This Thanksgiving, lessons in grief, love and stuffing

2:36 p.m Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016 Austin360 Eats

This year’s Thanksgiving won’t feel complete.

My aunt, Leesa, will host all of us in her North Austin home. Her husband, Carlos, will carve the turkey that his brother-in-law, Tom, will fry; my cousin Carlee will prep the pies; and my cousin Christopher will be waiting with plate in hand to be the first through the line.

But at the head of the table, the seat occupied for nearly every year of their lives will be empty. In February, my grandmother, Shirley, died after many years of heart and respiratory disease. A few months later, Tom and Leesa’s dad, Larry, also died, and this is just a few years after Carlos lost his parents and brother in a similar time frame.

It’s been a tough few years for them, but not all of it was sad. Shirley lived with Leesa and Carlos until the very end of her life, and although she was in quite a lot of pain, she brought much light into their lives, especially around the holidays. Holiday meals were her favorite.

For decades, when she wasn’t hosting the entire dinner herself, Shirley was in charge of the dressing. She never baked it inside the turkey — always in big aluminum trays, filled to the brim and twice as much as we could eat.

Truth be told, I didn’t love it. She packed each tray with cups and cups of chopped celery and onion and added chicken broth throughout the baking time so that the stuffing didn’t, to her, taste dried out.

“Everything in her life, she wanted more onion and celery, even in her soups,” Leesa says. “And she really believed in chicken broth.”

She was also sensitive to too much sage and meat that had spent any amount of time in the freezer. It isn’t a wedding without pastel mints, she’d say. You don’t serve lasagna without garlic bread, and it’s certainly not Thanksgiving without green onions sitting upright in a jar of water at the end of the Thanksgiving buffet.

For my grandmother Shirley, there were just certain non-negotiables in life, and she wanted to be able to crunch on a raw scallion after her Thanksgiving dinner, by golly.

For decades, even after her husband died and she moved to Austin to be closer to her children, she insisted on making the stuffing because her way was the only way.

The thing was: She knew how to run things, even if her way wasn’t my way.

I might not have liked her stuffing, but I could appreciate that she had principles that guided her life. She was raised in poverty in Kentucky during the late 1930s and early 1940s and never forgot what it was like to not have electricity or plumbing, even when the gilded era of her life came later.

She raised two children in a difficult home, and as they left the house, she left her husband and met the love of her life and started a second, much happier chapter.

She ran a multimillion-dollar company in Florida during the 1980s and held her head high during the bust that followed. She found a path to a healthy relationship with her first child, my dad, who had been raised by his grandmother and didn’t know Shirley was his mom until he was 30.

Because of that twist in the family tree, my sister and I called her Grandma Mimi, and at her memorial service earlier this year, with all of us gathered outside as they released doves, I was overwhelmed at how her steadfast willingness to pick herself up and keep going, no matter the circumstances, had been passed down to every person in that circle.

We might have disagreed on how to make stuffing, but we always found a path to a loving place.

Grandma’s Stuffing

Lots of onion and celery, just like Grandma Mimi liked it. Add extra broth while cooking to get it to the consistency she preferred.

1 stick salted butter

2 cups celery, chopped

2 cups onion, chopped

1 Tbsp. thyme

1 Tbsp. sage

1 Tbsp. parsley

1/2 tsp. salt

1 (12 oz.) bag bread cubes for stuffing

6 slices stale bread, torn into pieces

2 eggs, beaten

1 quart broth

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Melt butter in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add celery and onions, as well as the spices and salt. Stir often and cook until translucent. Turn off heat.

Add the bag of stuffing to the skillet and stir to combine. Mix in the stale bread pieces to help the mixture cool and then add the eggs and broth. Mix together with a wooden spoon and place in a large aluminum pan, covered, and cook in the oven for 30 minutes. Serves 10 to 12.

— Adapted from a recipe by Shirley Rexroat

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