My mother wasn’t from the cooks. Her measuring cups were chipped, her pots dented, her pans blackened and bruised. She used the bottom of her shirt as a potholder. When she burned or cut herself, she’d give a yelp, but never put on a band-aid. She was always in a hurry.
While my mother cooked, I spun on a rusty stool, my legs kicking the kitchen counter, and watched The Mike Douglas Show on our black-and-white TV. Sammy Davis Jr. danced to “Mr. Bojangles.” My mother fried the meat patties until they looked like a charred shipwreck, then plopped them on a paper plate where canned peas and carrots swam. I had to eat fast, before my dinner sprang a leak.
My mother unhooked the safety pin cinching her waistband and ate standing up, digging her hand into a box of Ritz crackers. When my father’s car pulled into the driveway, she swept the crumbs into a corner and pushed bobby pins through her kinky hair. “Next shift,” she announced, but I stalled, squishing my Ring-Ding and picking it apart, until Mike finished singing “The Men in My Little Girl’s Life.” And I wished again for a father who would cry over me, or who at least could carry a tune.
My father sat at the table on a cushioned chair and ate off a real plate; his peas and carrots were even hot. But still he griped, scratching his stomach like a bear: “No napkins? No ketchup? No fork?” My mother scurried back and forth like a kitten on ice.
My father gave me the change in his pockets, then waved me away; he said he liked to hear himself chew. While he grunted into his newspaper, my mother leaned against the stove, dipping Oreos into black coffee. She didn’t even split them open to lick off the cream. Until she shooed me out of the kitchen, I watched her watching my father and swallowing her cookies whole, like a snake.
My family didn’t “do” Thanksgiving. As far as I knew, you did Thanksgiving only if you were a Pilgrim or could cook like Uncle Charley on My Three Sons. But when I was six, my father invited his boss to Thanksgiving dinner at our home.
“We never —” my mother protested. “Really, Richard, you don’t even like turkey.” She picked at her cuticles. “I don’t have a thing to wear.”
My father suggested a flour sack. He was more concerned about his boss choking on a bone or the roaches carrying away the food. He said my mother cleaned with her eyes shut.
I said I’d dress up as a Pilgrim and mash cranberries in the bathtub with my feet. I danced with a broom and flapped my arms like a turkey. My mother reached for a bag of chips. My father massaged his forehead. Then he opened the Yellow Pages and called “the agency.”
Though I’d never met Dora-from-the-agency, I knew she had to be someone important, because my mother taped tissues around the toilet seat and copied down the license-plate number of Dora’s car. I was puzzled, though, when my mother hid her gold watch in a Cheerios box and followed Dora from room to room as she cleaned. “She smells,” my mother told my father. He said Dora had a nice ass.
Dora sang to the turkey as she rubbed it with spices. She taught me how to roll out dough for the apple pie. I traced my hand on construction paper and colored the fingers like turkey feathers. Dora didn’t yell when I spun across the floor in a big wooden salad bowl. I asked her why the bottoms of her feet were pink, and she said the skin had rubbed off from so much standing. I laughed when she took out her front teeth. Dora braided my hair and stopped a run in my stocking with clear nail polish. She said I was the prettiest Jewish girl she’d even seen, and that my nose wasn’t even that big.
“Dora,” my mother said, “you’ll do the dishes after the company’s gone.” Then she squeezed my arm: “Don’t you come downstairs until you’re called.”
Dora and I sat on the floor in the corner of my bedroom, picking up the conversation through the heating vent. “Your wife’s quite the little lady, isn’t she?” the boss said. “You must have slaved all day,” his wife said to my mother. “Everything is just perfect.”
I asked Dora why she didn’t go downstairs and tell them the truth. She said there wasn’t any point in trying to take credit, because you could wait a lifetime for them to give it to you, and she’d rather have the time of her life than wait a lifetime, any day. Then she told me to name all the things I was thankful for, and when I got stuck after Mike Douglas, my fish Goldie, and Twinkies, she said I should be thankful it was the turkey in the oven and not me.
Dora and I had our own Thanksgiving. We ate an entire box of Malomars, picking off the chocolate shell and scraping our teeth against the graham-cracker bottoms, then stuffing the marshmallows into each other’s cheeks.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Dora said, and she gave me a sip from a bottle she’d taken from my parents’ “keep out” closet. I asked her to wake me when they called for me to say my How-do-you-dos. Dora smiled, then took off my glasses and kissed the part of my face that nobody ever touched.