week; we would do a trial run tonight. So we did it. Short version: we may never go back to brussels sprouts any other way. Long version: nutty brown butter flecks. The robust zing of mustard alongside its crunchy seeds – but mellowed by the butter’s sweet richness, made into something intriguing but not at all alarming. This is stately enough to present on any holiday table, but nifty enough to serve to your favorite foodie friends. (Look out, everyone. If you’re coming for dinner, we’re making these sprouts.) The little splash of sherry vinegar makes sure the richness isn’t overwhelming, and the sear on the edges of the sprouts invites a crisp edge to play against the smooth and the buttery.
I’d say it makes a pretty presentation, too, but the bowl of brussels sprouts never made it to the table. Kyle stood at the counter with a fork and ate them all before our pizza was out of the oven. Proof positive, you can see, of all things good.
This recipe is adapted from one I heard on KQED this morning, but since we started cooking before we actually looked it up and read it, we veered pretty far from the original. I would suggest doubling this for company, tripling it (at least) for Thanksgiving. Here is how ours went down (with the able assistance of Lucas “I so helpful!” Maxwell Heller):
Cook 1 pint/3/4 pound brussels sprouts, stems trimmed and sprouts cut into quarters (scrape sprouts from cutting board to pan so that you get all the loose leaves, they crisp up most of all) in 2 teaspoons olive oil over medium-high heat. (I used my largest cast iron skillet to do this). Turn every minute or so with a spatula; the sprouts should crisp and darken but not burn. While they are cooking brown 4 tablespoons butter in a small sauce pan. Once it is browned, remove from heat and mix in 2 generous tablespoons whole grain mustard (your favorite brand). Let that sit while you finish cooking the sprouts; they should be convincingly crisp at the edges, and soft enough to chew easily.
Remove sprouts from heat but keep them in the warm pan. Carefully stir in about half of the butter-mustard mixture. Add a generous pinch of kosher salt and a splash of sherry vinegar, and mix again. (The pan should sizzle a bit with the vinegar, from the residual heat; that’s good.) Remove everything to a serving bowl, and taste for seasoning. (We added more butter-mustard mixture, to really coat everything, and more salt.) Sprinkle with chopped flat leaf parsley, if you have some on hand.
(Put any remaining mustard-butter in a bowl, and serve breadsticks or radishes or roasted fingerlings or … to dip in it.)