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Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006 03:23 pm

The best and worst Thanksgiving - ever

When the power died, things got interesting

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It was the best of Thanksgivings; it was the worst of Thanksgivings. It was two years ago.

A couple of months before, my family had realized that we all were dreading Thanksgiving a bit. Our family is very close but very small. I’m an only child, as is my mother. With little extended family, the faces around our Thanksgiving table were usually the same as those at Sunday dinners. My marriage and three children had expanded the group, and we’d been extraordinarily lucky to have had our family intact for so many years. I was in my midforties before we lost anyone. Inevitably, though, my grandfather died, followed a few short years later by my father.

Then, two years ago, we lost my grandmother. Nana was the heart of our family and the soul of our celebrations. Even though we’d moved most holiday celebrations to our house years before, Thanksgiving was always at Nana’s. The last few years, as Nana succumbed to the afflictions of old age, my mom, with my help, had prepared the food, then transported everything next door, to Nana’s. Nana could still set the table with her beloved antique china and make an arrangement of the orange/blue birds of paradise that grew, along with her orchids, in her greenhouse. Thanksgiving belonged to Nana.

Now she was gone. Even though we had a new family member — daughter Anne’s fiancé, Ben — the approaching Thanksgiving seemed bleak. Clearly some sort of action was needed.

Our solution was to throw our doors open. We invited friends of ours, friends of our children, and even a few people we didn’t know well but whose families lived far away. Suddenly we had a guest list of 18 adults and a gaggle of little boys. (For some reason all of our friends’ small children are boys. The same gaggle would show up a year later as leaf boys — as opposed to flower girls — at Anne and Ben’s wedding.)

It started snowing heavily on Wednesday morning. Looking out the window, I realized that the last time there’d been so much snow on the day before Thanksgiving was 28 years ago, the day Anne was born — but that’s another story.

By 1 p.m., the snow was coming down even faster. Our younger daughter, Ashley, home after her first year at university in New Zealand, was sitting by the crackling fire in the family room with a high-school friend. I was listening to their chatter as I tearfully chopped onions for stuffing. Suddenly the power went out. “Just great!” I thought disgustedly. “I do not have time for this!” Most power outages last just a few minutes, but, half-an-hour later, the electricity was still out.

I suggested that Ashley’s friend get home and continued prepping as best I could. This was complicated by two things: First, we have a well, so during a power outage not only is there no electricity, there’s also no running water. Second, our kitchen has no windows. Without electricity it’s quite dark, even though it opens onto the family room, which has large windows on three sides. The good news was that my commercial stove, with its six burners, two ovens, griddle, and nine pilot lights, not only was functional but also provided a heat source. Also, the freezing temperatures meant that nothing would spoil: We could always put food in the MRU (mobile refrigeration unit, a.k.a. the car)

As darkness fell, we were still without power. My husband, Peter, came home, miserably cold and soaked from toes to knees after digging out his and his staff’s cars, one of which wouldn’t start. We filled huge stockpots with snow, melting it to flush toilets, and lit dozens of candles everywhere.

We went to bed early but kept waking up to check whether the electricity had returned. The snow stopped during the night, and the absolute quiet was eerie.

When dawn broke, I lay buried under the covers, wondering whether I should get up. That wasn’t my only dilemma: At what point should we cancel dinner? The power could come back on at any second, and I’d done a lot of prepwork, so maybe we could pull it off. I got up and got the turkey in the oven.

As the morning wore on, still with no power, it seemed as if a clock was ticking in my head. I hated to let people down, but, aside from the kitchen and family room the house was freezing, and the lack of water was prohibitive.

At 10 a.m. Peter left to pick up our son, Robb, at the airport. They walked in at 11:15 a.m. A minute later, after more than 22 hours, the electricity came on.

We cheered — and then our jaws dropped in horror. The kitchen was a disaster zone. Every sink was piled high. Melted wax had dripped onto counters and the floor, where it had gotten ground in with the mud we’d tracked in bringing snow to melt.

Everyone sprang into action. Poor Robb, who’d just started working in New York and would only be home for 48 hours, quickly dumped his suitcase and started doing dishes. Anne called our guests and told them that dinner would be at 4 p.m. instead of 2 p.m. (We actually ate at 6 p.m.)

Incredibly, everything came together. We got the house reasonably cleaned up, and if it wasn’t quite as spit-and-polish as I’d have liked, no one seemed to care. It was noisy, there was lots of laughter, and the little boys seemed to be in constant motion.

I have to admit that I barely tasted the food, and I was exhausted for days afterward. It was worth it, though: All of the work, uncertainty, and frantic last-minute rush — and our wonderful friends — had come together for a Thanksgiving we’ll always remember.

Nana would have been pleased.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.

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