Extra Pulp: A Living Memory

Laura Anders Lee shares fond memories of her family’s Thanksgiving holidays, orchestrated by Grandmother Doris.

My grandparents got married in a double ceremony at 10:30 on a Friday night, because that’s when the car and the preacher were available. Grandmother had another prospect, she told me once, but he lived on a mountain, and she didn’t like heights. So Doris and William Minter Anders settled in the valley, 20 miles south from the Tennessee River in a small Alabama town called Massey.

I never met William Minter—he died when my father was just 14—but Grandmother Doris was our family’s heroine. A strong character from another place and time, my grandmother’s sacrifices made all our lives better.

Her husband died the same week as JFK. My grandmother grieved, then said it was time to move on. Crops in the field needed harvesting. Cotton needed to be picked. She built an addition onto her house—finally with indoor plumbing—and sent her third son, my father, off to college. She made biscuits from scratch, made the world’s best fried chicken, grew and canned her own vegetables, made 58 quilts by hand, and never wore a single pair of pants. Grandmother was strong, stubborn and downright bossy, but she possessed the most joyful soul of anyone I’ve ever met.

Until she was 96 years old, Grandmother Doris took charge of Thanksgiving dinner. No matter if we were living in Colorado or North Carolina, New Orleans or Orlando, family members traveled back to Massey, Alabama. We tried helping her in the kitchen as she got older, but only she could do things the “right” way. We always left something in the microwave too long, used the wrong Tupperware dish or forgot to stir the pot at just the right intervals. So, she’d get herself up, shoo us away, and just do it herself. My grandmother died in September 2015, two months short of Thanksgiving her 97th year.

This time of year, it’s hard on all of us. Around the first of October, Grandmother Doris would call everyone in the family to get a Thanksgiving headcount and take menu requests—creamed potatoes for my brother, macaroni and cheese for my husband, lima beans for my cousin. My requests were reserved for the dessert department. Grandmother always made at least three pies from scratch—pecan, coconut, chocolate or lemon. She aimed to please.

The first Thanksgiving after she died, our family dutifully returned to the Massey house. Being there left an empty feeling in the pit of our stomachs, even though everything was just as she’d left it. The dusty frames were there on the bookcase, preserving photographs of babies, weddings, and those awkward adolescent years between. On the far wall sat her thimble collection, accumulated from places we’d visited over the years. Her hymnal rested on the piano, now out of tune, that she played by ear. Outside, her flowers bloomed under the apple tree. The breeze carried the smell of dirt and hay. The cows crooned on as if nothing had changed.

The next year, our family decided it was time to start a new tradition. We were selling the farm soon, and besides, we knew what Grandmother would want us to do. Y’all go on now, ya hear? So we moved our party an hour south to Birmingham, to a rental house my mom found on VRBO.

To make our holiday feel special, my aunts and uncles and my mom and dad made sure each and every one of us had our favorite dishes. Grandmother manifested her spirit in the creamed corn, cornbread dressing, asparagus casserole, mac ’n’ cheese, creamed potatoes, buttery lima beans, her last Mason jars of green beans, and lots of pies.

We even poured some wine—something Grandmother never tolerated. (A strait-laced Methodist, she marched to the polls every year to keep her county dry.) We spent the afternoon visiting in the living room, just as we did at her house. Lunch blurred into dinner with second helpings, then thirds, and we retold our favorite stories.

Grandmother always slipped a stick of Juicy Fruit gum in handwritten letters she mailed to us. She killed many a snake with one stroke of her hoe. She once rode out a tornado with my Aunt Pernie in her storm cellar. She mowed her own lawn until she turned 90. She sang three generations of children to sleep with “You Are My Sunshine.” She was the first person on our birthdays to call us, never mind it was before 7 a.m.

Our family is scattered across the country, but each year we’re drawn back together for Thanksgiving dinner. Somewhere up there, Grandmother is smiling, I think. That is, until we put the leftovers in the wrong Tupperware container.

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