Walking through grief, regret, and traditions during the first holiday season without my dad
I’m not a huge fan of Thanksgiving, though I understand why people enjoy it. A chance to stuff your face with delicacies saved just for the holidays while spending time with loved ones is an attractive prospect. But I was never big on those things to begin with.
My dad, on the other hand, was Mr. Holiday Spirit. A chef by both profession and passion, he was the orchestrator of our Thanksgiving meals. He dominated in the kitchen like only a seasoned chef could, whipping up yearly favorites using his senses as a guide. Pies? He had them down to a science. Tamales? He could roll them in his sleep. His signature cornbread stuffing? He effortlessly made it by the pan and froze extra for our consumption throughout the year.
Dad wasn’t just the king of the kitchen. He was the lifeblood of our family.
Our huge brood was connected through and by him. He was everyone’s confidant and trusted advisor. He was also the entertainer; loudly cracking jokes and telling stories during these gatherings. Sometimes, these were tales I’d heard a million times before, but his way of telling them was so mesmerizing that it didn’t matter. I could listen to Dad forever, and he could make anything new and wondrous. My dad was also big on tradition. As I got older and begin to crave a simpler approach to the holiday bustle, my dad stood firm. Attempts at compromise ended in the same elaborate feasts with too much food, but I felt more affectionately bemused than frustrated.
The first year my husband fried a turkey for our meal was significant. It was an acknowledgement that my dad saw my husband as the next patriarch of our family. It was a monumental moment that didn’t go unappreciated. My husband was now a keeper of one of dad’s holiday traditions. Recipes existed only in my dad’s senses, honed by years of preparation and experience. If I was to take over the reigns of preparing these dishes, I needed to put in the work.
Dad showed me how to find the right consistency for masa by touch alone. He taught me the right mixture for buttermilk pie filling based on viscosity. The secrets of his cornbread stuffing were stuffed into my head as I watched him mix the ingredients; forearms deep in the dish year after year. Watching him cook since my childhood provided constant learning opportunities, but I never noticed them.
I always assumed that I’d never really need to know how to make my father’s food. I figured there would be time for sentimentality later on., time for me to be moved enough to write these things down.
Eventually, I’d sit down with my dad and the recipes that never needed words would be immortalized. Even the few that actually exist in my dad’s neat handwriting would be made official. Then I’d give them to my children and my grandchildren. “These are your pop pop’s recipes,” I would tell them with a pride they’d only understand after taking their first bites.
But, I was wrong. I didn’t get that time with my dad. As soon as we discovered his cancer, we were hurtling towards a singular outcome. Dad passed away in August 2018, almost a year after the initial diagnosis.
That last year was spent fighting cancer, but Dad was also waging another, more personal battle. He was trying to create memories to last us after he left.
He cooked Thanksgiving dinner as he always had, with all the usual delicacies—but it was difficult. There was a truth hanging over our heads. It could be his last Thanksgiving. As I watched him work, that thought whispered darkly in the back of my mind. I knew I should have been watching closely, memorizing the way his hands moved and created—but to do so would be to give into that nagging thought.
It would have been accepting that there was no stopping his death.
The thing about nagging thoughts is that they exist for a reason. Even through my hope and denial, I knew I’d soon lose my dad. He knew it too, but he didn’t let that fear stop him from giving us one more year and one last perfect Thanksgiving.
There’s no denying that the soul has left our family. Where there once was love and laughter, there’s now grief and regret. It’s hard to face an average day without his steady presence. During the holidays, trying to carry on is heartbreaking. Our traditions will never feel the same. Why even try to recapture what is now lost?
We must try, because we need a normal Thanksgiving—for my mother, for my family, and for myself. We need to feel him here with us.
So we’ll try to call upon those lessons he taught us. I’ll mix the masa like he showed me. My mom will bake the cornbread and supervise as I mix the stuffing. The ratios won’t be perfect, but we’ll get close. I’ll teach my daughter to make the buttermilk pie with dad’s handwritten recipe. My husband will prepare the turkey, an honor first bestowed upon him by my father years ago. We’ll even have the sweet potatoes my dad always insisted on, even though he personally hated them.
Because it isn’t Thanksgiving without these things. And, despite all we lost, we still have so much to be thankful for.