The first time I cook a turkey is a week before my mother dies.
The death of a parent doesn’t fit the Christmas spirit. Try as you might, you can’t concentrate on presents as your mother turns a darker shade of yellow each day and stubbornly pretends everything is fine. So, you feel obliged to play along with her and pretend everything is okay too.
There’s the great unsaid in the room.
Of the relatives who never normally visit ever, but suddenly, they turn up for a drink and come out of your mother’s bedroom – weeping. Of the sister from Sydney who visits after not coming to Melbourne for ten years. Of the friends who look down at their feet and don’t know what to say.
Back to the turkey. I know mum is dying, her appetite is gone and her interest in food has slipped away. But somehow, I think if I cook a turkey I could make everything right. Perhaps to compensate for all the other Christmases where I’d been difficult or moody or sulky. I ordered the turkey weeks ago and it takes up the entire freezer.
Photo by sj unsplash
I pore over recipe books to decide on the side dishes. The dilemma of pumpkin or sweet potato? Mum didn’t care. Dad didn’t either. I choose plum pudding for dessert as someone gave dad one a week ago. It will just be the three of us. Three people with no appetites and nothing to say because it’s too dangerous.
It seems to make sense. If this is to be her last Christmas, I want to make it memorable. This will be the best Christmas ever from the crispy skin of the turkey, the perfect roast potatoes to the Christmas crackers from Georges of Collins Street (I ignore that mum can’t lift her hand to pick up a book — let alone wrestle with a cracker)
I spend Christmas Eve prepping. In the kitchen, I can keep the guilt at bay. The radio is tuned to EON FM. I whip the cream into stark white peaks till my arms ache.
When I rest, I gulp strong tea from an enamel camping mug. I chop vegetables, soak them in water and place them in bowls. I lay the dining table and decorate it with pine cones and fake holly. Most importantly, the turkey is defrosting on the bench.
My parents are watching Carols by Candlelight; mum is wrapped up in a mohair blanket with the kitten, Louise, lying on her stomach. Both have their eyes shut; Louise at least, was asleep. Dad hides behind the paper. I wish I had the strength to stay in the same room with her. I give Dad credit — he can. I prefer skulking in the kitchen.
Dad says, ‘Time for bed, love.’ Through the connecting door, I see him pick her up and carry her to their bedroom. I look around for something else to do and put two bottles of champagne in the fridge. Dad comes back as I scribble another item on my to-do list.
‘She’s asleep I think.’ We both know that’s not true as she’s hardly sleeping at all. He looks drained, not made for sick nursing. ‘Not long now I think.’
I nod. First time he’d said anything about it. We were not family of talkers. ‘You could give her a sleeping pill,’ I say. ‘Just slip it in a cup of tea.’ I wipe a stain on the bench very hard. I don’t want to look at him.
In the middle of the night I wake up. The laundry light is on. Mum is in there wearing her leopard-pattern dressing gown. She bends over Louise who’d been dumped over our fence a few weeks earlier. (A word of advice; don’t adopt a kitten when your mother is dying)
‘She was crying,’ Mum says, ‘I didn’t want her to be alone.’ I sit with mum and Louise and listen to the little cat purr.
I wonder how mum had found the strength to walk from her bedroom to the laundry. A kitten cries and she cannot ignore it. Sums her up really.
I’m up a couple of hours later to get the turkey going. I peep in on mum who is asleep with Louise in the crook of her arm. She stopped sleeping in Dad’s bed years ago. I think of the Christmases with just the three of us and realise there’s not much to remember. We’ve never been good at celebrating – it always has felt awkward and we all are relieved at the end of the day.
I turn the Christmas tree lights on and fuss around with the presents under the tree. The cat joins me. I break off a small strand of tinsel and wrap it around her collar.
Mum – Photographer unknown
Later, Dad carves the turkey at the table and as tradition, hands us a slice each. The meat is moist and juicy—as it should be. Mum nibbles a slice and dips it in gravy.
‘Well done, love.’ She pushes the slice around her plate and then pretends to eat a perfectly roasted potato.
‘Let’s toast,’ I say. ‘Here’s to the turkey.’ We all hold our glasses up and mum’s hand trembles with the effort. I put my hand around hers and we hold the glass together.