We would be a small group for Christmas that year, being a family in transition. The kids were either in college or in the workforce, some with significant others, which required dividing up the holiday among families. Our conversations had grown beyond the endless sibling jousting to debating politics and religion and why converting to vegetarianism was important.
So I thought that perhaps we were past the sentimentality of the decorations the kids had made in elementary school. I thought to simplify and bought a potted ivy tree, which I decorated with red bows.
I would not, however, compromise on the menu: golden roasted turkey, with meatless stuffing for the vegetarians among us; cranberry sauce made with dried cherries soaked in bourbon; calabacitas with green chilis; and a fluffy pumpkin-marshmallow pie enhanced with piles of whipped cream.
But I was in transition too, busy establishing myself as a freelance writer and had not yet learned to avoid late-December deadlines; and on the morning of Christmas Eve I realized I was short on time. In the living room was my husband, an agreeable guy, reading the sports section of the Los Angeles Times.
Would he be so kind as to run out and pick up a 12-pound turkey? I should add that my husband was not in transition but happily employed in running his own company, and we were at the stage of our marriage where he did not ordinarily shop at the grocery store. He paused for further direction, and I called out, “Please get the right kind — raised organically, farmed sustainably, you know. Best go to a health food store.”
“Right,” he said as he departed, and I turned to the countless details required to present a full-on turkey dinner. He was gone for quite a while, but eventually he returned with a small grocery bag. “I thought you said turkey was inexpensive,” he said, handing me the bag. “This cost a hundred dollars.”
Inside the bag was a butcher-wrapped package, definitely not turkey shaped. I opened it up to see 12 pounds of sliced deli meat, turkey to be sure, but still ...
Words failed. I looked at him.
“That’s all they had,” he said.
“Where did you find this?”
“Just down the street at the health food store.”
This store was not so much a grocery store as a convenience store for juice drinks and power bars.
“Wow,” I said, “And thank you. But we need a real turkey. I mean, does this look like the bird we always roast?”
“Hey,” he said. “I went through hell to get this turkey. Do you know how long it takes to slice 12 pounds of turkey? It took forever and the people in the line behind me were really ticked. No, not ticked, they were downright rude. People were yelling.”
I gently requested a second foray for a proper turkey.
“No way,” he responded. “It’s crazy out there — the traffic’s terrible. I’m not going back out.”
By then the children had begun to arrive, and the platter of deli meat, garnished with red grapes and parsley, became an object of fascination. As the story emerged, comments followed.
“So, when did you first realize this didn’t look like our traditional turkey?” followed by considerable mirth.
“Gee,” said our youngest. “Guess I’ll just put my presents under the ivy and make myself a turkey sandwich.”
My husband remained defiant: He had been given an assignment, he had gone out and fulfilled it to the best of his ability, his job was done.
Dinner that evening was jovial as we relaxed into our simple faulted humanity. With my heavy expectations for the ideal traditional turkey fallen away, I accepted what I had always known but sometimes forgot to practice: striving for perfection in a holiday dinner — or in a family — is a recipe for disappointment. And after all, once the deli meat was camouflaged with stuffing and gravy, who could even tell what sort of turkey it had been?
Author Jean Hastings Ardell lives in Laguna Beach.