Last night, as I began making my cranberry-orange compote, which I do every Thanksgiving and Christmas, my thoughts flew back to past holidays. Some have been bitter, some sweet, but all have been connected by loving moments between family and friends. This recipe that I was making was given to me in the early 1990’s by my dear friend Stephen Chappell. He was part of a group of guys whom I knew through my then-partner Shane. This group did everything together and were seemingly unseperable, but after Shane’s death, the group slowly splintered and fell away. Even things we count on drift away, regardless of our grasp.
All of those emotions must have been sifting through me many moons ago when I sat down to write a short story for my collection, Gifts Not Yet Given. I had no grand plan; all I knew was that I needed an emotional piece centering around family and Thanksgiving. But knowing that, I sat down and just started to write. And somehow, this cherished recipe found its way into this story.
I hope you enjoy it.
IT WAS A SMALL TOWN with few memorable attributes. Kelman’s Grocery Store was little more than a tiny market with one shelf of fresh produce. The post office had one clerk window and one staffer, in addition to the two mailmen, which meant that if Mrs. Hellner was sick, the office stayed closed, mail deliveries be damned. Glenbourne, IL, was far enough south from Chicago that suburban expansion hadn’t touched it, which left it quiet, if lacking in modern features. There wasn’t much in Glenbourne to attract visitors, though those who chose to stop could always stay at the Glenbourne Manor Guest House, which was rather grandly named, given its basic white farmhouse design and the fact that it rarely held more than two guests at any one time.
The high school closed a few years back, with students now bussed to the neighboring county, but otherwise life in Glenbourne had changed little in the past 20 years. In fact, as Glenn pulled down the main street, visions of his distant youth played out before him as if they’d occurred just yesterday. The long ride into town on his bike on a hot summer’s day with just a dollar in his pocket. Standing at the faded Sherman’s Ice Cream freezer, half frosted over, debating between the orange Creamsicle and the ice cream sandwich. Kelman’s Grocery Store was still there, though Glenn knew from his last visit that the old freezer had since been replaced with one storing Haagen Dazs. Glenn couldn’t imagine many here willing to pay for such an upscale treat, but if that change meant that good things could still be found in his old home town, he wouldn’t complain.
The elementary school had changed color, but otherwise looked the same. He could remember how safe he’d felt back in his youth, having no knowledge of the world and how challenging life could be. Not insurmountable, he often said. If there is no hope, I’d rather hang it up.
But with hope, Glenn felt certain he could conquer anything. Almost.
Sarah instinctively placed her hand on his knee, as if interpreting his thought, and again he felt hope. They were still a mile out from his mom’s, which gave him time to reflect on the jewel sitting beside him. I am so fortunate, he thought, his hand covering hers with a warm squeeze.
Try as he might to be objective, he couldn’t quite see what she’d seen in him. Glenn would’ve easily passed himself right by. But Sarah had seemed certain, content even, from their very first meeting. “You’re a good person,” she’d noted. “And my instincts are never wrong.” That had been five years ago, and she’d seen him through so many life moments he’d begun to lose track. There had been the wedding, of course, held exactly 365 days after they’d met. His father’s death just a few months later. His lay-off from the firm and their consequent move to and reinvention in California. And the recent cancer scare, which had shaken him, but had left Sarah unfazed. “If it is part of God’s plan,” she would repeat, “it’s useless to worry.”
While Glenn didn’t share Sarah’s deep love for the Lord, he knew better than to argue, and she knew better than to push him. He respected her faith and wished he felt the same, but all he could think about were those times as a child when he’d prayed fervently for God to cure him, only to be greeted by silence.
Sarah had been so wonderful, so complete a partner, Glenn’s only regret was that they hadn’t had children. He knew that while he had doubts about his own ability to parent, Sarah would excel enough for both.
The turn for his mother’s drive appeared on the horizon and Sarah immediately checked her hair. She still felt a need to impress his mother, which was an urge that Glenn himself felt as well. There was something about Harriet, or Mother Burke, as she preferred to be called, an air of superiority, which demanded respect. Though Mother Burke was never fearful or mean, Sarah wasn’t the first to have submitted to her and certainly wouldn’t be the last.
“I wish she’d at least let me make something,” Sarah sighed as they turned up the drive. “It feels weird, walking in empty-handed.”
“You know Mom,” Glenn grinned. “She’s got to have her finger in every pie—and her arm up every turkey.”
Sarah nodded, resigned. It was easier to give in than to spend countless hours shopping, prepping, and baking, only to have your handiwork dismissed with a grimace. Sarah had time, she reasoned, to find something suitable to contribute to the feast, and the bonus was that such a quest would supply plenty of excuses to journey out from the house.
When they pulled in, Mother Burke was already on the porch, fists on hips, as if barring entry to her own home. “Well there you are,” she said, stating the obvious. “I was wondering what you two were up to!”
Glenn went, almost childlike, enfolding himself into his mother’s waiting arms. She squeezed him tight. “How’s my baby?” she sighed. “My precious baby… You look thin.”
He laughed, “I’m great, Mom. Just, you know—”
Sarah stepped forward, arms conveniently and purposely full, and kissed Mother Burke on the cheek.
“Hey Harriet, good to see you,” she offered, quickly moving inside and into the room she and Glenn always used. The screen door swung shut with a clatter.
After Sarah was deep within, Mother Burke noted, simply as fact, “She hates me.”
“Aw, Mom, don’t start.”
“You always say she’ll warm up, but you’d think after five years we’d at least be a step closer to tepid.”
Glenn picked up their bags. “I’m not doing this,” he stated, firmly but gently, moving inside and kissing her cheek as well. “And neither are you,” he laughed.
After they were settled, Glenn and Sarah converged in the kitchen, as they always did.
“Wine?” he smiled.
“You read my mind,” Sarah sighed. And it was true, in a way. While Mother Burke may have had issues with her, Sarah and Glenn were united, with words used almost as afterthought. It was that way during their first blind date and had been ever since.
He reached into the fridge, pulling out the Chardonnay they’d picked up on their way from the airport, knowing it unlikely Mother Burke would have anything alcoholic in the house aside from cooking wine. Glenn fumbled through a drawer before retrieving an opener. Gazing at Sarah affectionately, he began pulling out the cork when she looked up, catching his bemused smile.
“I can’t get over how beautiful you are.”
As Sarah blushed, he handed her a glass. “You are some sweet talker…”
“Oh yeah?” he grinned. “What’s it gonna get me?”
“Stop!” she laughed, knowing Mother Burke was likely listening to their every word. She decided to change the topic. “When does Carly arrive?” she asked.
“Oh, you know Carly—”
“Whenever she wants!” they laughed together.
“She’s bringing Tommy,” Glenn noted, with special emphasis, “and his kids.”
“Kids?” Sarah was surprised. “Wow…” She let the thought linger. “Well, that’ll make for a change. Usually it’s just us.”
“It will be nice,” Glenn agreed.
There was something about an adults-only family gathering that, to him, felt rather sad. Prior to Tommy, Carly had never wanted kids, and the revolving door of disappointments she brought to each gathering had made that decision seem wise. But everything changed when Carly met Tommy. Maybe it had been the idea of giving birth that had turned Carly off. Maybe the typical maternal urges had never surfaced. Regardless, meeting Tommy, who already had three kids of his own, forever altered the equation. Carly, who had never met a barstool that didn’t fit, now found herself chauffeuring his trio all over town and seemed quite thrilled to do so. Perhaps she’d grown tired of the life she’d been living and realized she wanted something different, but more likely, the right situation landed directly in her lap and Carly—for once—had done nothing to screw it up.
Mother Burke joined them in the kitchen, but while she pulled out a chair and set down her lemonade, she herself never actually sat. Instead, she busied herself, needlessly wiping down the sparkling counter, cross-checking recipes and shopping lists, and doing all manner of straightening, though, to the untrained eye, her kitchen was already perfection. These many and varied tasks, however, did not prevent her from talking, but hers was little more than mindless chatter: long anecdotes about friends from years past, funny stories overheard at the grocery store, and what little local news there was to share.
Sarah sat, watching Mother Burke moving and talking without end, and wondered how on earth the two would ever manage once Glenn was gone.
The next morning’s noisy arrival of Carly changed the house’s dynamic for the better. Her years of bartending had honed her skills as an easy and amiable conversationalist; whether the topic was light and breezy, political, or depressing, Carly adeptly knew how to navigate the waters. Tommy’s three boys, nearly a year apart each, were barely distinguishable from each other, but it didn’t matter. Each was polite, upbeat, and playful, leading to random bursts of laughter, echoing throughout the house.
Sarah and Glenn were still in bed when the troop arrived, and Tommy’s orders to the boys rang through loud and clear, his years in the military clearly demonstrated. Glenn glanced to Sarah. She looked at him with such tenderness, he again regretted they’d not had children. Sarah smiled softly at the expression on his face.
“What?” she prodded, her fingers absentmindedly trailing over his naked chest.
“You would’ve made such a great mother.”
She took his hand in hers, kissing his fingertips. “I still can be. You never know.”
“Hmm…” he murmured, noncommittal. His eyes drifted to the open window, where the cool breeze brought in the sound of the boys exploring the yard below.
“We don’t know what the future holds, hon,” she affirmed. “Keep the faith.”
Glenn nodded, but knew that his path was set, and no amount of wishing would make it less so. Still, this weekend was all about family and showing gratitude, and Glenn vowed that his illness would not play a starring role. Aside from Sarah, he was determined to tell no one.
“I could not shut her up,” Mother Burke was saying when Sarah and Glenn joined the rest in the kitchen. Hugs and greetings were happily exchanged, Mother Burke’s monologue continuing throughout. “You know how she was in high school—Betsy Herndon? Well, now she is Elizabeth, and you’d think by the way she reacted when I called her Betsy that I’d killed her firstborn. Lord, give me patience!” she said to the ceiling. “Well, that Elizabeth went on and on, when I ran into her at Walmart about how Glenn was her first love. Like I needed to hear that.”
Hearing his name, Glenn tuned in. “Me?”
“Yes, you! Who else am I talking to?” Mother Burke snapped, ignoring the others in the room. “Elizabeth Herndon. Your old girlfriend.”
Glenn exchanged looks with Sarah, who’d heard all the stories.
“Oh…” Tommy grinned with a nod. “Even I’ve heard about her!” he snorted as he stepped outside to supervise his boys.
“She’s known far and wide, that one. Well, Elizabeth wouldn’t let me go,” Mother Burke insisted, “until I promised you’d come for a visit this afternoon.”
“What? No—” Glenn managed. “Not the day before Thanksgiving!”
“Oh, come on,” joked Sarah. “You’ll have fun!”
“You aren’t coming?” Glenn pleaded.
Sarah glanced to Carly and her mother-in-law. “I’m off myself, on a quest for a contribution to our feast.”
“Oh, don’t worry yourself, dear,” Mother Burke purred. “There’s no need to go to any trouble.”
“But I want to, Harriet. Really,” Sarah insisted, grabbing the car keys off the counter and giving Glenn a quick peck and wink. “You can take your mom’s car.”
“But—” Glenn sputtered.
“No hanky-panky, now—you hear?” Sarah sang over her shoulder, bouncing outside.
Glenn blushed, flattered to think Sarah still thought him desirable enough to be the slightest bit jealous.
A few minutes later, he was gone as well, leaving Mother Burke and Carly alone in the kitchen. Tommy had taken his trio to a matinee to give Mother Burke some breathing room, which was just as well with her. His children were sweet and well-behaved, but they were still boys, and as such came with all of the usual indelicacies. Her back was sore from picking up the soiled sweat socks and underwear, strewn all over their room.
At the stove, Carly lifted a pot lid, inhaling deeply.
“Cranberry orange relish,” her mother noted, with a hint of pride.
“Ooo—my favorite,” Carly cooed. “There is something about that dish that just feels like the holidays.”
Mother Burke nodded. “Except for the pies, it’s my favorite thing on the table.”
Carly continued to lift lids and open Tupperware, scoping out the next day’s preparations. “Can’t we just dive in now?” she pleaded with a laugh.
“I have pumpkin soup for lunch, if you want to heat it up. But you’re not getting into anything else without stepping over me!”
Giggling, Carly crossed to her mother, giving her a hug. “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t dream of interfering with Mother Burke’s famous Thanksgiving spread. I know better.”
“Well, I don’t mean to sound boastful, but I do think this year will be quite special. And I think we all need it,” she added, leaving much unspoken.
“He looks good, though—right? I mean, healthy.” Carly looked to her mother for confirmation, but was met with a non-committal smile.
“Glenn will be just fine—don’t you worry. He always pulls through,” Mother Burke noted. In the fridge, Carly found a bag of baby carrots, which she immediately dug into before offering to her mother, who declined with a shake of her head. “Remember, when he was a kid? That boy was always sick.”
Carly looked up at her mother. “Glenbourne, IL.”
“What?” Mother Burke looked startled.
“That’s what the kids used to say. They would always joke with him: Glenn. Born. Ill.”
“That’s awful… I never heard that.”
“We didn’t always tell you everything, Mom.”
“No…” Mother Burke muttered in agreement, then stopped herself. “But why, though? I mean, why not tell me everything? Were you afraid I’d get mad? Judge you?”
“You can be a bit intimidating…”
“Look at Sarah. She walks on eggshells, trying to please you.”
“But you’ve never been scared of me.”
Carly let out a belly laugh. “That’s because I was a fuck-up. From day one, you knew I was trouble!”
“That’s not true.”
“You knew I’d shoot straight. I’d call you on your shit, but even if you didn’t like what I had to say, you let me say it.” Mother Burke could do nothing but nod, as it was completely true. “With Glenn, being sick all the time, you constantly hovered. You’d watch, observe, searching for the slightest cough or a drippy nose. He lived under a microscope.”
“But I don’t do that with Sarah. I don’t hover.”
“Because you’ve already judged her,” Carly observed. “She threatens you.”
“Me? Why should I be—?”
“Sarah and Glenn are perfect together, Mom. They feed each other, give what the other needs. She kind of took your place.”
Mother Burke for once was silent.
“Sarah has tried, Mom. She’s made efforts—lots of them—trying to please you. To gain favor. Even now, she’s off finding the perfect gift. To make you happy.” Carly set aside the bag of carrots, facing her mother head-on. “She wants your blessing. Sarah needs to know that she is part of this family, no matter what happens with Glenn.”
Mother Burke looked up, suddenly worried. “Do you know something I don’t?”
Rushing over to her mother, Carly clasped her hand. “No! I just meant—if.”
“So…” Mother Burke sighed, “I’ve been a real—uh—?”
“Bitch?” Carly finished, biting her lip, trying hard not to laugh. “Pretty much.”
Betsy’s parents’ house, like most everything else in town, seemed little changed from their school days, Glenn noted. A brighter trim had been chosen, better accentuating its Victorian roots, and the hedges and landscaping had been meticulously overhauled in a distinctly feminine manner.
He heard rushed shuffling noises from upstairs as he rang the bell, and realized he should’ve called first, but there was something about the way his mom had orchestrated this meeting that made him fight against it. He hadn’t seen Betsy since high school, aside from a quick glimpse at their 10-year reunion. His date that night had been in a foul mood, ruining everything, so they hadn’t stayed long, but as they were leaving the banquet hall, he saw Betsy emerge from the women’s room, smoothing her hair, then taking the hand of Bobby King, who had once been Glenn’s best friend.
The door opened and for a brief moment, Glenn thought that Betsy’s mother had opened the door. But Mrs. Herndon had been dead for 15 years, at least, and Glenn quickly realized that he was staring into the eyes of his first love.
It wasn’t that Betsy looked old, or fat, or ugly. In fact, she looked fit and trim, with just a few stray lines on her face, nagging reminders of the years that had passed. She smiled broadly, showing her teeth before letting out a girlish squeal.
“Why Glenn Burke—I’ll be!” She opened the screen, pulling him to her in a tight hug.
“Hey…” came his muffled reply, Glenn’s head buried snugly in her shoulder.
“When I saw Mother Burke, I never dreamed you’d actually show up!” She led him into the bright and cheerful living room, which had also had a facelift. “Can I get you something? Iced tea? Coke? Water?”
He shook his head. “I’m fine,” he insisted.
“I usually don’t drink in the middle of the day, but something about this visit calls for celebration. Wine, maybe?”
“Sure,” he granted, deciding it best to be agreeable.
Betsy moved into the kitchen, talking loudly the whole time, and he could hear the chiming of glasses and the popping of a cork, and some other noises he couldn’t quite decipher as she rattled on about common friends and schoolmates. Emerging with a bottle of Merlot, she also produced a plate of cheese and crackers.
“Wow,” he exclaimed, “this is quite the feast. I realize now that I’d forgotten lunch.”
“Well, eat up then!” Betsy chortled. “Don’t mind me!”
It was a while before they got around to talking of anything personal, which was alright with Glenn. He wasn’t sure if there was an agenda to this encounter, given his mother’s prodding insistence that he attend. When the actual topic was revealed, however, it still took him by surprise.
“She told me, you know. About your cancer.” Betsy looked at him expectantly, as if it were up to him to respond. But he didn’t. He couldn’t believe that his mother had told one of Glenbourne’s biggest gossips. She should’ve just sent it to the Enquirer. Betsy looked at him purposefully, then asked a question, which seemed to take an eternity. “How are you?”
Glenn just stared. “I’m fine…”
“You don’t want to talk about it?”
“I’m just—surprised. I mean, we haven’t seen each other in years. I figured you wanted to reminisce or talk about Bobby or—I don’t know. Not this.”
“Does it make you uncomfortable?”
“Folks call me Elizabeth now.”
“Your mother told me, Glenn—she shared your news with me—because I am a healer.”
Betsy nodded, proudly. “I don’t know when it first started. After my parents died, I guess. And I just—I realized that I have a gift. Somehow, in their passing, they gave me a talent, which I can use to make this world better.”
Glenn couldn’t believe his ears. This was too much. He’d been to the best oncologists in Los Angeles, had every test known to man, tried natural remedies and eaten right, but little Betsy Herndon thought she could cure him. No matter what he’d done, the tests all said the same. He had bone cancer. It wasn’t so much a matter of whether he would die, but when. The question itself usually didn’t bother him, but returning home to Glenbourne, that question seemed to be all around him.
It hadn’t helped that just before leaving, he’d had his blood work done and was anxiously awaiting his results. Dr. Orlan had promised to call before Thanksgiving, but given that the holiday was now less than 24 hours away, it appeared he’d been left hanging.
Crossing, Betsy knelt beside him, taking his hands in hers.
“Betsy—” he stood, dropping her hands. “I really don’t—”
“It’s okay, Glenn,” she assured him, not bothering to correct her name. “You don’t believe.”
“It’s not that. I just—” Glenn looked down at his hands, now empty. “Well, maybe I don’t believe. I’ve tried believing before—”
“Only to have your hopes dashed,” Betsy nodded. “I know.”
Glenn stared. How much of his illness had his mother shared? Or was Betsy more perceptive then he’d thought?
“I’m not trying to be rude—really. You’re sweet and all…” He let the thought hang, heading for the door before turning back. “You’re a healer. That’s great. I’m glad for you. But all that chanting and stuff, to me it’s just a whole lot of mumbo-jumbo. I’m sorry if that offends you. Really. It may work for you, but that stuff just isn’t for me.”
He waited for her to protest, but instead she just smiled. “It’s okay. I get it. It’s not for you. But just as an FYI, I don’t do all that chanting. What I do is called touch therapy. And I’ve already touched you, so—” she smiled pleasantly, letting the thought hang above them.
“What—?” he managed.
Betsy stood, offering a shrug. “The process of healing has already begun.”
Sarah combed through every store within thirty miles, but found nothing. Well, in truth, she’d found lots, but nothing that would satisfy Mother Burke. As she finished filling up the tank at Shell, she spotted an old antique store across the street whose paint was peeling, sending rust-colored flakes flurrying out onto the sidewalk. The sign in the store’s window read “CLOSED,” but as she watched, a weathered hand reached in, turning the sign.
It’s part of God’s plan, Sarah thought. This is it.
Parking the car next to the store, Sarah glanced at the time and realized she didn’t have long to find something. It’s hard to believe tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Where had the time gone? Moving quickly, she stepped inside the store, screen door clanging behind. An old woman with a broken smile greeted her.
“Hi there,” Sarah nodded. “I’m so glad you’re open.”
“Wasn’t planning to, with the cooking and what-not, but I got it all done, so figured I may as well, if only for an hour. Thought perhaps there might be a few visitors passing through.”
Offering the woman a smile, Sarah began browsing. It was the same collection of discarded kitchen tools, antique tins, and mismatched china she’d seen in every other store. Still, Sarah was convinced she’d find something. If it is part of God’s plan, she told herself, I’ll find it.
The saleswoman followed Sarah from room to room, more from boredom than in thinking Sarah a potential thief.
“Visiting relatives?” she inquired, politely.
“Hmm… My mother-in-law. Which is why I need the perfect gift.”
“That’s sweet,” the woman affirmed. “Just remember, dear, it isn’t the gift, it’s the giving.” Offering a wink, she shuffled back to her stool behind the register.
It’s true, Sarah thought. This has caused me far too much worry. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be.
She sighed, looking about, when her eyes landed on something shimmering near the window. Moving closer, Sarah smiled. It may not have been perfect, but it was darn close.
Mother Burke was finishing the stuffing, readying it to sit overnight, when Glenn returned. Upon hearing his car, she quickly busied herself, uncertain what to expect. Hearing the car door slam loudly, she prepared for the worst. It wasn’t the best decision, she knew that now, but it had seemed the right one—and still did—though she may pay the price for it.
To her way of thinking, every avenue, each opportunity, needed to be tried and exhausted before giving up. Which was partly why Sarah so bothered her. This “part of God’s plan” belief was to Mother Burke merely an excuse for not trying. Why bother doing anything at all, if God knew better and would provide? But, she reasoned, how were they—mere mortals—to know what the Heavenly Father intended? What if, for example, His plan was for Mother Burke to connect Glenn with Betsy? Others might call that interfering, but God might call that intention.
She barely glanced up as Glenn entered, preferring instead to tell him every ingredient she’d put into the stuffing. Not that Glenn cared, as he’d never been interested in cooking, but he knew that this was one of her favorite delaying tactics, and so he just sat, waiting patiently, until she finally drew breath. When she did, Glenn let out a sigh, loud and long, letting her know that like it or not, it was time to talk. She again tried a diversion.
“That Betsy—or Elizabeth, I should say—she is a talker, huh? When we met at Walmart in the produce aisle she just went on and on and on…”
“Apparently,” Glenn eyed her steadily, “she’s not the only one.”
Mother Burke stopped what she was doing. He was angry, that much was clear. Irritation, she’d expected. Gratitude, she’d hoped for. But the look in his eyes told her she’d made a supreme miscalculation, the damage of which was not yet clear.
“I can’t believe you told,” he stated, keeping his calm. “Her, of all people…”
“I thought she could help.”
“Sure—she can help! Help spread the news…”
With an emphatic shake of her head, Mother Burke interjected. “Not this time. I don’t think so.”
Staring at his mother, Glenn knew instinctively that she was right. Betsy was a gossip, but only about things that didn’t really matter. He had seen, quite clearly, a look in her eyes. No matter what he believed, he was certain that Betsy did. She took her healing seriously, so why couldn’t he?
He stood, realizing he wasn’t up to arguing with his mother, and wasn’t entirely certain he should. Instead, he turned without comment, his feet echoing as he moved to the room upstairs.
Thanksgiving morning was awkward all around. The equilibrium within the house had shifted, interrupting its peaceful flow, and no one knew how to reverse it. Mother Burke and Carly launched into full prep mode, readying the turkey and sides, while Tommy and the kids, still in their p.j.s, laid in front of the TV, glued to the parade. Still in bed, Glenn and Sarah lingered in their room, the voices below a low murmur.
Sarah rolled onto her side, propping herself up on her elbow. Glenn had shared with her all the details of what had occurred, but the way in which he’d spoken was odd, subdued. Usually so forthcoming, something about this situation had him unhinged. It was only fitting, perhaps, that it was in mid-conversation last night that Dr. Orlan had called.
From the way Glenn talked, phone held firmly and questions answered methodically, it was unclear to Sarah if he’d received a pass or more bad news. She knew he’d share with her, whatever it was, but prayed nonetheless. Together, by the grace of God, we can handle anything.
That morning, Glenn hadn’t yet said a word. Instead, he stared directly up at the ceiling. Sarah inched closer, snuggling.
“Do you want to talk?”
Glenn let out a long sigh, his eyes never leaving the ceiling. “This wasn’t my room. I had the room right next to Mom’s, in case I needed her in the middle of the night. It was small—well, you’ve seen it—it’s now her sewing room. My bed was pushed far against the wall, so I wouldn’t be exposed to any draft from the window.”
Sarah was quiet, knowing he needed this moment.
“I felt—I don’t know—both special and trapped, I guess. I mean, you’ve never seen folks make more of a fuss over a kid than they did me. And the thing is, there was never all that much wrong with me. I mean, yes, I got sick a lot, but there was never any one disease I was battling or any extended bout of illness. I just happened to pick up a lot of bugs. It got so that even a hangnail would send Mom scurrying for not only clippers but disinfectant… It was nice that she cared—I know how lucky I am—but at the same time, I feel like I never really stood on my own two feet. I was tethered to her—and Carly. I leaned on them, or they propped me up—I’m not sure which—but I feel like I never really was able to claim my life as my own.”
As he exhaled, Sarah lightly stroked her fingers over his chest. “They were just trying to help.”
“I know, but there were times when I hated them both. I never wanted to feel weak… And yet, if they hadn’t been there for me, I would never have survived.”
“Those feelings are natural.”
“Yeah,” he said, rolling onto his side to face her. “But when you never really learn to take hold of your life, you feel subservient. That’s one of the reasons I love being with you. You don’t coddle. You love me, yes, and you support me, but you also challenge me. We have a nice balance.”
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wish I had more of a balance with Mom. To her, I’ll always be that sick little kid, in need of something. I want to live my own life, without my every move being scrutinized.”
Sarah simply nodded, placing her hand comfortingly on his chest.
“Whatever ends up happening, I need to feel like I’m in control.”
Just before the meal, Sarah approached Mother Burke, wrapped gift in hand. Wiping her hands on her worn apron, Mother Burke smiled broadly. “For me?”
Nodding, Sarah gestured. “Open it.”
Mother Burke untied the satin ribbon, tucking it into her pocket for later use, and gently removed the beautiful paper, etched with gold foil leaves.
“So pretty, I hate to ruin it,” she grinned. “But I’m gonna!”
Opening the box, she carefully extracted the antique tureen. It was made of exquisite amber-toned carnival glass, which caught the light beautifully. The top formed a chicken, sitting aloft a nest-shaped bowl.
“Oooo—it’s lovely,” Mother Burke cooed, as Sarah blushed at the rare praise.
“I thought, maybe, for the table, or—”
“I know just the thing,” Mother Burke winked, taking the tureen into the kitchen.
Sarah turned to find Glenn watching, offering an impressed “thumbs up.”
“Our Father, for these blessings we are about to receive, we thank you,” said Mother Burke, head bowed. The family held hands around the table, with Glenn seated beside her. She continued in prayer, offering his hand a gentle squeeze. “This family means so much to me… May you keep us safe, healthy, and happy, Lord. Amen.”
“Now let’s eat,” crowed one of the boys, met by laughter all around.
The food was amazing: a turkey rubbed with butter, garlic, and fresh rosemary, mashed potatoes so creamy they could’ve been dessert, and a multitude of side dishes. As everyone dove in, assembling their plates, Mother Burke stood abruptly.
“Oops. I almost forgot.” She disappeared into the kitchen, then reappeared bearing the amber tureen, filled with her cranberry orange relish. “Looky here, everyone! It’s my favorite dish, in my favorite dish!” Sarah ducked her head with a smile as Mother Burke winked.
Glenn reached for the bowl, taking it from his mother. “That looks awesome, Mom!”
“Wait’ll you try this,” Carly offered, holding out the relish to Sarah. “The mix of flavors, with cinnamon, it is just the thing for the holidays. And the colors—like jewels!”
“Definitely! I missed it last year,” Sarah noted with a laugh. “By the time it got to me it was all gone!”
“That’s impossible,” countered Mother Burke. “I always make too much.”
“But you always eat too much, too!” laughed Glenn.
His mother pouted, then chuckled, “You’re right. Now pass me the relish!”
The kids had already returned to the TV, this time for football, and the meal was winding down when Carly piped up.
“Okay, it’s that time.”
Glenn groaned audibly, then yelped as Sarah offered a quick kick to his shin. “Play nice!” she said, sweetly as Carly continued.
“I am grateful for… Tommy, definitely, and the boys.”
“Whatever their names are,” Glenn quipped.
“And all of you,” she continued, shushing Glenn with a wave. “This family—all of you—it’s everything. And it’s just not the same with you two in California.”
His sister had always had a generous spirit, but Glenn, not so much. In fact, he resented being put on the spot with this annual ritual of showing gratitude. Shouldn’t it be up to the person to decide if they were indeed feeling grateful? Why only on a specifically-mandated day of the year? Shouldn’t showing gratitude be an ongoing element of being human?
He’d felt his mother’s eyes on him all morning, silently begging for forgiveness. And although he would eventually acquiesce, Glenn had to admit that there was a part of him that enjoyed seeing the high and mighty Harriet Burke squirm. She seemed to think she knew what was best for everyone, and while that might have actually been the case with him, Glenn still resented her intrusion. He didn’t like feeling helpless. Glenn had been born ill, in Glenbourne, IL, but that wouldn’t define him. He would show them, through his actions, he had risen above and was his own man, cancer and all.
Still, as they went around the table, he grew more anxious as to what to say. He was grateful for many things, particularly the call last night from Dr. Orlan, but wasn’t sure that sharing those details was the best option. After all, he knew better than anyone that a sudden jump in his cell counts, which had been dangerously low for some time, did not necessarily mean that all would be well. The cancer was still there, deep within, hiding, and could again be revealed at any moment. Sharing these latest results might instill false hope, which was the last thing he wanted to do.
Sarah, when it came her turn, had a response ready. “I’m thankful,” she said with a smile, “for God and all that He has done in my life. He led me to Glenn, and all of you, who have given me more of a sense of family than I ever had with my own. For that, I’m truly grateful.”
All eyes looked to Glenn, who was the last to speak. He took in each expectant face, wondering what on earth he could say that would communicate all he felt and thought inside, the relief, wonder, and endless appreciation for this respite from illness, however temporary. How much their support meant, especially that of his mother, and how rotten he’d felt about how dismissive he’d been about their attempts to help.
With a nervous cough, he gathered his breath, then exhaled with a smile. “I,” he said, “am thankful for Betsy.”
The next day, Sarah and Glenn packed up, and he took his bag down to the rental car, prepared to return home. As wonderful as it had been to be with family, they were also anxious to return to California, to their new life, new friends, and new opportunities. It may not be their forever home, but the anonymity California offered gave them breathing space from the tangled emotions that stirred here in Glenn’s hometown.
As Sarah finally squeezed shut her suitcase, there came a knock at the open door. Mother Burke stood, holding something in her hand. “I’m glad I caught you,” she grinned. “I wanted you to have something.”
Holding out her hand, she pressed an index card into Sarah’s palm.
“I know how much you liked it,” she said, then gave Sarah a quick, somewhat awkward hug. Mother Burke started to exit, before turning back with a smile. “You take care of our boy.”
Sarah nodded as Mother Burke left, her footsteps echoing as she marched downstairs.
In Sarah’s hands, there was a recipe card for Mother Burke’s famous Cranberry Orange Relish.
But it was what was on the other side, written in Mother Burke’s familiar and steady script, which touched Sarah most:
Please don’t share, outside the family.
From the Kitchen of Harriet Burke
Cranberry Orange Relish
3 oranges 2 apples
1 bag cranberries 1 1/4 cup sugar
1 cup golden raisins 1/2 cup orange juice
1 tsp. cinnamon 1 tbsp. Grand Marnier
Grate 1 tbsp. orange zest. Peel and core apples, chunk. Peel and section oranges, cutting into thirds. Combine all, save oranges and Grand Marnier. Bring to quick boil over medium heat. Simmer until it thickens. Remove from heat and add Grand Marnier and oranges. Put into dish, with plastic wrap on top of mixture, form fitting. Cool in refrigerator.