October, 2005. Mississippi Gulf Coast:
I stand on the slab of my once beautiful, country home. Only dangling wires, shattered pieces of wood floor, and concrete posts remain. I am surrounded by fallen trees, pieces of the metal fireplace chimney, tumbled remnants of the washing machine, and mud. I come hoping to find the family Thanksgiving platter. All I see are broken picture frames, the faces of family eaten away by water; sodden books once read on lazy summer weekends; and remnants of sheets, bedspreads, and empty garbage bags hanging from the broken branches of dying trees. My collection of multicolored Fiesta Ware plates, the ones upon which Thanksgiving dinner was served for twenty-five years, are neatly stacked fifteen feet below where they were stored in the kitchen cabinet. I imagine that a god caught the dishes as the house dissolved around them, held them steady during the howling winds, waited until the flooding waters dissipated, and lowered them protectively to the ground. My husband, John, is thrilled with this discovery, but I give this gift only a passing glance. “I don’t care about that,” I cry. “Help me find my grandmother’s platter.”
I know that the family heirloom, a Thanksgiving platter with the bird’s colorful body and tail worn by fifty yearly servings of turkey, gravy, and oyster dressing, has been shattered into fragments by the one-hundred-forty-mile-per-hour winds and twenty-four- foot storm surge of Hurricane Katrina. The plate, passed down in the early sixties from its buyer Marmee to my mother, was vested with the privilege of cooking Thanksgiving dinner. When I became an adult, the preparation of this family meal became for me a rite of passage into womanhood.
Knowing Mom relished cooking, I had hesitated to request that she relinquish the responsibility of Thanksgiving dinner. Finally, after several false attempts, I had blurted out the invitation to celebrate at my house instead of hers. Mom looked startled and declined, reminding me that she was not too old to do it. I persisted reassuring her it was not about her age and mumbled something about my turn.
Reluctantly, she agreed. That Thanksgiving Mom taught me to make the special family dishes, those passed down from Marmee; turkey smeared with butter and cooked under an aluminum foil tent without basting, oyster dressing, and gravy from a roux browned in the buttery turkey drippings. The next summer Mom died from recurrent colon cancer. Perhaps, without realizing it, we both knew this was to be our last Thanksgiving together and prepared ourselves in this way. I inherited the turkey platter.
I walk around the slab half-heartedly kicking my toe through the cracked layer of marsh mud. The thick, gray crust of dirt covers everything, the debris, the dead plants, the rotting limbs of trees. It crumbles, with a loud crunch, under my feet into pieces. All the pieces resemble the platter in shape and color. Frustrated, shuffling my feet and stirring up a cloud of dust, I strike something. It is a small triangle of porcelain. I yell, “John, quick. Come here. I found something.”
He and my son-in-law Jim spend the next several hours raking and sifting through the layers of dirt and broken tile. They find all except one large section upon which the tail is painted. Discouraged, I insist we forget about it. Undaunted, John returns twice more. He never finds the missing piece. I sob every time I look at the fragments and tell him to throw them away. The sadness of seeing the shattered platter is more than I can bear. John, however, carefully washes the fragments. Fearful I may toss them out in anguish, he hides them from me.
At Christmas, my daughter, Tanya, presents me with a pristine new platter, embossed and painted by my three grandchildren, Ashley, Andrew, and Matthew. I do not, until months later, see the love that went into the turkey’s gentle, naive expression, its orange, red, and gold tail, each feather individually imprinted by a child. But that Christmas Day, still grieving the loss of my vacation home in Mississippi and the neighborhood of my primary home in New Orleans, I appreciate the love that went into the drawing and painting of the gift as best I can.
In our struggle to rebuild our lives, I forget the platter. We rent an apartment in Houston to cope with the blight surrounding our New Orleans home. Another Thanksgiving approaches. John informs me that he has found a shop in Houston that repairs china. From deep inside a pail, John pulls out a towel containing the treasured fragments. I am awed by his love.
We enter the shop of two tiny, leprechaun-like men. I burst into tears when they tell me that not only can they reconstruct the platter but also can recreate the missing piece and paint it to match. Is it possible that I will have not just one but two platters, an aged heirloom and a budding heirloom?
The following weekend, visiting my daughter-in-law Tricia in Houston, I notice in her dining room, amidst the china not yet put away after her Thanksgiving dinner, a smaller replica of my ancestral platter. Confused, as it looks so much like the broken but recently repaired plate, I call to her and ask when she got it.
Blushing, Tricia looks down, “Mom. Last year after the storm I searched e-Bay for a turkey platter like the one you lost. I found this and called Tanya thinking we could give it to you for Christmas. When she told me of the one she and the kids painted, I didn’t want to spoil her surprise. So I kept this one to remind me of you.”
Tears welling into my eyes, I hug her, grateful to be triply blessed, not in platters but in love.