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Thank God for Small Favors

· ESSAYS

Susan Zakin

She walked fast through snow. In her prime, my mother had a swept back mane of brown hair, dressed perfectly, and after a while you noticed that she was bi-eyed like a Siberian husky with the temperament to match. She wore big tortoiseshell sunglasses and when she strode into Toots Shor's, men lined up at the bar took up the cry: Jackie, Jackie!

Jackie, of course, was Jackie Kennedy, not yet Onassis then. But Mrs. Onassis was taller and thinner, and from what I know, not a tornado leaving wreckage in her wake. Maybe a little, but my mother had her beat there.

My mother was a world-class depressive, narcissist, borderline, what have you, but mostly an alcoholic. She was generous to people and animals and she was great-looking, not only in her youth but unto death. (I have the photos to prove it.)

So holidays pretty much sucked. I've soldiered though as an adult, struggling to shake the Philip Larkin memories. Over the years, there have been good Thanksgivings and Christmases, but sometimes they bring back the oppressiveness that made me contemplate leaving New York at 3 a.m. because morning couldn't come soon enough. In the sleepless dark of the apartment with its windows shut against New York cold, a Holiday Inn near J.F.K. beckoned, an oasis of characterless low-fi relief. I continue to harbor a fondness for cheap motels and fast food venues.

What Thanksgiving has going for it, quite frankly, is food. Last year, my husband and I had a delightfully horrible takeout meal with our closest friends in the Hudson Valley: over-salted turkey, and, as the cliche goes "all the trimmings" missing only the redeeming pecan pie.

We had Christmas with the same folks but in a fit of self-preservation I insisted on ham from Talbott & Arding in nearby Hudson. Talbott & Arding is the upside of a pretentious little city that is one of the Brooklyns of the North, as my witty cousin terms Hudson and Beacon, two places I wouldn't mind never seeing again, frankly, but there they are.

This year, alone in the desert, I found myself spending $100 for Vietnamese takeout at Rooster & Pig in Palm Springs, including the sparkling Cava Brut I sipped on the cushioned bench outside the restaurant, talking to the same New York friends on my cell phone.

I'm back to feeling the way I used to feel. Winter is the Season of Death, the holidays suck, and January with its fresh starts can't come soon enough. Any sentiments, pro or con, regarding Thanksgiving (Indians, Puritans, smallpox-infected blankets) or Christmas (other than being glad you learned to sing O Come All Ye Faithful in Latin, who cares once you're too old to believe in Santa?) feel irrelevant now, although I confess to a corny fondness for New Year's Eve. Now there's a holiday that's, well, fizzy.

My mother's daughter, at least this time of year. Only I admit it and she drank it.

Now that her ashes are scattered over her beloved East River (some eluded us and are resting peacefully in the spare room closet) I recall better times with her as we both grew older and came to understand each other. A decade before her death, she flew down to New Orleans to help me move. In the interests of accuracy, it was under duress after threatening to pay for a moving company because that's what her mother would have done. With an infection spreading through her body as a result of a Vitamin C infusion to keep her cirrhosis at bay, she insisted on eating lunch at Herbsaint before going to the emergency room. It was hard to get a reservation there and she was damned if she was going to miss out.

I remember it all. How to get her to New Orleans, I had to explain how to be a mother, but once instructed, she complied. And I remember Herbsaint. She was right. The restaurant was, in fact, not to be missed. In the dining room, light and airy with big windows, you could bathe in the charm of New Orleans without being oppressed by the city's rather vain sense of itself. The food was the best of old New Orleans leavened by a new and, dare I say it, healthier sensibility: grilled chicken with chanterelles, watermelon gazpacho, olive oil fried bread. We shared the flourless chocolate cake with orange caramel Chantilly. I mean, how many times does someone get to eat like this?

When we reached the hospital, I watched as she rolled up her sleeve for the doctor. The red stain had traveled up her arm like the bright music of alcohol. She allowed it to take her over, hypnotized by the sound until it drowned out everything else in her life.

So. The holidays. There is always food, as Christopher Hitchens, another drinker, understood so well.

Christopher Hitchens

Indeed, it is the sheer modesty of the occasion that partly recommends it. Everybody knows what's coming. Nobody acts as if caviar and venison are about to be served, rammed home by syllabub and fine Madeira. The whole point is that one forces down, at an odd hour of the afternoon, the sort of food that even the least discriminating diner in a restaurant would never order by choice. Perhaps false modesty is better than no modesty at all.

Never mind all that. I am quite sure (indeed, I know) that many a Thanksgiving table is set with vegetarian delights for all the family. And never mind if you think that Norman Rockwell is a great cornball as well as a considerable painter. Many people all over the world, including many members of my own great profession of journalism, almost make their livings by describing the United States as a predatory and taloned bird, swooping down on the humble dinners of others. And of course, no country would really wish to represent itself on its own coinage and emblems as a feathered, flapping, gobbling and flightless product of evolution. Still and all, I have become one of those to whom Thanksgiving is a festival to be welcomed, and not dreaded. I once grabbed a plate of what was quite possibly turkey, but which certainly involved processed cranberry and pumpkin, in a U.S. Army position in the desert on the frontier of Iraq. It was the worst meal -- by far the worst meal -- I have ever eaten. But in all directions from the chow-hall, I could see Americans of every conceivable stripe and confession, cheerfully asserting their connection, in awful heat, with a fall of long ago. And this in a holiday that in no way could divide them. May this always be so, and may one give some modest thanks for it.

Christopher Hitchens, The Wall Street Journal, 2015

Read the rest of the Hitchens essay here.

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