Giving Thanks for Roots
It’s amazing what can happen when we keep our eyes, hearts and minds open. I’m going to tell you a story about roots that starts in the tiny town of Pandora, Ohio, where my mother was born and raised in a tight-knit Mennonite community, and ends with a pan of roasted vegetables. You’re going to like this one, so settle in and grab a cup of tea.
My mother was the fifth daughter born to Swiss German farmers. “A disappointment to be sure, but not as disappointing as my younger sister,” she says with a smile. Their brother was the seventh child. Their mother bled to death at the tender age of 32 while giving (premature) birth to the second boy, child number eight. She left behind children ages 11 years to nine months. My mother, who was three at the time, has no memory of her mother. Her older sisters remember seeing their mother lying in a casket with a tiny baby in her arms. I have known this heartbreaking story from as early as I can remember, but only in the years since I’ve become a mother has its agonizing horror burrowed fully into my soul.
I can’t imagine having seven children any more than I can imagine being left to raise them single-handedly, as my grandfather had been. His sister, unmarried and in her 50s, moved in to care for the children. Can you imagine raising seven children who aren’t your own? On some days, I can scarcely manage the two I carried and birthed. Add the enormity of this undertaking to the list of things I’ve only come to truly ponder through the lens of motherhood.
Aunt Lizzie was surely a saint. She cooked and baked from scratch (for a family of nine, plus farmhands and the occasional random guest), made their laundry soap by hand and stitched colored thread into seven sets of socks and underwear to code them by child. The result? Seven strong, compassionate and curious people left the nest to make homes and lives of their own. All married. All but one had children. Some ventured just down the road. A few, like my mother, ventured half way around the globe and back. One sister went to New York City, where she met and married a German professor and opera singer. Another traveled to South America, where she married and settled in Colombia.
My mother’s teaching job in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, led her to my Angolan father. But they didn’t meet in Africa. They met at a mutual friend’s Thanksgiving dinner when my father was a college student at Ohio Wesleyan University. (There is a lot I’m skipping over here. Another time, I promise.) They were married just three years after interracial marriage was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court (sidebar for the DCists: The Loving Family – of Loving v. Virginia, the landmark case that ultimately invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage – agreed to leave Virginia and relocate to…wait for it…Mt. Pleasant, DC. Awww, yeah. They lived in DC for five years before returning to their home in Caroline County, VA.)
I could tell you many stories. But you are by now waiting for me to connect all of this to Thanksgiving and that pan of vegetables that keeps appearing every few paragraphs and will continue to do so until the end of this very wordy post. And so I will gloss over a lot of stuff and jump to the one and only time I had the honor of acting as a flower girl in a wedding. It matters to this story.
The year was 1980. Since my mother was child number five of seven, most of my first cousins were older than I. We spent the major holidays and good chunks of the summer together on the family farm in Ohio. I loved them dearly and still do – a bright, talented and funny cast of characters! My cousin Kim is the daughter of my mother’s eldest sister. She came home from college when I was in first grade and announced her wedding to an student from Pakistan. I was delighted to accept her invitation to be her flower girl. I loved everything about this job – the dress, the hair, the flowers. But most of all, I loved Kim. I wanted to be a part of her happy day and stand next to her while she wore the pretty white dress. I was too little to consider the significance of her marriage to a brown man in the same Mennonite church where my mother married my very brown father. I was still too young to realize that the pale skinned, blue-eyed family from which I came was globally diversifying with each passing generation. Or to understand how that fact would create a rich fabric of cultures and traditions I would later treasure.
The flower girl dress – a burgundy velvet floor length number with an ivory lace bodice – hung in my closet until I left for college. In fact, it may still be tucked away in a box in my parents’ basement. Kim moved to Pakistan with her new husband. A number of years later, she moved back to Ohio with three beautiful children in tow – two sons and a precious baby girl. We’re all adults now, even baby girl. We send each other Christmas cards and we see each other at the rare family wedding or the occasional reunion. The last time I saw her kids was at my own wedding in 2002 – and they were truly kids then.
And then a crazy, very 2013 thing happened. I was sitting in a coffee shop last week in Palo Alto, California. We had traveled there to celebrate Thanksgiving and Hanukkah with Andy’s twin brother and his family – the first cousins my own kids will cherish for life! I had stolen away for an hour or two to create a quick Pinterest board and write a blog post. I had to “check in” on Facebook at the coffee shop to use their wi-fi. A moment later, a messenger bubble from Kim popped up: did I know her eldest son had moved to Palo Alto and was just blocks away? Why, no. I did not. I texted him immediately. I invited him to join us for dinner at a local restaurant that night. I was floored to greet this tall, gentle boy with familiar dark eyes and the voice of a man. Oh. My. God. The “boy” is now 26. We also met his girlfriend, a medical student who will likely rotate with Andy’s twin brother before she completes her studies. What a small and amazing world it is. And what a kind, vibrant young man my (first) cousin (once removed) has become. My love/hate relationship with Facebook was nothing but love for that hot second. I’m sure I’ll get back to hating sometime next week…just give me time.
You are still wondering about these veggies, aren’t you? Yeah, I know. I’m getting to that. I told my (first) cousin (once removed) we’d be around for another few days. We would enjoy our respective Thanksgivings and try to meet once again before my family boarded a red-eye back to DC on Saturday night (always seems like a good idea at the time of booking…).
We enjoyed a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends. One guest was vegan and I imagine that in this day and age, many of us dined with someone that does not or cannot eat some food group. Gluten? Meat? Dairy? All of the above? Yes, it’s very possible. And it’s wonderful that we can all dine at a table brimming with food and there is something for everyone. Pretty lucky, right? God bless America. We toasted togetherness and each other and specifically the freedom and prosperity this country affords us.
Our table featured everything from the traditional mashed potatoes with a gallon of butter and sour cream and a 16-pound brined bird, to a vegan quinoa salad and – yes, getting warmer – a Tofurkey. Now, I had heard of Tofurkey. I didn’t know what Tofurkey was made of (mostly non-GMO organic ingredients with a lot of gluten) nor did I know how it tasted. But I knew it was out there. I purchased one in the early morning hours of Thanksgiving from the freezer section of Whole Foods. It comes stuffed with rice and you can get it with gravy, too. We made our own mushroom gravy, which was divine. It will be my go-to gravy from here forward. I ate and enjoyed it all – the bird, the sides, the Tofurkey and a taste of every one of the six desserts. But you know what my mind kept coming back to? The roasted vegetables that lay unassumingly in the pan next to the Tofurkey. How about those Tofurkey carrots? I had to know what my sister-in-law did to them. She simply followed the directions on the package, she said. Well, okay then. File that.
We packed a lot into the visit. Hiking, beach time, shopping, a load of cooking. We even went to a college football game on the day we were to depart. I was rushing to pack up our things, but I had to see my (first) cousin (once removed) just one more time. I wanted him to meet our boys. He’d never met them and though they wouldn’t immediately understand how we are all related, I felt it was important for them to meet their (second) cousin. He arrived just as we were zipping luggage and preparing for our final lighting of candles together on the fourth night of Hanukkah. As we struck a match and said the prayer, my youngest son handed the shamash candle (the center one that lights all the rest of the candles in the menorah) to our cousin and they lit it together.
In that moment, my heart overflowed with feelings of love and family and togetherness and tolerance and equality and brotherhood. My own life is the result of a fateful 1960s Thanksgiving celebration bringing together people unlikely to share a meal in the absence of the aforementioned sentiments. And here I stood decades later with many more lives by which I am humbled and for which I am ever grateful. We snapped a photo of Andy, the boys, our cousin and me. Though we are related by our Swiss German mothers, our distinctly ethnic features point to the blending, melding and welcoming over time and through love. Was it not the perfect holiday climax that this cast of dark-haired boys (oh, how my late grandparents would have loved to see all these strong, strapping BOYS!) joined to light the candles of the menorah?
I should end this post here. My main points have been delivered. But the recipe for the “Tofurkey carrots” has not. I arrived home to DC early Sunday morning unable to form a coherent sentence. Those damned carrots kept running through my mind even still. So I dashed off to Whole Foods to find that box in the freezer section. I photographed the instructions with my phone and picked up some root vegetables. If I was going to replicate the method, I would not limit myself to simply carrots. Oh, no. I would go deep and diversify, adding color and rich flavor – just like the dynamic family from which my own roots originate. It was simpler than I imagined – olive oil, soy sauce and chopped fresh sage poured over carrots, parsnips, shallots and butternut squash. Roast for a long time. Crank up the heat at the end. Enjoy as a main vegetarian course (as I did for lunch with a friend) over wild rice and sprinkled with feta, toasted walnuts and parsley. Or, enjoy as a side dish to a simple roast chicken and green vegetable of your choice, as I did with my family later that night.
You still with me? Thanks for playing. I appreciate your willingness to travel down what has been a long and winding road. I hope your Thanksgiving provided time for you to reflect on all you are grateful for, too. Though there are still pumpkins on my porch and the menorah remains in the front window, it’s time to start thinking about Christmas. I put together a Pinterest board (why did it take me so long to discover this?!) of give-or-get gift ideas.
Lots of love to you during this magical holiday season.