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Life’s Little Arc: A Thanksgiving Story

Megan Johnson

At this time of year, the question of stuffing can get territorial. There are those who want to try something new every year—cranberries, giblets, walnuts, wild rice, apricots! — and those who, having found their perfection, never want to mess with it from year to year. I fall into the latter camp—with tweaking.

I don’t remember if our mother always made her Italian style stuffing for Thanksgiving; I think there were more conventional early years of plain sage and onions. But for me, her chestnut and sausage version was the apotheosis of flavor and texture, and so it has remained. We forget how a little thing like stuffing can represent a radical departure in a family. Our traditions are wrapped up in family lore and the stories we tell around the dining room table and changing that by even a teaspoon can stir the pot.

As eldest sister, I have a long history of watching Mom. Looking back, I’m amazed at all we took for granted: her talent, her wit, her Italian persona. Mom was not Italian, but had lived with a family in Perugia for two years. This came about because Mom, a bit passive and accommodating as I saw her in the context of her marriage, always wanted to be an artist. But her parents insisted she go to a liberal arts college where she would become “well-rounded.” She would have more to say as an artist, they insisted. She paid them back by majoring in history of art, learning Italian, and going to Italy right after WWII. The experience shaped more than just her stuffing making. Peeling chestnuts late at night, she might tell you about the count who asked her to marry him in the most backward, passionless way, or her artist lover, as if you were her girlfriend as much as her daughter.

Nowadays you can find plain cooked chestnuts already peeled in jars or sealed packets, but in the 50s and 60s and 70s, adding chestnuts to stuffing was a labor of love involving raw nuts. First you had to slice an X on the bottom of each nut with a sharp paring knife so that steam could escape. We were the kind of family that never had a sharp knife. It was a chore that seemed interminable.

Next, you roasted them in the oven. Here, Mom had an advantage: a Garland restaurant stove, bought at auction by our architect father to accommodate six kids. Once they were done to perfection (always dicey to get that part just right), came the hardest part of this long job—peeling.  I don’t know if you’ve ever bought a bag of hot chestnuts from a street vendor in a New York City park (I hear those days are long gone), but they don’t peel easily. They’re like little brains, with lots of convolutions and a thin inner skin. I remember late nights of peeling and talking, and the distinctive velvety texture of the inner shells. My mother must have been exhausted by Thanksgiving morning.

She would have ordered a 24-lb turkey, and we ate earlier in those days, so she would get up at 4AM to stuff it, sew it shut, and slide it into the oven in time for midday dinner. We’d wake to the smell of roasting turkey and aromatic stuffing as it slowly filled the house, building anticipation—of cousins and aunts and uncles and lovely Grandma coming, of delicious food. It was a mouth-watering smell full of the promise of warmth, laughter and feasting.

While you’re prepping Thanksgiving dinner, during the meal, and in the drowsy groaning aftermath, ask your older relatives for stories. Get details; get recipes.

Life is such a little arc, as my mother would say. Too soon, the stories will be gone forever.

Mom’s Stuffing

The proportions are flexible; how big is your bird?

1 pound or so of Italian sausage (must contain fennel seed), removed from casings if necessary

2 large onions, chopped

Sage and rosemary and thyme as you like, but I find any stuffing is best with a little more seasoning than you’d think, since the flavors meld together in cooking, and could become indistinct. I use fresh garden herbs, usually still in the garden at Thanksgiving.

2 cups peeled, cooked chestnuts (Yipes! Don’t use marron glacés, they’re sweetened for desserts!)

Dried, stale bread cubes

Mom baked bread throughout our childhood, having been introduced to good bread in Italy. We never had Wonder Bread and found it horrifying — no bite. These days, one sister bakes beautiful artisan loaves, but I, having discovered I have celiac, use homemade gluten free cornbread. No one complains.

Fry the sausage in a large pan, breaking it up with a spatula. Do not drain. Add chopped onions, and when the onion is soft, the bread and herbs. You might add up to a stick of butter to moisten, but remember, the best stuffing is that cooked inside the turkey cavity, where the juices moisten it. If you have leftovers that don’t fit, add a little giblet stock to moisten, and cook covered.

Photos by Peter Crabtree

Contributing writer Megan Johnson is a retired English teacher who holds a master’s degree in creative writing.

The Arctic Convoys: Navigating My Father’s Untold History

Convoy crossing the Atlantic, 1942 (Courtesy The Library of Congress)

On a recent Sunday, snow whirling outside, I scoured the house for something to read, hoping to curl up with a good thriller. Tucked in among a motley collection of still unpacked titles — picture books, college texts and weighty political tracts — I discovered a dog-eared copy of HMS Ulysses, the classic adventure story of combat in the North Atlantic. Captured by the cover image, a World War II cruiser steaming through stormy seas, I began to read the yellowed pages. This was my father’s war. The treacherous routes drawn up on the book’s nautical map would have felt familiar to him. And as I traced those journeys it struck me how little I knew of his harrowing years at sea and the memories he carried with him into old age.

The novel follows the fortunes of a merchant convoy’s terrifying voyage to Russia’s Arctic outposts and the deadly game of cat-and-mouse they play with Nazi U-boats and bombers. Hardly the kind of narrative I regularly devour. So I was more than a little surprised to feel the wave of longing and regret the story triggered.

It was the vivid descriptions that moved me: mountainous rogue waves and Arctic temperatures of -60 F, clouds of frozen sea spray and torpedo explosions bunched together in rapid-fire succession — three hits in three seconds — that ripped and shredded metal, catapulting sailors into the icy waters.

Dad as a young man

Through it all I pictured my dad. A ship’s engineer, he survived 30 voyages across the Atlantic, including four missions to Archangel and Murmansk. He was my son’s age, 26 years old, when he sailed those deadly waters, running the North Atlantic gauntlet to Russia. More than 800 ships, 40 convoys, followed that route between 1941 and 1945, risking everything to deliver supplies to the Soviet allies. Of those, over 100 never made it home, marking it as one of the most dangerous duties of the Second World War.

When we were kids my father shared few tales of his adventures in the Merchant Marine, shrugging off that time as the long-forgotten past. Near the end of his life he sometimes talked of a Christmas Eve when the crew watched helplessly as a nearby tanker was torpedoed, its sailors burning to death in oily Arctic waters. But mostly he kept those horror stories to himself.

There was one scene he’d tell us kids, often with a gruff laugh: “It was late night and I was on deck having a smoke. We still didn’t have our orders. I hoped we might be headed for Scotland, maybe get to go to shore, drink a warm beer, dance with a girl.”

Off Montauk

Standing in the biting wind, braced against the ship’s heavy pitch, he offered a fellow sailor a cigarette. The two men peered into the winter sky, searching the stars to plot their voyage. It didn’t take long to calculate. “So much for Scotland,” the sailor said, tossing his cigarette over the stern. My father sighed as he trudged back to the engine room and his duty. “It’s Murmansk. Again,”

As a child, my take away from the story was that my father could navigate from the stars. As an adult, I find myself considering all that my father left unsaid. What was he thinking as he stared out into the darkness, facing the certainty of piercing cold days and countless nights without sleep, the possibility of Arctic storms, and the unremitting fear of sudden and violent death? I wish I’d urged my father to tell me the story of those remarkable days. I wish I’d recorded his adventures and documented his memories, decoding how they shaped him in later life to pass on as a gift to future generations.

Maybe it’s the missed chance of witnessing my father’s story that’s made me passionate about telling other people’s histories. I’ve seen firsthand that the stories left untold are forever lost, and that those told second-hand are corrupted in the retelling, each time with more lapses and more inaccuracies until finally, drifting from generation to generation, they simply fade away.

Talking to people about their lives — hearing their remembrances, often deeply personal and emotional — is an extraordinary privilege. It’s a privilege that is now my work. The job begins with listening, but it’s in the writing that a unique theme emerges and personal histories are woven into a larger story. A timeline for a life can be constructed, but it’s placing our life stories in the crowded arc of human events that gives them meaning for future generations and adds an invaluable dimension to our own family story. It’s those stories that we cherish most and hope to pass down to our children and grandchildren.

— Caitlin Randall

Sun and sea: the sailor at home