Uncles, Girdles, and Flaming Sweet Potato Casserole

Missing Mom this Thanksgiving

My mom was somewhat of a nervous lady, as I remember her. She was skinny as a rail, probably due to nerves. I think she weighed 85 lbs soaking wet.

She liked things to go “nicely.” If things started to get out of whack, she’d get upset. Unfortunately in later years, this led to her being bedridden, sometimes for days, with painful stomach ailments. But sometimes, her nervousness would give way to a sudden firm strength that surprised people into silence, or laughter, or both.

Mom often called herself a “simple cook.” She was right – she rarely did anything fancy; most of her cooking was just down-home ordinary meat and potatoes, usually seasoned with salt and pepper. Never anything daring like garlic or oregano.

One area where she excelled, and to this day remains unmatched, was her homemade pies. I have yet to find someone who can top my mom’s apple pie, though Sue Misiak’s comes very very close. Mom’s other specialty was lemon merangue pie; though she often complained that her sister Ruth made better merangue. Well, maybe her merangues were higher, but Mom’s tasted best.

On Thanksgiving, Mom would break out of the original routine and go into “Holiday Mode.” Our holiday meals, whether Christmas or Thanksgiving, often consisted of the same special side dishes: baby carrots augraten, and the fabled sweet potato casserole, along with slightly dry mashed potatoes (that’s how dad liked ’em), her most awesome stuffing (I can not recreate it no matter how hard I try…), and jellied cranberry sauce, carefully placed on a cut glass dish and delicately sliced in half, care being taken to retain the shape of the can.

While many of the holidays were just Mom, Dad, me, and the various dogs, often Dad’s brother and his wife would come for Thanksgiving. This was a trial to my mom and definitely brought more dysfunction into our lives.

Uncle was a rather unfortunate person. He had some fine qualities: he was very smart with practical “hands on” knowledge, and he often meant well, but that was eclipsed by the fact that HE knew he was smart and always wanted all of us in his presence to know of his superior knowledge and experience in all matters. Additionally, Uncle would say bizarre things from time to time.

One time, he asked me, at the dinner table, what color underwear I was wearing. Everyone, except Uncle, was shocked at this display of inappropriate conversation, and I stuttered a moment and said “Uh, I don’t think that’s any of your business, Uncle….” Mom was looking daggers at him and Auntie looked about ready to pass out. Dad gave Uncle a sharp “look” and I, incredulous, wished I could be anywhere else.

Uncle continued: “Your aunt is wearing pink underwear, and I told her she was too old to wear colored underwear, and that she should leave the colored stuff to young girls like you.” After an uncomfortable silence, he then changed the subject and started talking about radio waves, Ultra High Frequency signals, and hand tools he had given my dad years ago that were not taken care of properly.  Another time, he blurted out to Auntie (also at the table) “Are you wearing your girdle today? Cause it doesn’t look like you have it on.” Good times, good times.

Auntie was a much more pleasant character, and I enjoyed her a great deal, but she would often get into very loud arguments with Uncle. It made for some very interesting times.

Mom would always tell them to come just moments before the meal was ready; if he came ahead of time, she would be probably need to be hospitalized.

One year, the dreaded thing happened. They came two hours early for Thanksgiving dinner.

The dogs started barking uproariously; Dad said “What the hell?” Mom cried “OH NO, THEY’RE HERE!” I proceeded to go in my room and turn on my hi-fi (that I got from Sears Big Book). “Oh no you don’t,” Mom said. “You stay out here to help keep me from killing him.”

I actually preferred to talk with Auntie, and so she and I sat in the living room and chit chatted while Mom fluttered around the kitchen, trying to keep her wits about her. Dad felt the need to go check on the deer and left the house. Uncle plopped himself down at the kitchen counter and proceeded to direct Mom’s movements in her kitchen.

“Don’t put that coffee pot back on the burner, it will break, that thing is HOT!”

“Why do you keep opening the oven door all the time? Don’t you know that lets all the heat out?!”

“When my first wife was alive, she did thus and such on Thanksgiving, and it was always so nice…”

“That one in there talking to Karen can’t do anything right, I always have to tell her how she should be cooking things; you’d think after all these years she’d know but she doesn’t….”

(at this point, Auntie interjects some ascerbic response, and a brief arguement loudly erupts; the poodle starts to bark and looks at Mom wonderingly, and Dad is still out in the woods.)

All the while, Mom is doing a great job remaining civil and keeping things on track. Dinner is almost ready, soon we can eat, and then hopefully, they will leave…and Mom will be able to relax.

At last, it’s time to take the carrots augraten out of the oven and put the sweet potato casserole under the broiler to toast the marshmallows. She sets the Corelle casserole dish with the carrots on an unused burner at the back of the stove and turns on the broiler. Uncle asks her why she’s ruining a perfectly good sweet potato dish with “sweet stuff” as she plops the marshmallows on and puts it in the oven.

Dad comes in and says he’s hungry.

She takes to making gravy and Uncle says “I think something’s burning, Doris.” Sure enough, smoke is coming out of the oven and the marshmallows are on fire. The poodle and the lhasa apso begin to bark, and the cocker spaniel heads for cover under the table. Mom says “Oh no! they’re ruined!” and Uncle says “I don’t know what you wanted to do that for anyway….”

Suddenly, there is a BANG and a splat and the dogs run out of the kitchen and I hear Mom wail quietly, and Uncle swears. “What the hell did you put that dish on the stove for Doris? Didn’t you know it would break?”

Evidently, the “unused burner” was left on, unknown to Mom when she set the carrots augraten on it. Still keeping her composure, she starts cleaning up the mess. Then, the final straw comes.

Uncle says “Doris, there’s a piece of glass on the floor by the refrigerator.”

Mom has had enough. “Listen,” she says, “If you’re going to be out here then you can help clean up. Or you can SHUT up or I swear I’ll dump this on your head!” My eyes got big as I saw her point to the lemon pie. Uncle, knowing that the loss of the lemon pie would be a terrible tragedy, wisely shut up, and came into the living room with Auntie and me. The poodle warily enters the kitchen and tiptoes around Mom’s feet.  Dad does his part to help by hollering at the dog to “Get!”

Auntie sighs, looks at Uncle, and says “Can’t you ever just shut up?”

“I was just trying to be helpful. It would be nice to have some appreciation, that’s all.”

We survived, and mom never set the marshmallows on fire ever again.

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One thought on “Uncles, Girdles, and Flaming Sweet Potato Casserole

  1. These are the kind of memories that make you feel 12 again, aren’t they? Thank you for writing this, Karen. I need a place to put stuff like this, but for now I’ll just hang out with you. Happy Thanksgiving 🙂

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