In Spain for Thanksgiving, pining for Dundalk

Though far from home this holiday, one Marylander feels connected to his kin through the family tales they know by heart

November 24, 2011|By Michael McGuire

SEVILLE, Spain—Here, the orange trees are the only things changing color as autumn takes its hold. The palmeras and the jasmine vines that climb the wall outside my apartment — and fill the patio below with an inimitable scent — are alive and will flourish well into winter. The cypress trees in the gorgeous royal gardens of Alcázar, silent witnesses to endearing displays of Spanish affection, have been that same dusty green for dozens, if not hundreds, of years and won't start changing now.

But it's not the fall colors I miss while I'm spending this semester in Spain, even though not a thing could compare with seeing the Blue Ridge Mountains ablaze with autumn. When the sun is shining in Seville, I can still find those beautiful colors in terra cotta roofs and on the sides of buildings painted albero, the golden color of the soil that fills the bull ring downtown. Even the oranges, now half-ripened on trees all over the city, mimic the changing maple leaves that are now being raked into piles all across Maryland.

I miss something more. My mind, ever conscious that Thanksgiving is approaching, is wandering through memories of my grandmother's table as I make my way down the sinuous cobblestone streets I walk every morning.

We flock there at least once a year, to her tiny kitchen in Dundalk, to share a meal and an afternoon. My family usually gets there first. Dad and my brother Logan retreat to the living room to find a football game on TV, and my sister finds a quiet place to send text messages until my cousins arrive. Mom offers her help to my grandmother Martha, though it's always in vain. Additional hands are, more often than not, interference. They couldn't possibly peel potatoes, whip cream or kneed the dough for her world-famous rolls — at least not the right way.

She's completely focused, my grandmother, whom I've always called Mammies. She moves back and forth between the sink and the stove, probes her sweet potato bake in the oven and takes what's ready to her meticulously planned buffet line. She rarely comes up for breath, and when she does, it's usually just to apologize.

"I'm sorry," she tells me, taking a few seconds for eye contact. "I don't mean to be rude. I've just got to —" Ding! A timer sounds, and without finishing her sentence, Mammies is back to business.

My grandmother directs her apology to me since I've taken a seat at the table nearby, watching her maneuver her way from dish to dish and snacking on the Jordan almonds or whatever treat she incorporated into this year's table decorations.

I'm amazed by her as she prepares a feast for 12 more easily than I make my own lunch. Although, that's not to say it's effortless.

The day before we celebrate — I assume this, because she couldn't possibly have time on Thanksgiving Day — she decorates her table with tiny gourds, Indian corn, candles and bunches of colored wheat bound together with twine. She sets out silverware and glasses, and on top of each plate she rests a tiny place card to make sure we seat ourselves in an orderly fashion.

The same handwriting found on these cards is littered about her kitchen. My grandmother writes down quotes, lists and promises to herself, and she hangs them on the fridge between our old school portraits and family engagement photos. (My personal favorite: "I'll give 110 percent if you give 109.") She even wrote my name on the kitchen doorframe a few years ago, measuring my height in a moment of respite.

Not long after I've taken a seat, my aunt Kathy comes in with her own children in tow. She balances pies and cakes in her hands until my grandmother rushes over to help, and the admiration begins.

I don't know how she does it, but every year her desserts are more beautiful, and more delicious, than the last. Layered pumpkin cake with homemade cream cheese frosting and chocolate ganache, lemon meringue pie 4 inches thick, apple pie covered with little pastry oak leaves, egg washed and sprinkled with coarse grains of sugar: I remember them all. She's too modest, for sure, always answering our compliments by explaining how whatever she did was "nothing, really."

The sound of the electric carving knife means dinner is moments away. Once the buffet is set — salads, gravies and sauces in their proper places — Mammies stops to say a blessing, and then we move the food to our plates. My cousin Erin starts to tease about our predetermined lineup for the buffet, and Dad reminds us all of the year my grandmother, his mother, forgot the sweet tea.

Once we're all seated, the stories drift further back into time as we collectively recall odd Thanksgiving guests, stories of my great-grandfather and the year we had Thanksgiving dinner at a small church in Wye Mills. (My parents had just been in a car accident, so the rest of my family brought the Thanksgiving feast as close to them as possible.)

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